The wind in city staff sails may have shifted. And the hand on the tiller may not be as firm as we thought it was.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON March 29, 2011 – It was a long, long, long day but your city council managed to approve its Capital Spending budget – and we will have detailed numbers on that for you later in the week.

There were then nine delegations looking for money – ranging from an ask for free use of a room for the Civic Rose people, to a bit of a break for the synchronized swimming people, The Age Friendly Burlington people wanted $30,000 which they said would be matched by the United Way. It wasn’t clear to several council members just what the Age Friendly people were going to do with their money.

Creative Burlington needs $65,000. to stay alive. Ward 1councillor Meed Ward asked what that could be ground down to and was told $40,000. would help. More later in the week on how Creative Burlington wants to morph itself from a support group for artists to an Arts Council which would be in the grant dispensing business.

The city does not currently have a grants policy and city Manager Roman Martiuk advised council not to dispense any money until there was a policy in place. “Without a policy” he advised “all you do when you give out any money, is encourage others to ask for funding.” Council felt it had to at least listen to the delegations.

Council felt they were no longer in the grant game but former Mayor Walter Mulkewich informed them that they were in that game and gave them a nice, concise backgrounder on why they had to be in the grant game.

All the requests were noted and at some point, in the line by line look at the budget. My guess is that some of the groups will get some money and then there will be a direction to staff to come back with a policy so that council doesn’t get caught up in a situation like this again.

The council meeting, which went from 9 am to 3:30 pm – did get a little testy as the day wore on. Chaired by Ward 4 councillor Paul Sharman, his gavel got passed over to the vice chair a couple of times when Sharman, who can be very direct – one might say blunt – at times, was determined to get his two cents worth in.

Spoke to his council and explained that no one is going to get everything they want but that everyone should get some of what they want.

Spoke to his council and explained that no one is going to get everything they want but that everyone should get some of what they want.

The meeting started with Mayor Rick Goldring explaining that he realized there was not complete agreement on what the tax increase should be but after speaking to each council member he felt it was possible, if there was some give and take all around the council table, that they could arrive at an increase that would keep everyone happy.

Earlier in the year Sharman made it quite clear he wanted a 0% tax increase in year 1 while the Mayor was on record as seeing a 2.5 increase as what would be needed. There appeared to be enough votes for Sharman to have his way – but that appearance is a little like ships sailing in a fog. They appear to be there – but then suddenly they aren’t there.

This council has a little caucus of three – Sharman, Taylor of Ward 3 and Dennison of Ward 4 that are strong fiscal conservatives and they can usually bring Lancaster of Ward 6 along with them – which is enough votes to carry an item.

But we are now getting into the nitty gritty and council is learning it isn’t quite that easy. Partly because the budget document they are working from was based on the premise that 2.5% was going to be the tax increase. Sharman has thrown a wrench into those gears and in doing so really stressed staff. Roman Martiuk, City Manager, who is a bit of a magicians when it comes to “working the numbers” is at times totally perplexed with what staff asks him to do.

Goldring was more assertive in trying to bring his council around to the point where they could get something done.  It had been a long day.

Goldring was more assertive in trying to bring his council around to the point where they could get something done. It had been a long day.

And he isn’t always able to come back with the response council wants as quickly as some council members would like him to. It was getting a little testy in the afternoon and then downright ridiculous late in the afternoon. For the first time, Goldring was louder than I’ve ever heard him before and very assertive.

He wanted council to “get out of the way” and let staff do their jobs. “all this nonsense, there is no relevance to it. Staff` gave us what we asked of them. We are just going to have to hold our noses and live with what we have”.

Staff indicated they needed nine to ten months to create a budget, which drew a stern glance from Sharman. They are going to have to produce budgets in a much shorter time frame in 2012 – and that seems to be what this council is going to do.

They appear to be heading for a situation where the city will have a budget that requires quite a bit less than 2.5% but it doesn’t look as if Sharman is going to get his 0% – even though with the very significant $9.3 million surplus from last year, it looks as if a 0% increase could be achieved. Sharman argues that this council was elected to lower taxes and cut costs.

Well they will certainly do that and in the process push staff in a way they have never been pushed before – and they will be a better staff for it. Credit for that does belong to Sharman who is well supported by Taylor and Dennison.

Goldring doesn’t lead that way. His style, which is still evolving, seems to be to let people have their way and to listen carefully to what they want to see accomplished and then to create an environment in which the wishes of each council member can be met.

Goldring is not an iron fist in a velvet glove kind of leader – but he does lead. He is not confrontational in the way Sharman is and he does not get as emotionally attached to issues the way Taylor does. There is a humanness to Goldring that is becoming clearer.

Sometimes you have to pause and think about where you want to get to.

Sometimes you have to pause and think about where you want to get to.

That didn’t go down very well with a couple of the guys with sharper pencils on council. The city has hired an average of 18 new people every year for the past ten years and this council realizes that has to stop. Sharman wanted to freeze that staff compliment at the 2010 level. He got voted down on that but council did agree that the staffing compliment would be frozen at the 2011 level and before a new hire was made, city hall staff` had to figure out who was not going to be in place. No one talked about firing anyone but it was very clear that the city manager had to work with what he had in terms of staff compliment and still deliver the same service and program levels.

There was a lot of deep breathing being done by Roman Martiuk. He is supported by a good staff who know their numbers and while they tend to be cautious – no venture capital people in the building, they are administrators who haven’t been stretched the way this council is stressing them. They know, or they should know, that they are being led and that council is focused.

Ward 1 councillor Rick Craven wasn’t able to get much in the way of traction on any of his issues and when he was “pronouncing”, which he is want to do, he doesn’t seem to get heard. He can get a little acerbic at times and at one point told his fellow council members that they were “naive and simplistic” and that we were headed for “civic chaos”.

There isn’t going to be any civic chaos. What there is going to be is a budget that could be at 0% for year 1, will probably be at 1% – maybe a lit less. And this is the really significant part of what your council is doing now. They are positioning themselves to be able to put together very solid budgets for the following three years of their four year term that meets the real needs of a changing city. This council wants to get this budget behind them – even if it means holding their noses for parts of it – and get into the Strategic Plan,through which they will figure out, with the citizens of this city what we really want – and then they will craft a budget that makes the wants possible.

The day the capital budget was approved and the day the operating budget was gotten into Money Sense magazine declared that Burling was the #3 best Canadian city to live in. and the only city in the GTA in the top ten. Take that Oakville!

Now that award is not all that it seems, but for a city that just loves getting and handing out awards – they will milk this one mercilessly

Ward 2 councillor Meed Ward is still in learning mode – she asks more questions than anyone else and isn’t the least bit shy about letting you know what she doesn’t know. And if what she says come out as a bit silly – she just laughs it off. She is there to serve her people and to learn – and she certainly has her fan club. How effective is she – too early to tell.

Blair is Blair. Blair Lancaster, a quiet, well intentioned woman who wants only the best for everyone and will go to considerable lengths to quiet troubled waters. She seems to have been given the role of the “person with the microphone” at any public event where someone has to lead. Lancaster is Burlington’s girl; their Beauty Queen who is serving her citizens. At that level she is very effective. She is also very fiscally prudent and will not let this city get itself into financial disarray.

The showdown issue for the first significant session on budget making was a vote on a Direction that was to go to staff which read:

That for 2011 Council consider each of the budget proposals and approve, decline or amend

That for 2012-14 staff develop budgets:

    At the 2011 approved complement level

    For each additional position a reduction be identified

The budget documents outline the service impact for Council’s consideration

Increases in FTE be considered should higher cost positions be replaced with lower cost positions.

An FTE stands for a Full time employee.

Not a particularly elegant document but it showed that the clout Sharman has been using up until now may not have that much heft to it. Sharman wanted future budgets to be based on the staffing compliment of 2010 – and except for Councillor Craven no one else voted for using the 2010 number. But don’t count that 0% tax increase out yet.

Eighty percent of the city’s budget goes into payroll. If there are going to be savings it has to be at the payroll level. Sharman wanted the level that everything gets started at to be 2010. He has had to settle for the 2011 numbers and that is what the battle will be over the next few days.

Tracy Burrows, by Law enforcement officer, taking citizens through a budget input session held at the Burlington Arts Centre

Tracy Burrows, by Law enforcement officer, taking citizens through a budget input session held at the Burlington Arts Centre

Council is not all that driven to reduce spending – and much of that is based on the results of the community input meetings that were held. These were staff` led events that were really very poorly attended – less than 50 people at one Saturday morning event. Included in the Agenda for the Budget and Corporate Services Committee was three and a half pages of comment recorded by staff. The list is a mix of ideas and thoughts but there were no burning issues brought to the surface. There was no anger evident. The group just wanted better administration and value for the money being spent but there was no suggestion that spending had to be reduced hugely.

With that kind of evidence in their pockets council members can feel free to tinker and tighten and leve it at that. Sharman seems to be the only one who wants to go down deep and cut.

What Sharman has managed to do is shake up city hall staff in a way they have never been shaken before. This crowd has burned a lot of midnight oil with dozens of Sunday afternoon phone calls. They got a good taste of the corporate world this round.

To be fair to staff – and on this everyone agrees – staff has done a great job of complying with the demands of council. Their job isn’t over yet – but the wind has shifted a bit and they are no longer sailing into icy winter winds blowing off Lake Ontario. There is a hint of that warmer wind that has been out there teasing us into believing that Spring is truly here.

… staff has done a great job of complying with the demands of council.

And when the Toronto Maple Leafs win a crucial game against Buffalo to keep the hope for a Stanley Cup playoff spot alive – well who knows. There just may be a new day coming. The Big smoke to the east of us will become unimaginably insufferable should they actually make it to the playoffs. They aren’t going to win – are they? Meanwhile, Burlington will become a little more smug with its third place ranking and city hall staff will stand taller knowing they have met a significant challenge.

What would Toronto do if the Stanley Cup was paraded down Yonge Street? Implode probably.


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