What a celebration we had. They really sweated it. Through sheer hard work, grim determination and even accusations of being dysfunctional, this Council did it. FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY IN WINDSOR AT LAST!
The headlines almost took your breath away. Why, one would almost think that 2006 was an election year for the Mayor and Council with the great results.
Oh my, it is an election year! This must mean that this was an election year Budget.
You may remember some of the headlines and what the stories said as I shall point out below. But you know, there was just something there that bothered me. I could not pin it down. Councillor Lewenza started the doubts creeping into my mind and then it happened....the real truth came out. It was the "wiggle room" that did it, and the Arena, Eddie's Achilles heel for re-election.
It is going to take you a bit of time to read through all of this mind you...I have to take you through a lot of details to show you what I mean.
First the good news that we are supposed to remember in November as we put an "X" on the ballot:
City tax increase under 1%: Hike among lowest in province
Roseann Danese 02-03-2006
- "Property taxes in Windsor may rise less than one per cent this year, adding about $25 per year to the average tax bill and making the hike among the lowest in the province.
Gord Henderson 02-18-2006
- "Buoyed by a successful Super Bowl partnership with Detroit and presiding over a city debt that's in freefall, Francis's position becomes more unassailable with each passing day.
On Monday he and a council that's agreed to try to patch over its differences will bask in the glow of a remarkable budget presentation. If they do nothing else this term, our feuding civic elders will be able to point to one spectacular achievement, a stunning turnaround in the city's finances...
Three years ago Windsor was a fiscal basket case. But through zero-based budgeting, hard work and relentless belt-tightening, it has engineered a stunning comeback
And now that the city has financial wiggle room, Francis appears set to invest some of that freed-up capital, not to mention his accumulated political capital, in fulfilling a city dream. At a strategic planning session tentatively set for next Saturday at Willistead Manor, Francis will make a pitch for the city to get behind building a new ice rink for the Spitfires.
City gives taxpayers a tiny bit of a break
Doug Schmidt 02-21-2006
- Mayor Eddie Francis and city council applauded themselves Monday night for delivering something most Windsorites haven't seen in a long time -- a tax break...
For the average local homeowner -- with a property valued at $150,000 and hit by an average 2006 assessment hike of 3.44 per cent -- the total city tax bill this year dips slightly to $2,595 from last year's $2,601...
"It was an incredibly gruelling process," Coun. Ken Lewenza Jr. said of the months of "incredibly passionate and incredibly emotional" budget talks...
"It was unprecedented," said Francis, who thanked councillors and city administration for the hundreds of hours put into the budget process on top of their regular duties...
"We have a budget that works ... it's a compromise," said Coun. Dave Brister, who headed council's committee looking at the operational side of the budget...
Brister said the budget was "acceptable" to those who demanded spending restraint, while one of his fiscal polar opposites, Lewenza, described the budget document as "great news for the community" and something he can justify to his own constituency."
And then the Star Editorial
- "City budget: Putting taxpayers first
As municipalities across the province give in to inflationary budget increases, Windsor appears to be in a league of its own -- the city has not only held the line on taxes, but actually provided a tax break.
Is this something to celebrate? Absolutely...It's a good start -- one that only puts increased pressure on future councils to be just as - - and even more -- vigilant.
The city didn't get to the point of actually being able to roll back taxes -- even providing a few dollars of relief for the average homeowner whose assessment from the province increased 3.44 per cent -- by accident."
The story started changing and getting better and better. In that February 3 story, Councillor Lewenza at least was honest about how the marvellous result was achieved:
- "But Lewenza said there's very little wiggle room in the budget and taxpayers should not expect to see the frugality of the last two budgets repeated next year. "This is probably the last go- around," he said, adding that there will be either higher tax hikes next year or a reduction in services."
What Councillor Lewenza was saying, it appeared to me, was that this Budget was all phony. It was being kept low--frugal was the word-- and that AFTER the election, in the next Budget, we would get hammered, higher taxes or reduced services. Is that how we got Fiscal Responsibility---through games playing? Did you see that in any of the subsequent stories quoted above? NOPE! The caveat disappeared just like the "very little" with the "wiggle room."
It could not last long. And it did not! You cannot hide the truth. The Star story yesterday came out and the levees broke just like after the big storm. The real story came out. All of the bad news was to come. Just look at what Councillors say now:
- "City's budget shortfall $7M
Department overspending a chronic problem, councillor says
Roseann Danese, April 12, 2006
In what one councillor described as an "habitual" problem, municipal departments overspent their budgets last year by $7 million, according to a city hall report...
Twelve of 19 city departments could not meet their budgets in 2005.
"We have to look at the culture of the corporation. Coming in with deficits every year is not OK," [Councillor Halberstadt] said.
Halberstadt said that over the years the city has used the revenue from corporate accounts as "padding." That extra cushion won't be there in 2006 and departments need to live within their means, he said...
Coun. Joyce Zuk said she believes council hasn't given city departments enough money.
"It's a huge red flag for council when that many of their departments are not living within their budgets," Zuk said.
"One snowstorm blows your budget? To me that's not good planning."
Zuk said the city cannot sustain tax increases of less than one per cent when wage and salary increases amount to three per cent annually and services such as 311 are increased.
"That model is not sustainable in the long run," Zuk said.
Coun. Ron Jones said his colleagues on council "need to be realistic" when the budget is set.
"We beat up on our department heads on a regular basis because they do not come in at the budget we had set," he said. "I think sometimes we want to look good in the paper, we want to sound good on the radio, by saying 0.98 (per cent budget increase). But we've cut really, really close to the bone."
Can you actually believe what you are reading? This is an absolute disgrace. It is Financial Irresponsibility! I, at least, congratulate these Councillors for being straight about it now but that should not excuse their conduct at Budget time.
Where was that magnificent CITISTAT system that allowed Eddie to win the election and that would have shown budget problems right away, not 3 months after year-end? Where were the remarks of Councillor Budget in the story to explain the issue or will we have to wait until after he runs to Gord Henderson to save him again? Where were the controls that he should have ensured were in place given his financial background ? Where were the Budgeteers to ensure fiscal responsibility for more than just an election budget?
Is this something that the City's Audit Committee should be investigating forthwith? Would a Board of Directors of a private company allow this to continue? Can you imagine if the City was actually operating a border crossing as a business! And you wonder why I support private enterprise!
Oh there had to be a reason for all of this financial manoeuvering and there is. I heard yesterday that there are enough votes on Council to build a brand new arena in the east end. Several sources told me about it and I was told that the cost was over $50 million. So much for local arenas, refurbishing the Barn and trying to save a few bucks.
Arenas wiggle don't they at election time?