Halifax needs a better budgeting process

Last night I had to wonder: why does HRM spend more time looking for public input when my neighbours want to put a small extension on their house than when it passes a $788 million dollar operating budget?

I just got a letter that gives me a couple weeks to comment in case I have an issue with my neighbours’ plans.  This is a lot more time than I had, as a citizen, to read and comment on HRM’s budget. More importantly, there is an opportunity to comment on the extension;  There is no such formal opportunity to comment on the budget.

clockThe issue of how HRM Council debates and passes budgets was put in the spotlight last night when Gloria McClusky made a motion that Metro Transit should submit its budget a month before the budget debate.  This follows a couple weeks of hand wringing as councillors sought to dampen public outcry against cuts to the ferry service.

The primary defence by councillors has been to say that they didn’t know the ferry was being cut.

Council had the Metro Transit Business Plan in front of them and actually voted to approve it, including the ferry cut. Only Councillors Watts and Smith were brave enough to admit that they remembered the cuts had been presented during budget debates.

CBC’s Pam Berman reported on Information Morning that Metro Transit staff spent six seconds outlining ferry service cuts during their presentation to council on April 2.

This is not new. In 2011-12, the budget was presented in brief on April 11, then detailed department presentations were made April 27. Bedford Councillor Tim Outhit finally got a detailed, line-by-line budget from staff around 10:00 AM, April 28. The budget was passed by HRM council about four hours later.

Let’s review: in 2011-12, council passed the budget, cancelling a planned week of review and two more council meetings, when both councillors and the public had the business plans for about six days and the detailed 86-page, 8-point font budget for all of four hours.

It was the same this year with the initial budget information presented March 27. The budget was presented to council on April 2 and 3, then passed at the April 3 meeting. Council may have had the detailed budget but the public didn’t get it until over a week after the budget was passed, when The Coast’s Tim Bousquet asked for it. Council had the material for no more than a week.

This is why ferries get cut and councillors don’t know they are being cut.  

We need to take our time, like when my neighbour asked to build a new extension, and then things like this would be a lot less likely to happen.

Council should instruct the CAO that the budget process will take three or four weeks.

The detailed budget, staff reports and business plans should be presented. The councillors should then have a week or two to go back to their districts and ask residents what they think.

Throw the budgets out there for public scrutiny, crowd-source the number-crunching and the review.  This will give citizens who are truly engaged in each area with city services a chance to review, think, talk, reflect and comment.

We could have community council meetings to talk about how the budget effects each area of HRM. Then, after a decent amount of time, bring council back together to debate and then pass the budget as amended.

The budget is the most important thing they do all year and HRM council needs to take the time to involve the public and do it right.