Councillor Gary Oosterhof and I were grabbing a coffee, stretching our legs, and remarking on the evening. We’d been sitting for a while, a long while. You know, so long our butts were numb. I digress. We were on recess during the third marathon city council budget meeting.
The twelve of us district reps and Mayor had gathered Monday, Jan. 28 and Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019, from 6pm to 9pm and 6pm to 10pm, respectively. It was now Wednesday, Jan. 30 around 9:20 p.m. The task at hand, after departmental presentations, agency pitches, and a litany of questions and answers around the horseshoe, was clear: optimize $388,000,000 to provide community services and programs, transit, snowplowing, parks, economic development, conservation, recycling, policing, a long term care home, public health, libraries, and everything else that goes into running Kingston for a year. Oh yeah, and to effectively allocate another $153 Million for Utilities, think: sewers, gas, internet, etc. It’s a lot of money and a tremendous responsibility.
So, while we were talking over the somewhat-burnt black coffee (which I don’t really mind, but I refuse to use the powdered cream), Gary asked a good question, a very good question, that he’d articulate publicly later in the evening. He wondered how we could show restraint in our spending. Most of the areas mentioned had increased 2.5 per cent since 2018, some more. Thus, property tax (a regressive land based revenue) increased proportionately. He didn’t ask out of ideology or crude political calculation. He asked out of a sense of honour to the tax dollars, and the people who contributed them, before us.
I agreed with his quandary. For many years, one of my expressed goals as a politician has been to effectively steward the public purse. Fiscal responsibility allows for strong, sustainable social and environmental programs that help people.
Sharing his concern, I replied that the budget process felt like a river. You jump in and no matter how hard you paddle, there are currents beyond your control carrying you down stream. Hello inflation!
There are also what we’ll call localized rocks. Ones you can see above the surface (think: a population apparently polarized over building heights); ones you cannot see but know are lurking just below (say: growing cyber crime). Both types of hazards create their own eddies and micro climates that need to be handled carefully. And of course, there are things that have yet to present themselves, but are pressing nonetheless, like a change in water levels after the next rapid (or the damaging effects of climate change). All of these things could mess you up on the river unless navigated with skill. Likewise, municipally we must apply absolute diligence so (these things) don’t drive up cost of living through new fees or property taxes and mess up our pocket books.
This is not trite. People face an absolute affordability crisis. But if my time as an outdoor educator taught me anything about running rivers, it’s that there is tremendous, otherwise untapped, power in a small group with a shared goal. Yes, 8-12 people in a small, oblong raft, with a good guide can not only make the most of the water, they can enjoy the challenges, pushing each other, individually and collectively, to excel. The end result: better health, heightened sensitivity, and a deepened sense of community. All without damage.
A team who runs the river together once, can do it more effectively in the future. The currents can be read better, the hazards anticipated, the communal vitality more fully realized. Of course all of this takes in the moment judgement calls. But it also entails good research before embarking, qualified information from the ground crew.
Yes, if you’ll permit me to continue the metaphor, this underscores the importance of a constructive relationship between Council and City staff. Indeed, I was constantly impressed by the honest, straightforward replies we Councillors received from Commissioners and agency heads when questions were asked during budget. In short, from my vantage point at the centre of the action (literally, I sit in the middle of the pack), I’d say – after a few motions ruled out of order, wrangling on roads, and consensus on expanding funding for Kingston Access Bus – the city is well equipped for this year, and our team is ready for the next three budget runs with great intention; the preparation for which is laid out this spring during strategic planning. All of this to keep services like affordable housing and safe, smooth streets high and the cost to taxpayers low.
Councillor Robert Kiley tweets at @robert_kiley.
Read the complete press release from the City of Kingston regarding the 2019 budget here.