Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

Budget Chopping: Tension Rises At City Hall

The city's budget debate reveals two different versions of the role City Hall should be playing.

Last night, shortly after councillors congratulated one another for wrestling a proposed municipal tax increase down to zero, Mayor Mark Heyck gave a sobering critique of his colleagues’ work over the past week.

“I’m fully supportive of the close scrutiny that council gives of the budget and I think it’s important that we all take fiscal responsibility very seriously,” said Heyck, closing off the multiday budget deliberations. But there are other things the City does, he added, which are “important components of creating a positive quality of life for our residents.”

“Some of the decisions that were made around the Community Energy Plan projects, in particular, were a little bit rash,” he said, noting the decision to cut proposed solar panels for the Fieldhouse and slash the community outreach budget for the updated energy plan.

“I do find it somewhat troubling… there is not a penny to be found in capital projects related to downtown revitalization,” he added, referring to the decision to postpone any work on the 50/50 lot by at least a year. “[Downtown revitalization] was an item we all spoke of over the last few months, in particular in the election campaign. And revitalization is not going to happen on its own, it’s not going to be free.”

Heyck’s speech, which had a deflating effect on council’s post-budget buoyancy, seems to express a power dynamic that’s emerging in the new council, pitting Heyck, something of an activist mayor, against council’s fiscal hawks, chiefly Coun. Niels Konge and Coun. Adrian Bell.  

On the one hand, numerous councillors spoke about the mandate voters had supposedly given them during the October election to keep the City’s expenditures in check. (They did this with aplomb, cutting roughly $2.3 million from the budget — though adding back just over $1 million to fast-track a pellet heating system for the multiplex, and a further $250,000 to speed up water-line repairs). On the other, Heyck took a surprising number of opportunities to speak for the projects he favoured (most notably the ill-fated splash park — perhaps an odd thing to expend political capital on) and against cuts, which he claimed might hamper the ability of City Hall to deliver services or save money over the long term.   

General Fund Cut

One of the chief points of Heyck’s criticism, and the most telling, was the decision to slash $271,000 from the general fund without identifying specific places to cut. Bell proposed the move earlier on Monday, arguing that while council had done a good job keeping capital expenditures in check, the general fund (which holds the money for operations and maintenance) has continued to grow faster than the pace of inflation.

“If tax increases are reigned in, but general fund expenditures are not, the inevitable result is a shrinking capital budget and this can only lead to deteriorating infrastructure,” said Bell, who also proposed reducing several reserve funds to pay for infrastructure replacement.

Heyck, with a voice and expression that betrayed a clear level of frustration, responded to the motion: “I don’t think we as elected officials are being accountable if we provide this blanket direction to staff to go find $270,000 that’s magically going to disappear.”

“Reasonably, [administration] could go in and cut half of the grants we supply to community organizations on that basis or reduce transit service or close one of our recreation facilities for a day a week. And I don’t think it’s reasonable for administration to be asked to do something like that.”

Bell’s motion passed nonetheless, with Coun. Rebecca Alty, acting as mayor, breaking the tie; this was the second time Heyck had stepped into the fray only to be defeated.

During his speech later that night he argued that the reduction, “could leave staff positions unstaffed and a degradation of services in those areas,” adding that “over the past month alone we’ve passed three motions… asking for additional work from our staff to do various things… [Yet at] the same time we’re asking City staff to do more, we’re removing resources that are meant to help them do their jobs.”

Governance review

It would be unfair to brand council, as a whole, as anti-tax, while seeing Heyck as a simple tax-and-spender; in this budget, council voted to spend more on infrastructure and was keen to move ahead with the expensive pellet heating project, while Heyck was in support of increased spending on water-line repair.

But there are different philosophies about municipal government at play — one vision is of City Hall highly involved in recreation, beautification, economic development and public safety, the other imagines taxpayer money focused primarily on infrastructure (roads, sewers, water lines, etc.)

While the borders of each group are fluid — with most councillors falling somewhere in the middle — this budget session showed a surprising amount of tension, with Heyck taking a more strident role than usual and quite openly critiquing his colleagues’ decisions. The new dynamic is especially interesting in light of an upcoming governance review, slated to occur sometime in the new year, in which Heyck is expected to push for increased powers, allowing the mayor to vote and to wade into discussions. (Currently we have a ‘weak mayor’ system where the mayor only votes to break ties and seldom gets into council debates.) With this budget process setting a relatively confrontational stage, whether a belt-tightening council will agree that giving more power to a pro-administration mayor is a good idea remains to be seen.