By: Korie Marshall, Editor
The idea of a budget meeting may seem pretty boring, but budgeting is actually a very important process. Budget meetings for local governments are legislated to be held in public, but it is often hard to follow the process if you haven’t already been following financial matters.
Valemount’s first budget meeting was this week. I’ve started to think of the preliminary meetings as sort of like your Christmas wish list– these are all the new things you’d like to be able to do, here’s why, and this is what it will cost. Now hold that up to what you already are doing, how much that costs, and how much it is going to increase. Then you have to look at what to cut back – either some of the new stuff, or some of the stuff you’ve been doing – or you have to figure out where to get more money from.
Local governments collect property taxes, and then distribute most of that money to other levels of government. Each level of government uses that money to provide different services, but often, they set up grant programs that we apply for, to try to get back some of that money. Sometimes people complain that the process doesn’t make sense, that we don’t benefit enough, that we are taxed too much, and I get that point of view. But that is just how it works these days, and local governments can’t change that on their own – they just have to be ready for the opportunities that come along.
Budget time is when you get to see those opportunities that our local governments are hoping to take advantage of. Having smart people in Council making good governance decisions is very important, but it is also important that staff have done their work behind the scenes, because those opportunities are not like winning the lottery. People don’t usually come along and give you a wad of cash for nothing. All levels of government need to be accountable for the money they spend, and we have to prove that investing with us is good. A lot of that has to do with those studies and reports that people often complain about – we have to spend money, time and effort doing research, which sometimes take years to complete. But if we haven’t done that work, then we don’t get a chance at those wads of cash that occasionally come along with very particular strings attached.
I am strangely excited to see Valemount’s budget process this year. Most of the “new” items on the wish list for the first meeting aren’t that new or surprising to me. They are things that have been on the list for a few years now, like lift station upgrades, cemetery expansion and an update of the community plan. But there are a couple items that are new, and I think hint at a focus and a direction for the community.
The first is an increase for legal fees. A staff report says there are issues coming up that will require more in-depth legal advice than the Village is currently getting, like utility charges on vacant lands, potential boundary expansions and land developments. The second is salary, wage and staff increases. A report from staff says salaries and wages are below the average for a community of this size, and that the finance department needs more staff. Not approving this item could mean big costs to the Village if employees leave due to burnout, dissatisfaction, or insufficient time to work on their own professional development. That is telling, especially since the Village just got a clean financial audit, and Council acknowledged how hard staff works, and how much they ask of staff.
Both those items say a lot to me about the complex issues Valemount is facing in the next few years. It is going to be interesting, exciting times.