Budgets Improvements Part 1

Budget Process Improvements Ė Part I

On February 7th our city Council reviewed the 2023 budget and for the first time in many years the budget increase was less than one percent.† It was obvious to anyone reading the draft operating budget that this year was very different from past years.† The budget presented by staff had a very meager increase of only 0.56% during a time when inflation is running at 5-6%. This was a departure from past years where Council had to send back budgets with increases of 2 to 3%.† This could not have happened without the City Manager directing budget managers to sharpen their pencils. Itís important for taxpayers to recognize the significance of this change in budget preparations. Itís clear that the City Manager has heard our concerns and has begun the process of reducing expenses. This change should be both recognized and appreciated by all taxpayers.

This year staff made Councilís job relatively easy and they readily approved an operating budget with an increase of less than one percent. However, as some members of council pointed out, there is still a significant gap between taxes in Owen Sound and taxes in our nearest neighbours in Georgian Bluffs.† The owner of an average detached bungalow in Georgian Bluffs currently pays $1,806 in taxes while an owner of the same property in Owen Sound pays $4,210. This is a huge gap that is stifling Owen Soundís growth and encouraging residents to move across the city boundary where they can save $2,404 per year in taxes while still enjoying everything that Owen Sound has to offer. Therefore there is much more to do to reduce this disparity.

Changing the Budget Process
If we are to make any significant inroads in achieving property taxes that are competitive with our neighbours then we will have to change the budget preparation process.† These changes should include tools such as ďZero-Based BudgetingĒ that I recommended in my Road to Recovery article. However the real change thatís needed is how the budget is reviewed. This year our part-time council spent a little over six hours reviewing the draft operating budget containing $39 million in spending. Although Iím sure they each devoted much more than this in their preparation for the review, six hours of formal review does not reflect the importance of a $39 million budget.† For the most part they had to depend on an overview of the budget presented by the Director of Corporate Services.† As the Director correctly pointed out there was no time to go into a lot of detail at the department level.

The Solution

What we need Council to do is to devote much more time to the budget process. The review period should be two weeks and the process should include the review of each and every department budget, line-by-line. To enable this each member of council should be paid a full time salary, at the city manager level, during which will likely be an intense two week budget review process. This will cost taxpayers in the order of $60,000 to $70,000. However, the return on this investment to taxpayers can be enormous.† This would allow members of council to take a short leave of absence from their full time employment.† In this process each budget manager would present their budget and have an opportunity to fully justify each and every line item. Ideally, each budget would start from a zero base as opposed to what was spent the previous year.

Closing the Gap
During the budget review process the Deputy Mayor acknowledged that, although we made good progress in keeping the budget increase to a minimum, we still had quite a way to go to eliminate the gap in taxes between us and our surrounding municipalities.† There really is only one way of closing the tax gap and that is to reduce expenses. This year we witnessed a significant reduction in the annual tax increase, however it will take sixty years to completely close the gap with Georgian Bluffs if we just keep tax increases at less than one percent.† Closing the gap in our lifetime can only be achieved with annual tax reductions combined with significant one-time expense reductions.
Figure 1; Closing the Gap with Annual Tax Reductions

As shown in the graph above, if we were to have successive annual tax reductions of 2%, and Georgian Bluffs were to increase their taxes on average by 2.5%, it would take 20 years to completely close the gap. So in order to reduce the gap over a reasonable time period, it will also require one-time reductions in expenses, in addition to annual tax reductions.†

There are three areas that should be seriously considered for significant expense reductions. They are: the Art Gallery, the Transit System and the Workforce.† I will examine each of these for their potential in closing the tax gap.

Examining the Art Gallery
With respect to the Art Gallery, Iíve mentioned in previous papers that we learned in the community survey that the Art Gallery is valued by less than 8% of the community. Their budget is $506,000 and has nearly doubled over the past 5 years. The cost to taxpayers is currently $475,000 year. the survey also showed that 76% of the community either never or rarely use this facility.

Last fall I sat down with the Director of Gallery to discuss the need to improve the Galleryís profile in the community.† I suggested that the Gallery needed to reach out, beyond the art community, by rolling out more community-based art education programs. I also suggested that regular presentations at our schools and college would vastly improve both community engagement and the value of the Gallery in the eyes of taxpayers. I also identified business graduate schools as a cost-free source of expertise to develop a new business plan and a revised community-focused marketing strategy.

I truly believe that implementing these suggestions could greatly improve the value of the Gallery in the eyes of the taxpayer. However, in the absence of a successful community engagement program, along with an education program that is highly valued by the community, the return on our annual $475,000 expenditure is just not justified.

Examining the Transit

In regard to public transit, in 2015 we paid $744,000 to provide transit services to a small portion of the population. Since then the number of people using transit has declined while the budget has nearly doubled.† Transit now costs us over $1.3 million per year to serve fewer people than we did in 2015.†

This service needs to either be significantly changed to reduce its burden on taxpayers, as I suggested in my article, How to Fix Our Broken Transit System, or it should be shuttered and current regular users added to the mobility transit service.† By doing, so regular users of the system, based on the historical purchase of transit passes, would benefit from improved service. However there would be a one-time cost for cancelling the current contract. In addition the cost of the mobility transit system would be significantly increased. Itís unclear what portion of the cost is associated with mobility transit. Assuming itís in the order of 20% that would leave a potential annual savings of about $800,000 per year if the regular service was cancelled after the one-time contract cancellation cost.

In Part II we will examine the potential for the workforce as a source of savings. I will also identify exactly what the problem is when it comes to workforce size at the city and provide clear suggestions for Council on how they can deal with this problem this year, as opposed to putting it off as many previous Councils have in the past.

Go To Part II

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 Overstaffing at City Hall


For the Mayor:

Do you think it's reasonable for Owen Sound to spend $13 million on Salaries & Benefits when Kingsville, with a population greater than Owen Sound, can operate on only half of this amount?

Can you not see that there is something seriously wrong with the level of staffing at city hall and that you owe it to taxpayers to fix this problem?  

Owen Sound is spending at least $5 million more than needed on Salaries & Benefits.

Comparison Not Including Protective Services

  Salaries & Benefits Number Earning > $100,000 Number of Managers
  Owen Sound   $13,025,279


  Strathroy    $7,245,246


  Over Staffing   $5,780,033



$5,780,033 represents 17.6% of Owen Sound's revenue from taxation. This means that when Council addresses this problem taxpayers can expect at least a 15% reduction in taxes. Think about that for a minute and then email or call each member of council.