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More than a year after the group disbanded, the work of the defunct Citizens’ Budget Task Force is far from over.
The group of 12 citizens, which included engineers, financial experts and professors, spent almost a year hearing from the city’s department heads while trying to get a grasp of the inner workings of city hall.
Formed in the spring of 2011 and given the task of helping council develop its 2012-14 budget and increase public engagement with the budgetary process, the group’s mandate ended when Mayor Brenda Halloran thanked them for their service in her annual State of the City address last March.
But its final report, where the task force made 22 recommendations in seven different categories for the city to improve — ranging from financial transparency to employee compensation — continues to stir controversy.
The relationship between the city and the task force was a tumultuous one and one former member of the group says it was destined to fail from the start.
“Do I think that we did our job? No,” said Janice Moore, a retired chartered accountant. “I think, unfortunately from the beginning, the task force never had enough focus to really narrow in and do something in the short timeframe we had.
“The monumental task of going over the finances of the city was just way too huge.”
Despite the group’s shortcomings, Moore said she was happy with the final recommendations the group made to council, but laments the fact the focus was too broad and too vague to really get the job done.
Moore said the city should investigate the possibility of forming smaller citizen groups to help tackle each of the unfinished recommendations individually.
She said looking into ways the city could chip away at its infrastructure deficit, which currently sits at about $250 million, should be a top priority moving forward. Waterloo should also address concerns around its Municipal Price Index, which the city uses to measure the average increase in the price of goods and services it purchases over the course of the year.
MPI is one of the tools the city uses to guide the city’s tax rate increase per year. Moore said the city should be rebuilding its budget from scratch every four years.
The latest budget report card was released last month and it shows the city’s progress on addressing the suggestions of the task force. Of the 22 recommendations on the list, the city has completed a little more than half in the past year.
Yet the tasks that remain unfinished represent some heavy lifting — including a review of worker compensation, investigating alternatives to MPI and developing a long-term strategic plan for the Waterloo Public Library.
A complete list of what has and has not been completed on the report card is available online,http://www.waterloo.ca/en/government/reportcard.asp.
Mayor Brenda Halloran said council is taking the list very seriously and the city has assigned a staff member to each outstanding item, with a final report expected by the end of 2014 — the end of the current term of council.
“It will be done,” said Halloran of the unfinished items left in the task force’s final report.
The mayor agreed the mandate of the group was likely too broad to begin with, but said it was the first time the city had attempted anything like it. “It was new and had never been done before,” she said.
“It’s such a massive puzzle and such a broad scope and an intense commitment,” added Coun. Karen Scian, chair of the city’s finance committee.
“There is probably a better way to do it.”
The budget task force will not be making a return to the council chambers before the current term of council ends next year, Halloran and Scian said. The decision to revive the group and put in place some of the lessons learned the first time around will ultimately fall on the next group of councillors.
Former task force chair Mike Magreehan warned the task force should not be viewed as a one-off, or as an item to be merely checked off a list.
Instead, council should use this opportunity to create an ongoing, continuous process of open dialogue between citizen experts and council to best represent the needs of taxpayers.
“More needs to be done to mitigate the risk on today’s taxpayer and future generations,” he said. “If this means smaller more specialized (and) focused groups, I am in agreement with that.”
Halloran and Scian said the city was taking its responsibility to taxpayers seriously. The mayor noted the fact that Waterloo has raised its taxes just 5.8 per cent from 2011 to 2013, the smallest increase in the Tri-Cities.
Kitchener has raised taxes by 12.9 per cent over that time frame, Cambridge raised taxes nine per cent and regional taxes increased 6.9 per cent.
Scian also highlighted the roundtable discussion the city held last fall to discuss employee pensions benefits through the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System.
Representatives from OMERS, Fair Pensions For All and the Canadian Union of Public Employees all spoke about the often-controversial funding formula of defined benefit plans and the potential for unfunded liabilities.
The task force has changed the way the city approaches its finances by adding another layer of scrutiny at the public level and by improving communications between the city and the public, Scian said.
Magreehan said there is still more work to be done.
“We believe a lot more can easily be done to reduce the burden on the local taxpayer,” he said. “It is a question of will.”
By James Jackson