The Peterborough Examiner
You can have a say on how to spend $350M
Summer 2023 is just around the corner and already the 2024 Peterborough city budget is making waves.
That’s a good thing.
Between now and December — or maybe early next year — city council will decide how to spend roughly $350 million.
Step 1 was a survey of what taxpayers consider the most important services and how much more — or less — they would pay to get them.
Step 2 was Tuesday night’s brief presentation to council of the survey results, a review of coming cost increases, and the property tax increase necessary to fund all of them.
That increase is 4.8 per cent, well above the 2.5 per cent to 3.1 per cent range councils have approved over the past six years. Expect it to come down.
Peterborough’s budget process, start to finish, gets high marks. It starts early with opportunities for public input, and a great amount of detail is available to anyone with internet access and the will to dig deep.
Some would say too much information is provided. Three budget books — highlights, operating and capital — released annually in November total well over 1,000 pages. That can be intimidating.
However, there are Coles Notes breakdowns within the deluge. Tuesday’s report contains a helpful eight-page summary of where spending would increase and how and why tax rates would change.
Come November, the highlights book has a more detailed 10page summary and a 25-page overview that goes even deeper into the numbers, with a fairly easy to follow narrative.
Still, a very small percentage of city taxpayers ever look at those documents. Maybe as few as 415, the number who responded to this year’s surveys.
Lack of public participation presents a challenge for city council. When so few people respond it is hard to know how much weight to give to the results.
Council does not necessarily listen closely.
Last year, for instance, policing was not among five service categories that got the greatest number of “very important” survey responses. Yet council approved a five-year police plan to add 49 new officers and civilians at an eventual annual cost of about $7 million.
The hiring program was approved despite a report from the force’s own consultant that 13 new staff and series of efficiencies would be sufficient, and the fact that at $29 million policing was already the single biggest cost for local taxpayers.
This year policing — lumped in with fire prevention and ambulance service — did make the top five. But in a separate ranking of most important issues, crime and criminal activity was 11th out of 13.
So, how should council now respond to a staff recommendation to put Phase 2 of the police hiring plan on hold? The 11 new positions created for part of last year will add $2 million for the full year of 2024.
Adding 10 more as planned would push the projected tax increase well beyond 4.8 per cent.
Survey respondents might not represent a true cross-section of the community. Housing, social issues and public health rank first to third, respectively. Arts and culture rank noticeably higher than providing recreation facilities.
In the same vein, tax increases to fund services got more support than tax cuts to reduce spending.
Several council members will say that’s not what they hear from constituents. And the results probably do skew to the left-liberal, survey-responding side of the community.
Those councillors face another conundrum: How to move ahead with police hiring when that would drive up taxes.
All part of the budget process, which will once again be complicated, thorough and entertaining.