Service review committee is gone (column)
London Community News
The gateway to a third consecutive city budget with no property tax increase will require further cuts to spending of about $25 million, according to a staff report presented to city council during the summer.
At the time Nancy Branscombe, councillor for Old North’s Ward 6, tried to pass a motion committing council not to use reserves to help balance the books. And when, by an 8-7 vote, council refused, Ms. Branscombe resigned as chairperson of the service review committee.
This somewhat anonymous group has been working for five years to transform the way London does business, poking and prodding the civic administration to find new ways of offering the vast array of city services.
During that time, the services review committee and the senior civic leaders it worked with have been credited with finding $25 million in permanent cost savings for taxpayers.
The services review committee worked like this: “We took a really good look at what we do and how other municipalities do the same thing,” Ms. Branscombe explained in an interview. “It was an incremental process. You can’t just find money willy-nilly. You have to look at things with a critical eye. But at the end you know, because you’ve done the work, that taxpayers are getting the most value for their tax dollars.”
The $25 million the committee found so far gets a majority of the credit for the first two years of no tax increase. Now, though, “the low hanging fruit has been picked. I dare say there is another $25 million in savings to be found, but it will involve cuts. And there is no doubt taxes will have to go up unless cuts are made.”
To use reserves again this year to balance the budget, as was done over objections of almost half the council for 2012, merely postpones and exacerbates the problem. “If we freeze taxes again and don’t make the required cuts there’s a train wreck coming,” she says.
Last week, as part of the third revamping in two years, city council approved a new governance model. One name was missing from the list of the various renamed and repurposed committees: The services review committee is gone.
Henceforth this work will be done by a team of senior staff.
For Ms. Branscombe and others who served on the services review committee there was an enormous time commitment not all councillors are able to make. Still she believes killing the committee doesn’t bode well.
“The service cuts or changes required are political decisions. Staff can tell us how to be efficient, but we have to tell them where to be efficient. They will come up with options, but council will have to make the cuts — and they will have to be really knowledgeable and informed to do that properly, and that will depend on how much work they are prepared to do.”
From Ms. Branscombe’s perspective you can’t make intelligent decisions about the city’s $750 million budget “unless you really understand the services and businesses the city delivers.”
Longer term, though, that might not be her problem. Ms. Branscombe says she won’t run again in Ward 6, a two-term promise she made when elected in 2006. But she doesn’t rule out running for mayor.
Philip McLeod is a longtime London journalist who writes a regular blog on civic affairs. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.