One of the clearest messages I heard from residents during the election this fall was the desire to see elected officials strive for fiscal reform at City Hall and to look inward for efficiencies rather than constantly resorting to raising taxes and service rates. To this end, after reviewing the proposed 2015 non-tax supported operating budget, I did not support the 4.1% increase to water/wastewater rates for 2015. Notwithstanding the need for investment in City reserve funds to service ageing infrastructure, my desire was to limit expansion of the water/waste water division by not approving the proposed full time equivalent (FTE) positions. The following explains my rationale.
First, I want to commend City staff on their determined focus toward water conservation. Water conservation initiatives in Guelph have resulted in a significant (>12%) decrease in production demand since 2005, all while the City has experienced a population increase of >14%. This is not only a testament to good water policy (such as moving from a flat rate billing system to volumetric water rates), but it has also deferred millions of dollars in costs associated with building new water treatment facilities.
Despite these accomplishments however my concerns remain, since 2005 (despite decreases in demand) the City’s Water/Wastewater service group has in fact grown by over 31 full time equivalent positions (34 including the 2015 expansions). While some growth in departments should be expected for a growing City, the fact remains the increased regulatory burden and staffing obligations stemming from the Walkerton Inquiry (2002) have long since passed. As such I believe this City service is now well equipped to focus on operational performance through efficiency, not continued staff increases.
Furthermore are my concerns over how we as a City are “getting the work done”. More specifically, a June 2014 City Audit report identified that the City’s use of outside consultants (i.e. purchased services) has increased an average of 25% per year, cumulatively since 2010; a large percentage of which occurs within the water/waste water division (despite staff increases). In conclusion the audit report identified “a lack of policy, guidance or set criterion to govern the use of external consultants including a lack of business case justification to support their use.”
In response to this finding, City management has committed to developing a corporate policy framework to govern the use of external consultants by Q1 2015 and (from my perspective), bring some measure of accountability, transparency and consistent rationale governing the outsourcing of work. This framework has not yet been received by Council but my desire would be to have it in place before continuing to approve new full time positions.
In closing, by withholding some/all of the proposed expansion positions (at least until the governance framework is in place), council could have reduced the proposed 4.1% increase to better align with voter expectations, all while maintaining reserve investments needed to service ageing infrastructure.
Despite these concerns, I accept Council speaking as one voice in approving the budget. As such I’m now committed to focusing on Council’s review of the 2015 tax supported budget.