As Saanich searches for ways to cut spending, its top staff says such cuts would come with a reduction in services.
“If council is concerned about making significant reductions to the overall budget in the community, that means reducing services,” said Paul Thorkelsson, chief administrative officer. “We have squeezed, and I expressed it last year, the excessive capacity, the quote unquote, fat out of the system in Saanich a long time ago,” he said.
Thorkelsson delivered that message Monday as council unofficially launched the budget process for 2018, some three months after Saanich had put the final touches on the 2017 budget. It included a property tax increase of 3.53 per cent to help bridge what Thorkelsson had called earlier “significant capacity gaps” in the delivery of services.
Previous efforts to reduce spending have added up to “whittling” around the edges, said Thorkelsson. “If council wants to reduce the budget, council has to consider reducing the services, full-stop, period, end of discussion,” he said.
It appears council wants to walk down that path by asking staff to work out two budget cutting scenarios: one would see Saanich cut next year’s budget by one per cent, the second by 1.5 per cent. This said, council also considered cutting 1.5 per cent of the budget last year, but never followed through on that commitment.
Coun. Colin Plant said he would like to see Saanich review those unrealized cuts. “I’m hoping that we would see also some other things,” he said. “What is most important for Saanich residents to realize is that their council is thinking about this very seriously.”
While not firm, budget guidelines set the tone for the eventual give-and-take about specific items that would eventually take place next year during the actual budget discussions. If so, they suggest some hard choices ahead.
Council asked departments to hold the line on their net budget total, notwithstanding existing personnel costs, funding for positions that council approved last year, core capital increases and non-discretionary increases.
This tone also appears in other parts of the document. “Resource requests for additional operating budgets (including one-time projects) and new funded personnel will only be considered where critical capacity can be clearly demonstrated or where upfront investment will result in longer-term savings as outlined in a business case,” it read.
The document also acknowledged coming financial obligations, including labour costs, as per existing collective bargaining.
The discussion inevitably turned towards next year’s tax rate. Coun. Fred Haynes wondered whether next year’s rate would be similar to this year’s increase, unless council follows through on service reductions. Thorkelsson said it is far too early in the budget process to say whether Saanich would have to raise taxes. Plant, however, was more bold in predicting a similar increase based on collective agreements and capital items unless those reductions take place.
The possibility that Saanich contemplates service cuts, however, heightens the importance of a process to ensure legitimacy, a point several councillors made, as they lamented the lack of turnout during last year’s budget deliberations.
Mayor Richard Atwell said Saanich needs to develop a participatory budget process that would expand public input if it wants to make significant cuts, because it has little left to squeeze and items up for debate would significantly impact citizens.
Thorkelsson, however, said Saanich currently lacks the capacity for a such a process, leading Atwell to the statement that Saanich finds itself in a Catch-22 that needs to resolved. Plant said council could invest some of its strategic reserve funds to work out a different process.