Cuts are tip of the proverbial iceberg
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.