The Town of Golden 5-Year Financial Plan was made available to the public for feedback, and they were invited to the March 5 council meeting to ask questions.
The general sentiment from the people who came to the meeting was concern over lack of disclosure within the information package, and not enough reduction in expenses.
“I think you’ll find a general disappointment that the spending side of the budget has not been addressed in a way we would have expected, given the recession in our economy,” said Bruce Fairley, who stood up to speak first.
Fairley is a member of the Committee of Responsible Electors (CORE) group, who submitted an official position paper later in the week.
“It appears to us that the budget has been balanced by drawing on reserves… We think the Town should be living within its means in terms of the tax revenue it collects,” said Fairley.
Lisa Vass, Chief Financial Officer, clarified the decision to draw funds out of the reserves for this year’s budget. A large portion of the funds being taken out of reserves, $360,000, was a Small Communities Grant that came through in 2012.
“By public standards accounting board practice rules I have to recognize all of that as revenue. That $360,000 has been transferred through the contingency reserve, and is then drawn back in… That’s the only way I’m able to protect it, and bring it back in to use it. It’s an unconditional grant,” said Vass.
Several people in the gallery were concerned with the Town’s depleted reserves, which Mayor Christina Benty attributed to the large number of capital projects in the last few years, including the Spirit Square, the Civic Centre, and the skateboard park.
“You haven’t really lost that money. It’s been transferred from a cash reserve into a capital asset,” said Chief Administrative Officer, David Allen.
Council recognizes the need to now start building back up the Town’s reserves, which is why they are proposing a two per cent tax increase, 100 per cent of which will go into reserves for future infrastructure upgrades.
Fairley was still disappointed that the budget failed to address what he called one of the Town’s largest expenditures, staff salaries and wages.
“There’s a failure, I believe, in this budget to address a controversial issue which is not remarked on anywhere in the budget, but has been controversial, at least since Bridge to Bridge. That is that many people believe you are simply spending too much on staff salaries,” he said.
Former mayor Jim Doyle stood up and said he did not think it was justified to impose a tax increase when the number of staff and their salaries have gone up.
Council did not comment on the issue of staff salaries, but noted that there was a great effort to reduce expenses in this year’s budget.
Benty explained that budget deliberation began with a status quo budget (meaning that operations and services stayed the same), but with the increase in certain operating costs such as fuel, that would have meant a three per cent increase.
By making cuts, council and staff were able to bring that down to zero.
“There was an attempt to really go through the budget and really reduce it as much as possible,” said Benty, noting that several costs have been reduced, such as the Town’s Grant in Aid budget.
There was some confusion in the gallery as to why certain areas of the budget, like General Government Services, had increased so much. Staff explained that it was a result of shuffling certain expenses around in the budget, and that it doesn’t mean overall expenses have gone up.
Fairley said that because the public information package did not contain specific line items, it made it difficult to compare the numbers.
“The public information package leaves us asking too many questions. There’s too much text with justifications, and not enough hard numbers,” he said.
“Duly noted that the booklet doesn’t provide the clarification that it could,” said Benty.
Second reading of the budget will go to council at the March 19 regular open council meeting.