Cuts are tip of the prover­bial ice­berg

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - NEWS - City hall re­porter Ron­ald Zajac can be reached by email at Rza­jac@Post­media.com. RON­ALD ZAJAC

To re­peat a phrase I read some­where on Twit­ter this week: “Ice­berg, meet tip.”

Yes, it has some logic is­sues, but it’s more po­lite than the ob­vi­ous one: “Ti­tanic, meet tip...”

The phrase rang in my mind Thurs­day when city hall un­veiled its pro­posed 2018 bud­get, seem­ingly pre-empt­ing any spec­u­la­tion about pos­si­ble cuts by stat­ing, out­right, that there will be cuts.

Only spec­u­la­tion is in­evitable, es­pe­cially when one sees the ac­tual cuts now on the list.

Grass mow­ing ? Weed­ing ? Street sweep­ing on King ? Those are... cuts. Sure. I mean, they meet the def­i­ni­tion.

But I can al­ready see some of coun­cil’s fis­cal hawks stretch­ing out their talons, and hear them say­ing: “That’s what you mean by cuts? That’s not even a be­gin­ning!”

Or, if I might switch wildlife me­taphors, this $78,000 in ser­vice re­duc­tions might be only the first drops of blood in the water, the ones meant to get the sharks all worked up.

Spec­u­la­tion about fur­ther cuts would have hap­pened re­gard­less, given this bud­get pack­age also in­cludes $135,000 un­der un­spec­i­fied “re­duc­tion in wages” meant to be hashed out in cam­era two Tues­days from now.

Since I’m a pun­dit in this space and spec­u­la­tion is what pun­dits of­ten do, I’ll start it off by sug­gest­ing much of that $135,000 could be had by opt­ing not to re­place re­tired plan­ning di­rec­tor Mau­reen Pas­coe Merkley, whose job David Dick, the cor­po­rate ser­vices di­rec­tor, is now do­ing in the in­terim.

You wouldn’t get there com­pletely, how­ever, be­cause Pas­coe Merkley did not hit so high a num­ber, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures ob­tained un­der the Pub­lic Sec­tor Salary Dis­clo­sure Act, and some of the sav­ings would be lost in pro­mot­ing some­one else in­ter­nally. So, more salary cuts, then. And city man­ager Bob Cas­sel­man made it clear city of­fi­cials will be on the look­out for more pos­si­ble ser­vice cuts.

It is im­por­tant, how­ever, to dis­tin­guish between ser­vice cuts and bud­get cuts.

The ac­tual Brockville bud­get, as pre­sented Thurs­day, will in fact in­crease by nearly three per cent, even as some ser­vices and some salaries are cut.

That’s nearly a full per­cent­age point higher than the two per cent in­crease that has been, in re­cent his­tory, coun­cil’s com­fort zone.

That’s be­cause some things, no­tably St. Lawrence Lodge, elec­tric­ity in gen­eral and labour costs un­der the even­tual Bill 148 regime, are be­com­ing more ex­pen­sive, forc­ing the city to pay more to pro­vide, in many cases, the same level of ser­vice.

And other parts of the bud­get are very much con­tin­u­ing to go up ac­cord­ing to the will of coun­cil.

In par­tic­u­lar, de­spite all the pres­sures city hall faces, the bud­get plan shows no in­ten­tion of slow­ing down the city’s con­tri­bu­tions to re­serves.

The amount of tax­payer money be­ing placed in the fis­cal pol­icy re­serve, the go-to fund for un­ex­pected in­creases, will hit $600,000 in this bud­get, an in­crease of $100,000 over last year.

The amount placed in the arena re­serve is also in­creas­ing by a hun­dred grand, hit­ting $500,000 in 2018.

(The 2018 bud­get calls for de­sign work to start on that fu­ture twin-pad, which bet­ter have a firm lo­ca­tion soon.)

Mean­while, other salaries are go­ing up as younger staffers rise through the pay grids. As of Fri­day, in­creases in the po­lice, fire and pub­lic works de­part­ments rep­re­sented more than $300,000.

“We have a bit of a chang­ing of the guard,” said Cas­sel­man, point­ing to the cycli­cal fall and rise of salary costs when older em­ploy­ees re­tire.

“You see the sav­ings in year one, but then the pres­sure (fol­lows),” said Cas­sel­man. “The is­sue is pro­gres­sion.” So, the ser­vice cuts men­tioned at the out­set of this bud­get process are not bud­get cuts; they sim­ply pre­vent the bud­get from go­ing up by 5.6 per cent in­stead of 2.99.

Any fu­ture cuts to come out in the next two months would, pre­sum­ably, get coun­cil closer to that two per cent com­fort zone – and one can ex­pect one or more of those nine coun­cil mem­bers to come up with a plan to get there.

There is al­ways talk of cuts, in ev­ery year’s bud­get process.

This year, they’re al­ready there, and the ques­tion is how much fur­ther peo­ple want to go.

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