Look outside the box to change budgets

Want to save money for a municipality? Think outside the box, or so says the editor in this week's opinion.

It took three years before town councillors really had a grip on the Town of Ponoka’s budget.

It’s not that they couldn’t figure it out, for the majority of councillors, it’s more that there are just so many different needs within the administrative and operational side of the town that it takes some time to really delve into everything. That’s one major benefit of having elected officials in office for four years, they actually know what they’re talking about by the time elections roll around.

One thing that took some realizing was that there are many different ways that money can be spent and saved. If the province’s announcement that it will save $16 million by reigning in 23 agencies’ salaries and benefits says anything, it’s that there are ways to be efficient.

Not that a person shouldn’t be paid what they deserve but when one looks at how much money is being saved by a few minor adjustments, especially in a tough economy, it starts to make sense. Two of the simplest of points in the announcement are the capping of executive severance to 12 months about time and eliminating retention bonuses of golf club memberships and housing allowances.

It could not have been easy as a highly skilled professional to have one’s salaries and benefits reviewed so those involved should be commended. What this appears to show is a desire from the administrative side and political side to ensure accountability.

This is no different than a municipal budget where savings can be found if only those in charge are willing to see it. That became quite evident when one town councillor pointed out, a year or so ago, that it’s how one looks at the spending. Politicians have their wants and needs, so does administration.

While there are regulatory frameworks and guidelines that municipalities have to follow, which costs money, there is also room for adjustment. I’m not saying that council and administration need to save money in order to keep taxes low, rather, raise taxes but make sure it brings some benefits to the community.

A glaring example of that lack of foresight was in the realization that for years administration was pouring profits from the town’s electrical department to pay for operations. Oops. But not really. It was a conscious decision on the part of administration to make that happen.

So we kept taxes low, shifted the dollars but kept unnecessary spending in other areas. In some cases during budget deliberations it would be determined that money was set aside annually for a service that was never used. In others, administration would sheepishly point out that a company was being paid for a service that no longer applied to the town.

We have covered these stories within the Ponoka News pages and each time comes the lesson that spending can be modified, adjusted, tweaked or removed from an area so it benefits another department. These budget discussions are back and forth, almost a give and take between council and administration, and it happens in all municipalities.

Would-be councillors (elections are just eight months away) need to realize that it takes two to tango on the budget side of things.

A good example of wants and needs is in snow removal. Residents became so sick and tired of the nickle and diming of snow removal, having to plow their cars through the snow because the town didn’t want to spend the money, that they demanded better service. Costs became secondary due to the overwhelming desire to get snow out of sight.

The questions that need to be asked relate to if the spending is an essential service, is it required and if we don’t spend money in one area, what will the negative impacts be? Councils need to be cognizant of the needs of the community while also making themselves aware of where a municipality spends its money.

With that knowledge comes the ability to make informed recommendations and suggestions during budget discussions. The bottom line is councils and administrations are here to serve their communities and it behooves them to look at being efficient while providing necessary services.

There are 13 meetings of Ponoka town council left before the next municipal election.