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So glad I don't have to make any budget decisions this year

This week's Market Squared makes a case to take it easy on city council as they face tough decisions on the 2022-2023 city budget
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This year’s budget process is a mess.

Let me be clear, the mess is not the fault of staff, council, local boards, community groups or individual citizens. What we see before us is a perfect storm, years of delays on capital projects, the rapid and unyielding pace of growth, and a pandemic we were hoping would be over by now but are still suffering through.

Strange that sitting here in November 2021 we perhaps feel some of the effects from the pandemic more pronouncedly than we did in November 2020. This time last year, the miracle of the vaccines was imminent, and the widespread assumption was that normalcy was just two jabs away, but that has not turned out to be the case.

Under ordinary circumstances, a proposed levy increase of around four per cent would be considered a good start, and with some general pruning it would be possible to get the rate below three per cent.

As mayor Cam Guthrie noted on Thursday night though, passing this year’s budget with all the asks that everyone wants could send things as high as five or even six per cent. Councillor Dan Gibson called such an increase “cruel”, and he’s probably right.

On the other hand, the general inflation rate in Canada in October was 4.7 per cent, and it’s somewhat doubtful that that oil companies and groceries stores, who have all enjoyed record profits during the pandemic, are thinking about their cruelty to consumers. Perhaps Coun. Mark MacKinnon is right to consider the budget in a silo from other monetary pressures.

Sadly though, this is politics and that means you can’t Mr. Spock your way out of things. No matter how logical it may be, a levy increase beyond three per cent, or even 3.5 pr cent, is going to be tough pill to swallow at the moment, and an even tougher sell 11 months before an election.

So what gets cut? This is the eternal question, and unless you have the ideological fortitude of one regular budget delegate, you will be hard pressed to find a councillor that will recommend the elimination of an entire city department to bring the levy down.

Indeed, everyone has an idea about what to cut, the problem is that they have entirely different ideas about what gets left off the spreadsheets.

Where are the biggest increases? Well, the Baker District and the South End Community Centre are hanging out there like two giant stars with immense gravitational pulls, but does pausing these projects at this moment actually generate cost savings?

I haven’t gone by the site of the community centre to see how site prep is going, but I have been around to Baker, and that’s a pretty big hole in the ground to do nothing with for a year. Keep in mind that while these are expensive projects, we don’t pay for the whole thing at once, and they’re still years away from completion.

I also feel compelled to point out that the new main library would have cost $12 million 20 years ago. Sometimes, time is the greatest inflationary pressure of all.

But hey, maybe the Elliott can forgo a budget increase? Now that seems cruel!

How about the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition’s requested increase for their Community Benefit Agreement? It’s going to be hard to vote against money for neighbourhood pantries and fighting food insecurity when the cupboards are repeatedly stripped bare on a weekly basis already.

If there’s one thing that a majority of council will likely feel comfortable cutting, it’s the $175,000 ask from the Guelph Library to cover the cost for eliminating late fees, which is something over 300 other library systems in Canada have already done, including Wellington County. My abacus is broken, but I don’t think this one line item is going to yield the savings that council is looking for.

Still, no infrastructure project in Guelph history has been more nickel and dimed than the new library, so I guess it make sense that other library expenditures are met with a similar degree of scrutiny.

Having said that, I will acknowledge that everything is fair game in the budget. Personally, I’m glad that one of the things councillors do not want to pause is the funding for transit upgrades because there was once a time when transit was the only low-hanging fruit. Or at least it felt that way.

The question is whether there’s anything in the budget that we can consider low-hanging fruit right now because it honestly doesn’t seem like it. The low hanging fruit is the easiest to pick, and anyone can reach out and take if off the tree. What happens when the ripest fruit is near the top of the tree, and who volunteers to climb up to pick it?

Stay tuned.