CTA Asks Town for Better Budgets

Not everyone supports the Cobourg Taxpayers Association (CTA) but most would support their statement that the “operating budget and capital budget process is the single most important responsibility that Council has”.  In a recent newsletter to those on their mailing list, the CTA asked that the new Council make several specific improvements to budget preparation and reporting.  Although they did not spell it out, the new council will have a new Deputy Mayor (Suzanne Séguin) and since the Deputy Mayor is responsible for organizing the budget process, there will be a fresh opportunity to do it differently.  The outgoing Deputy Mayor, John Henderson, made some incremental improvements – slightly faster and more transparent – but the CTA is asking for bigger changes and they say that they have been asking for changes since 2015.

Suzanne Seguin - file photo
Suzanne Seguin – file photo

Changes requested

  • Budgets should be approved by year end – this will be difficult for this year since the process has not started but should be achievable next year.  I note that Northumberland County manages this feat.
  • Include staffing levels (I would call it personnel count) in the process.  The CTA says that these “are one of the most important items for Council to understand and review because salaries, wages and benefits represent over 50% of the Town’s $23+ million in property taxes collected each year. Adding staff is an expensive obligation for the current year and adds expenses for every future year.”  Part time staff would be counted as “Full-time equivalents – (FTE)” – e.g. someone working for 3 months would be ¼ of an FTE. They say that this approach would make budgeting operating costs easier and simpler to review.  My business experience is that major corporations use this approach.  Manage personnel count and you manage most of the activity.
  • Provide regular comparisons of performance to budget.  Although councillors may get reports on performance to budget, I found only one report to Council in the last 12 months and that was on 3 December 2017 for Q3, 2017 (there may have been others).  That’s a full 2 months after the end of the quarter.  When asked why it took so long, Treasurer Ian Davey told me it was because results needed to be first seen by the CAO and the Deputy Mayor before they were released.  The CTA says that comparisons between years and to budget would be easier if the reports included staffing levels.

The CTA also criticized a lack of emphasis on cost control.  They did not expand on what exactly they meant by this but the budget process has always had a strong restraint on the resulting tax increase.  Perhaps they mean that maybe taxes don’t need to increase at all.

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Walter L. Luedtke

Good to see the CTA back with advice for our new Council. First off, the new Council looks a lot like the old Council, although a director of the CTA called publicly on Cobourg voters to boot out Councillors and Staff who were not hopping to heed The Will of The People. No CTA director ran in the election, nor did they endorse any candidate. But all of the Old Councillors had no trouble getting back in. So much for that then. The bulk of the advice the CTA offers is sensible tweaking of the budget process. But they can’t help themselves in taking a swipe at ‘culture’ spending, like the Concert Band or a statue(?). So back to a bargain-basement, No Frills Cobourg. The CTA folks must have missed out on Nicole Beatty’s platform : “Advance a Cultural Master Plan that celebrates and promotes the town’s rich heritage and history, its population of artists, musicians and makers, and the development of vibrant creative and social spaces.” Ms Beatty topped the Council poll. Will of The People, no? Town Staffing – over 50% of the total spending – also gets a wag of the CTA finger. That finger ignores the… Read more »

manfred s

Walter, my friend, we could look at the ‘function’ of the CTA to come down to being the annoying nipping at the heels that eventually produces a change in behaviour, like the scenarios we see repeated in the big old world of nature which works well to empower natural selection. If they do that, they achieve what nothing else can, especially ineffectual elections.

Walter L. Luedtke

Yes Manfred, my learned friend, the nipping may indeed bring results, apart from bloody heels.
Ineffectual elections? The big CTA guns, with a world of experience in business, did not run. Unlike Trump and Ford.
Loved the sentence in their newsletter pitying the Councillors who ‘may not come from a business background”.
What can you expect from mere former school principals and fire captains, huh?

Rusty Brown

Or perhaps like a friendly elephant that just keeps leaning on you until you move in the direction it wants you to go.

manfred s

Bingo! You’ve got my drift.

Frenchy

Good points, hope we can implement them. Hard to argue with these.

Old Sailor

We should let Ms. Sequin get her feet wet with the budgeting process. Draw on the budgeting experience of our new Mayor. Listen to the new Council. Listen to the CTA and other interested parties. And propose to Council a budget that is best for the town as a whole.

manfred s

I disagree, politely of course, but strongly. There is no need to wait while the DM gets settled in and becomes “accustomed” to the way “we do things here”. If you run for that office you should have your plan firmly and clearly devised before you are ‘presented’ with the details of our present condition. Such a plan should not hinge on those details, rather it should use that information to enact the plan. If you let the details mold the plan you end up in the same place, again, instead of making the systemic improvements that are being called for every time we have one of these ‘crew changes’ while the ship keeps going in the same big, big circle. While I respect staff and the fact that they have a big job and heavy responsibility, I think that they too would benefit from a shake up of the system. That is likely to impact their comfort level but a fresh approach to that job would itself contribute to a change in productivity and methodology. The details are the ingredients but the plan is the recipe and the DM and the staff are the chef and cooks who put… Read more »

Wally Keeler

“If you run for that office you should have your plan firmly and clearly devised before you are ‘presented’ with the details of our present condition.”

So Ms Seguin should have her budget plan already firmed up before learning of any of the details, a template into which most of the details should conform, and those that don’t, well … Sounds extremely rigid, sans flexibility, sans molding by details.

… instead of making the systemic improvements that are being called for every time we have one of these ‘crew changes’

Well it appears that the CTA came up with a systemic improvement, eg. “Provide regular comparisons of performance to budget.” The proposal has some merit. In your comment above there is not a single suggestion of a systemic improvement from you. I haven’t made a systemic improvement suggestion because I have none. Obviously you have none either.

Bob Robertson

People people with no part in the process somehow always think they know better than the people who actually have the responsibility.

manfred s

that’s a fair statement Bob, but sometimes those people actually try to get involved at the level where they can then actually bring their energies and ideas to the table, and be HEARD and taken seriously enough to make the difference they feel they can make. That can all start in places such as this blog, so let’s not ignore their serious efforts and intentions simply out of hand.

manfred s

Wally, the “plan” I refer to is the plan or concept that a candidate should have clearly developed, for what that candidate would do differently to change the methodologies and the direction that Council would employ and take in order to make whatever improvements that candidate deems to be either necessary or desireable, or both. Trouble is, I’ve seen too many elected candidates change the tune they presented in their campaign once they are faced with the details of the prevailing situation when they take their seat at the table. That may be due to insufficient research or preparation before embarking on their political journey and they find things are quite different from what they ‘thought’ them to be. That seems to be the point where they modify their ‘plan’ to adapt to and continue to perform under the pressures wrought by the prevailing situation instead of forging ahead with the ‘plan’ to pursue the changes they promised to introduce. As for my suggestions, I made all of mine when I ran for office of DM, but sadly they were rejected by a very slim margin at the time. (256 votes cast the other way would have brought about some… Read more »

Pierre

Manfred S., why don’t you give the new DM and council a chance first.
The new council not even sworn in yet and everyone ( mostly) all over them, including CTA.

manfred s

Pierre, please see below.

Frenchy

I’m thinking that Seguin was the choice of the CTA.

Suzanne Seguin

Hi Manfred, Just wanted to let you know that as the new DM I am working on a plan and have done so for several weeks. People that have worked with me know that I rarely ‘stay the course’ especially when the established modus operandi needs improvement. I knocked on a lot of doors during the campaign, and Cobourg residents were very clear that communication with town hall needs to improve and that the budget must be much more transparent and sustainable. There will be an open budget meeting with the public coming soon.

manfred s

Suzanne, while the budget, Council’s ultimate execution of its plans for the town’s future, is pretty much determined by many factors beyond the day to day influence of the DM and Council, the process is itself largely predetermined by its purpose. I don’t see an extraordinary issue with most of that and really don’t understand the concerns of those who said it needs to be “more transparent” As far as sustainability goes, that’s on the whole Council and not the pervue of the DM, in whole or in part. However, I do see the role of the DM as very pivotal, yet not singular, in the way Council works in the overall. I also feel that inertia is a very significant factor in political organizations and that inertia is largely responsible for the slow evolvement of any political agenda, and seems to overcome honest and well-meaning intentions and often, in the end, prevails. I’m not aware of any ‘plan’ you are working on because I don’t recall any reference to a ‘plan’ in your campaign for the position of DM. That’s a revalation upon which I as a voter could not reflect while choosing my preferred candidates. Unless I missed… Read more »

Walter L. Luedtke

SEGUIN!

manfred s

Walter, I’m not sure what or whom you are aiming at here but I’ll take my shot and say that I’ve always tried to separate the office and the individual when commenting politically. Anyone in political office has the onerous task of listening to and working for people on both sides of an issue. That makes them vulnerable as an official but it should not impact them as an individual. I use the “office” designator instead of the individual’s name to try to maintain that separation. I will criticize the office most times and leave criticism of the individual for when I think the person, not the office they hold, is deserving of it. Hence, DM and not Suzanne or Seguin, in this case. It is NOT an indication of disrespect for the person, on my part.

Walter L. Luedtke

Seguin, not Sequin!

Wally Keeler

Are you Seguin’s enforcer? Captain of the Spelling Bees?

Gerald Childs

I thought it was spelled Séguin. 😉