With municipal elections on the horizon, whisperings of who is running for town and county council seep through the coffee shops.
For those excited about serving their community through public office, understanding budgets is something they will need to familiarize themselves with. Being a businessperson helps, a little. But don’t think that running a business is the same as understanding a municipal budget.
So you can balance the books and run a profit; bully for you, but don’t count on that as the golden ticket to understanding a municipal budget. A better way would be to look at past budgets and see issues previous councils faced.
A municipal budget comprises tax assessments, mill rates, school requisitions, infrastructure considerations, revenue sources, debentures (and more) and let’s not forget about the different types of assets out there and the money needed to pay for staffing, which includes benefits. Some people may not realize that infrastructure is considered an asset. So, roads and bridges hold a value that has to be accounted for.
It’s on odd way of doing things but the value of a road or bridge is figured into the budget — not that it can be sold or anything. We’re talking millions of dollars that need to be accounted for.
A community-minded individual looking to join council may already have some knowledge of this kind of budgeting. Usually these well-intentioned folks have taken part in various boards and committees and understand some of these considerations. That’s definitely a bonus but for those who are used to these smaller groups with little public oversight, there will be some adjustment.
The difference between smaller organizations and this multi-million dollar organization is that the money is not yours, you cannot be private about public money. You can try, but that’s just going to cause problems about transparency.
Just take a look at previous councils. Before this current group, administration and elected officials would meet behind close doors and then pass a budget without any input. I recall a few years ago administration bemoaning its plight that no one understood what was going on with the budget.
The more a candidate becomes aware of budget issues, the more they will understand what’s happening for the upcoming budget discussions when they step into office. There will be about one month before the new council sits with administration — in a public meeting — to deliberate over the town’s budget.
Past administrations used those newbie councillors to push through big ticket items; I cite the challenging wireless water meter transition where council was as surprised as residents about the cost concerns.
On a positive note, the councillors who do care about what happens to the community — sadly there’s one or two who have completely checked out — took note and learned from that issue. They became quite knowledgeable of the town’s needs, which helped in budget discussions. To its credit, this new administration appears to be working with the best interests of the community in mind so I see this year’s budget deliberations more of a collaboration than anything.
For those potential candidates, with friends in other boards and associations, who think this would be an ideal time to help them out, I say think again. Your responsibility must be to residents.
Helping out a buddy’s project will end up hurting another community goal that might be as important, or more, to residents. A councillor has to step back and look at the whole picture before pushing for money to be spent.
And if you happen to be a person who prefers to work behind the scenes and who prefers to discuss issues in private, then I recommend researching what a public meeting is all about. There are only three reasons where going in-camera is allowed: legal, labour and land. You’ll notice that taxes or budget is not on that list and what you say in a public meeting is, well, public.
Study the town’s past budgets, look at past newspaper articles and you may find that you’re ahead of the game if you are elected as councillor.