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You shouldn't need to be an accountant to feel informed about the city budget

This week's Market Squared wants to understand the budget better, and we need the City of Guelph's help for the people who aren't math inclined.

It’s time for a little true confession: If there’s one thing that gives me the most amount of difficulty in terms of reading comprehension while covering city hall, it’s the money stuff.

At this week’s Committee of the Whole meeting, Coun. June Hofland commented that it would be more helpful understanding the year-end financial reports if there was an accompanying staff presentation instead of just attaching them at the end of the agenda for independent study.

I couldn’t help but agree, and I think this is an exercise that will not only help members of council, but members of the public too.

One of the things that irks me as a political reporter is how often financial matters are treated as easy to understand, or easy to comment on.

I’m thinking about all the people that say you can cut whole departments at city hall even though the vast majority of the services that a municipality provides are mandated by the Municipal Act and the Government of Ontario. This is apiece with a lot of misunderstandings about municipal power, and how much of it that our mayor and city councillors actually have.

I’m also thinking about the people that only read the headlines, see another municipality with a zero increase or even a slight decrease in their budget and say, “Why can’t we do that in Guelph?” The conclusion drawn is not that Guelph is a single-tier municipality struggling to balance services and costs, but that council loves taxing people to the point of addiction.

This line of thinking also rides the release of the so-called “Sunshine List," the annual disclosure of Ontario public salaries that exceed $100,000. Forget the fact that most people on this list are the ones we conventionally think of as heroes like doctors, teachers, police officers, and emergency responders, but the benchmark has not kept up with inflation, which in 2021 dollars should be $157,661.75.

The most irksome fallacy though when it comes to any government budgeting is that you should treat the budget like you would treat your own personal pocketbook. That’s one of those things that sounds good in a campaign speech, but it does not reflect the reality of the situation. I was a manager at a pop-up Halloween store, that does not mean I’m ready to be the CFO of Amazon or Walmart.

These kinds of hot takes are rather superficial and answering them does not get us any closer to understanding the budget than superiority at solving Sudoku puzzles, but these are the questions and comments we always get hung up on in the budget process.

The reason we get hung up on them is because talking about the budget is more like talking about producing a complex machine than it is about developing policy. Imagine looking at the schematic for your smart phone and saying “maybe you can just rid of a few microchips to make it cheaper?”

So how do we make the budget, and budget process, more accessible, and how do we do it without needing certification in accounting, economics, or high order mathematics?

First, we need to break down the budget into easily digestible bits. I don’t mean break it down by department, I mean break it down by the things that the city has to pay for. Or break it down by sources of income by asking, is this item entirely funded through the tax base, or is it partially covered by grants, or money from other governments?

Second, people need to understand their own burden.

I know that the city doesn’t like to release hard numbers about how much the average taxpayer will pay because it’s not like HST where everyone pays a flat 13 cents on the dollar, but I think it would help to understand the value-for-money angle. How much out of your pocket every year covers maintenance at your neighbourhood park? How much to pick up your trash?

Thirdly, staff need to understand that no matter how much they dumb down a budget presentation, they need to dumb it down more.

If there’s one thing I’ve made note of in any kind of public engagement done by the city it’s that you’re still required to have some sort of base understanding of the issue to participate. It’s very hard for beginners to get involved and try to unwind the complex web of plans and policies that have sometimes been in development for years.

In other words, we need a beginner’s level course on understanding the budget, the complex financial machine that more or less drives every decision made, every project pursued, every service offered, and is one of the most determinate factors in whether the city does something or whether it doesn’t do something.

There should be no shame in admitting that you need to understand something better. It should be a point of pride that you want to overcome a knowledge gap by filling it. The alternative is to wallow in ignorance, which is something that, sadly, far too many us do.


Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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