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The city budget tells us what we value most

This week's Market Squared talks about what really matters about a budget behind the numbers.
20201026 Guelph Council Chambers 2 RV
Guelph city council chambers. Richard Vivian/GuelphToday file photo

If I were to pick just one trope in politics that irks me the most, it would be whenever a politician says that we should treat a government budget like the family budget.

In 2017, then-Wildrose leader Brian Jean stuck it to then-Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on the eve of her third budget by saying, “Why does the premier think her government is above doing what all other Albertans are doing around their kitchen table and finding savings?”

This is a popular repose from a certain type of politician, and it's often used to attack government spending in general or particular projects that specifically support the arts, the poor or the environment.

The implication is that creating a budget for the corporation that runs a city should be as easy as creating a budget that runs your home, but I can balance my own chequebook with relative ease. I’ve covered every budget for the last six years, and I admittedly struggle to make heads or tails of that document every year.

Long story short, the budget for one household is not scalable to a whole city. It’s like apples and an 11-course meal, both are edible, but one of those meals comes with a whole set of utensils, and you have to figure out which fork you have to use for which course.

What both budgets have in common though is that they both tell other people what you value, and I’m starting to wonder what the 2021 budget will tell people about what city council values.

For instance, I couldn’t help but notice during budget delegation night this week that there was a lot of interest in microtransit, and I do not find that encouraging.

I’m concerned that there are some people around the virtual horseshoe that now see microtransit as the magic beans that will deliver transit more cheaply to the few pitiful dregs of the Earth that have to use transit while doing nothing to build a better system people will want to use. I hope this is not the case, but council’s long-term history of transit inaction does not leave me hopeful.

I’m used to my transit desires being third, fourth of even final tier in the grand scheme of things, especially since there’s one transit advocacy group in town, and they can’t match the sustained, co-ordinated advocacy of something like the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition.

It was a strategy that worked well for the GNSC a few years ago when they were looking for a bump in their Community Benefit Grant, but there’s a new angle to their ask this year.

You might note that there’s been discussion in the community this year about “defunding” the police. If you’ve been following Chief Gord Cobey’s appearances at town halls, then you will have noted the reasons why he felt this is easier said than done.

Mostly it comes down to the police always being their 24/7, and how they’re often the first, last and only place that people can turn to.

But what if you could help people before they fall into crisis? Years before?

That was the argument of the GSNC, its associates and supporters on Wednesday, and though the naked financial considerations of adding $220,000 to the bill in a year like this will weigh heavily, I recall that no one doubted the Guelph Police Board when they painstakingly explained their need for a budget increase last fall.

We may not want to defund the police, but perhaps we should reinvest in our neighbourhood groups as a way of avoiding future emergency increases.

Along with that is the ask from the mayor’s task force on poverty elimination, to extend programs like Welcoming Streets and the Court Support Worker again for another year, programs that have had a marked and noticeable influence on our vulnerable community, but are still, technically, unfunded because this is supposed to an area of provincial responsibility.

What I’ve noticed in recent years is that these efforts are being brought more often to the municipal government directly despite the fact that there’s little wiggle room for discretionary spending, and that council can’t ever run a deficit even in an emergency.

It’s becoming increasing clear that people no longer trust the upper levels of government to act in areas under their jurisdiction. Even though the provincial and federal governments can carry more debt capacity, and have a wider variety of revenue tools, they feel strangely absent when it comes to helping cities. Look at the months of advocacy work that mayors had to do to just to get emergency COVID relief.

That’s one of the reasons why on the local level the comparison to household budgeting might be a little more apt. People know what it’s like to not have the resources to do all that they want, or even all that they need, and they understand the frustration of the limits of their own financial resources.

Still, the budget is the way council tells the community what they think is important, and I think we want to know that helping people in a time of need is just as importance as balancing the books by whatever means necessary.