Looking back, we should have known this was no ordinary budget briefing when finance committee chair Terry Kett arrived and offered reporters homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Kett, a veteran of local politics and the councillor in Ward 11, handed out the treats at a pre-budget meeting session Nov. 6. Besides the cookies, the real star of the show was Lorella Hayes, the city’s chief financial officer.
She delivered the unexpected news that city departments found $6 million in savings or new revenue since the preliminary budget was unveiled in May. That meant the property tax increase needed to fully fund next year’s $493 million budget dropped to 2.8 per cent from 4.4 per cent.
The rosy budget picture was a big surprise. It doesn’t usually (or ever) work this way. Councillors told staff in May they wanted the tax increase below three per cent, and that’s what they’re getting, despite lower-than-forecast increases in tax revenue.
City budget meetings usually work like this: a draft budget proposes a tax increase of anywhere from 4-8 per cent. Councillors are told the draft budget is already lean, and finding further cuts could be ruinous to certain services. At which point staff and city councillors spend the better part of the fall and winter finding savings and cutting spending to bring in a budget with a politically palatable increase.
So how did they do it this time around?
Some of it is good timing — a new natural gas contract saved $800,000 and the police budget came in more than $1 million less than forecast. The police budget is notable in that it devotes 90 cent to paying salaries and wages. In other words, Chief Frank Elsner and his staff are spending less, even though they have little control over 90 per cent of their budget. That’s impressive.
Mayor Marianne Matichuk deserves praise, as well. She campaigned promising a “line-by-line” review of spending, and Hayes credited that approach for some of the savings.
For example, $1.3 million in savings came from departments finding ways to deal with rising costs without getting an inflationary budget increase. The attrition policy cut the equivalent of five full-time jobs and thousands of part-time hours without laying anyone off.
These impressive achievements speak to a new corporate culture emerging at Tom Davies Square, a culture that must at least partially be attributed to the office of the auditor general. It’s difficult to gauge exactly what impact Brian Bigger has had. However, his audits of Sudbury Transit and the roads department exposed some major issues.
Almost more important than the specific findings of the audits is the message sent to everyone across the corporation: your department could be next.
And that’s not a criticism of anyone. Since returning to the municipal beat in the spring, I’ve been impressed by how open and professional city staffers and department managers are in their dealings with the public and the media.
But it’s human nature to change the way you behave when you think you’re being watched, or when you know what you’re doing could be subject to a detailed review.
Think of it this way: how much more careful are municipal councils about holding closed-door meetings since the Ontario ombudsman gained the power to investigate them?
The impact of having an auditor general goes beyond the measurable savings in any specific audit. It breeds a culture of responsibility and pushes everyone to be a little better, to look a little harder for savings.
In that sense, creating the office of the auditor is likely the best investment a city council in Greater Sudbury has ever made.
Darren MacDonald is Northern Life’s city hall reporter. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @darrenmacd.