I distinctly remember attending and speaking at a council session in the spring of 2009 concerning Abbotsford’s 2009/10 budget. I also distinctly remember Abbotsford’s city council proclaiming the 2009/10 budget to Abbotsford’s citizens and that they had struggled mightily on behalf of the citizens and held the tax rise to “an overall increase of 5.5% to address key areas; a 2009 budget that protects key City services and provides support to the areas that need it most; Budget reflects the role of City government and responds to economic outlook” (to quote from the city’s press release).
So why is Abbotsford city council scrambling madly to separate taxpayers from millions more of their dollars this year and for year’s into the foreseeable future?
A budget is a financial plan. A household budget itemizes the family’s sources of income and describes how this income will be spent (housing, insurance, transportation, food and so on). Similarly a municipal budget indicates the municipal government’s income sources and allocates funds to police, roads, parks and recreation, wages, fire and the like.
Budgeting is, thus, a management tool used for both planning and control.
Fundamentally, the budgeting process is a method to improve operations; it is a continuous effort to specify what should be done to get the job completed in the best possible way. The budgeting process is a tool for obtaining the most productive and cost effective use of the city’s resources. Budgets also represent planning and control devices that enable city management and council to anticipate change and adapt to it.
Operations in today’s economic environment are complex. The budget (and control) process provides a better basis for understanding the city’s operations and for planning ahead. This increased understanding leads to faster reactions to developing events, increasing the city’s ability to perform effectively.
Clearly budgeting is a most important financial tool – if done properly.
I recently was dealing with getting an automobile on the road. I drew up a budget for the costs involved. I then drew up a budget for how the funds to meet these costs would be raised. Only after I was satisfied with the budget being realistic did I begin operations to get the car on the road.
It developed that there were a few unanticipated complications that had to be dealt with and that required extra cash outlays. My original budget had been realistic and so had covered the anticipated (major) expenses. The additional expenses were dealt with within my overall normal monthly operating budget. It required a shift of cash from budgeted expenditures to cover the additional expenses; decisions made based upon priority of the expenditures involved.
That is the way a budget works. You (should) know your income with a fair degree of certainty. You allocate how that money is to be spent. If there is an income shortfall for a undertaking such as getting an automobile on the road you need to increase the funds available to cover those new expenses (in the case of the city determine the tax increase to be imposed). Additional expenses (which, in a proper budget environment, should be minor) are handled, if considered a priority, through the reallocation of expenditures within the overall operating budget.
I apologize to the reader if the preceding paragraphs seemed a little dry. However, it is necessary to set out an understanding of budgeting in order to examine the actions of the City of Abbotsford and Abbotsford’s city council vis-à-vis the City’s current (past and future) Budgets.
I think that armed with even the most basic understanding of what a budget is, what a budget is for and what the budgeting process should involve makes it clear that no matter what city hall and city council call it, the document they called and approved as the 2009 budget was and is not a budget in terms of what an authentic budget entails and the information a bona fide budget contains.
If the document that Abbotsford city hall and city council approved had been a real operating budget, city council would not have had to immediately scramble around for additional revenue to cover operating costs. In a real, substantive budget those operating costs would have been covered by property taxes and the other revenue sources of the City of Abbotsford.
What city staff and city council continue to try to pass off as a budget is a document whose main purpose would appear to be to hoodwink the citizens of Abbotsford into accepting the fiction of a tax increase of only 5.5%.
Explaining why it was that after announcing and passing their fudged budget, council embarked on a search for the additional revenues needed to cover what the city’s actual operating costs were going to be.
The need for revenue to cover costs that the 5.5% claimes tax increase was inadequate to cover, is also likely why the city transferred $300,000 into each of water and sewer as ‘administration costs’ this year. That way the taxes needed to cover that $600,000 would be hidden from citizens in large water and sewer levy increases.
What about the five year 2009 – 2013 budget City hall and council passed? The need for investing hundreds of millions of $$$$ in infrastructure would have been part of any legitimate budgeting process with the result that funding to cover these expenditures would be or should have been included in the budget. There should be no need to scramble for large sums of additional revenue to pay for the needed infrastructure.
Indeed any responsible, any real long term budgeting process would have included the need for investing hundreds of millions of $$$$ in water treatment, sewage treatment, roads etc in the budget process that included Plan A.
All of which leads to the conclusion that Abbotsford city council has failed to engage in an accurate and proper budget process on both a yearly and long term basis over many years.
Budgeting is a planning and control process for delivering services in a cost effective manner – if done properly.
If done improperly, where the financial numbers used in the budgeting process are fudged rather than an accurate reflection of current (and future) operational needs and costs, you end up in the financial mess, the financial bind Abbotsford city council has put Abbotsford and the city’s taxpayers in – on the hook for hundreds of millions of $$$$ for infrastructure that should have been part of the budgeting process over, at the minimum, the past six years but that currently are unfunded and lack any financing plan.
The facts, the financial reality that is coming home to roost at City Hall, make it clear that budgeting, planning and control are effectively nonexistent for the City of Abbotsford – and have been nonexistent and/or ineffective for years.
Budgeting is a vital tool in managing Abbotsford and imposing discipline on city spending and operations. Pouring millions of dollars into bailing out city council and city staff will not remedy the demonstrated lack of a true budget process; it will only enable city council to continue it’s undisciplined, irresponsible financial behaviour.
Which is why the citizens of Abbotsford need to begin now to contact (with repeated regularity), their MLAs (John van Dongen, Michael de Jong, Randy Hawes), the Premier (Gordon Campbell), the Finance Minister (Colin Hansen) and Minister of Community and Rural Development (Bill Bennett) to urge them to “Just say NO” to Abbotsford city council’s request for a gas tax.
Since the current and future financial quagmire/crisis the City of Abbotsford faces demonstrates that current (and past) budgets were not accurate, realistic or effective tools for managing the city’s finances citizens can have no assurance as to the current true state of their city’s finances.
Despite statements made by city council members about the fact that the city’s financial statements are audited – anyone with experience with the audit process, especially as an auditor, is well aware of the inaccuracies and incorrect information an audited set of financial statements can contain. Remember that ENRON also had audited financial statements.
Which is why, among numerous other reasons, we need to urge the provincial government to have the provincial Auditor General do a thorough audit and evaluation of the financial/accounting records, results and financial position of the City of Abbotsford.
We need an accurate understanding of the finances and financial state of Abbotsford in order to have a accurate starting point to begin to impose financial discipline and properly planning and budgeting to meet the operating needs of the City of Abbotsford.
Citizens can continue to ignore city council’s financial irresponsible actions, finding themselves groaning under an evermore onerous tax burden, in order to bail city council out of their financially irresponsible ways.
Or risk becoming the residents of the first major Canadian city to go bankrupt as Abbotsford’s city council financially mismanages the City into destitution and insolvency.
Alternatively we can “Just say NO” to Abbotsford city council and stop enabling their spending addiction, and lack of financial responsibility.