Count Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti as another critic of the way city council handles its budget process.
Signoretti was one of four councillors to vote against the 2019 budget, which includes a 3.6-per-cent property tax increase and a 7.4-per-cent hike in water and sewer rates out of a $593-million budget.
Like the other three, Signoretti was unhappy that council exceeded its own target of 3.5 per cent, something he says was achievable. For example, delaying spending on plans for a downtown convention centre, focusing on the library and art gallery for this year, would have done the trick.
“That was almost half a million dollars of operating money that we could have pushed out to 2020,” Signoretti said Wednesday.
“And I looked at wastewater as well. You know what? Residents can't support another 7.4 per cent, so we have to find ways to look at the budget a little differently and realize that we need to start at getting the burden to look at zero and then find efficiencies within themselves and evaluating each department.”
Like Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini, he doesn't like the current system where staff comes in with an estimate of what it will cost to maintain existing services, along with options to reduce or to increase the rate hike, depending on what council wants to fund.
He'd rather staff present a budget based on the previous year, and direct departments to look for ways to cut costs to prevent – or at least limit – increases.
“I think what we need to do is do a better job of managing our departments and right now, through the Auditor General, myself and one of my colleagues have requested for (a value for money audit) of wastewater,” he said.
Like other councillors, Signoretti is eager for an April meeting, when staff will give council a report on how much money is in reserve funds for projects that haven't been worked on in two years or more. He'd like to see those funds directed at roads, particularly Lorne Street in his ward, which still needs work to complete the rehabilitation to Elm Street.
“It's one of the major arteries into our city and we've done Phase 1,” Signoretti said. “We need to be looking, not five years down the road, but how we can fast-forward it now to make sure that we can continue on with it down to Elm Street.”
He also defends the decision to provide $4.6 million over the next 10 years for community improvement programs, with $4.1 million earmarked to turn the former Northern Breweries building on Lorne Street into condominiums.
The fund leverages private investment, Signoretti said, with $8 in private money being spent for every $1 of support from the city. And the developer won't see any money unless he's able to follow through on his promises to build first.
“That's what people don't realize,” he said. “If he does not hold up to the end of his bargain, (he won't get the money.) And if he does, then that's new property tax money that's going to come directly to the city.”
In addition to the changes in budgeting, Signoretti said he also wants staff to prepare a report on how many city managers we have.
“I'm talking about senior management – how many do we have in the municipality compared to others?” he said.
If the city is top heavy, Signoretti said there's an opportunity to change their structure so there's more staff available to serve residents directly.
“We hear day in and day out about our roads, but we don't have the manpower,” to satisfy requests he said.
If there's a way to create more front-line staff positions by reducing the number of managers, he wants to consider it.
“We need to be more customer service oriented, and to do that, we need all the manpower that is available to us.”