Budget must reflect reality

We simply cannot afford to do what we want until we can find some way to pay for it.

The electorate of Vernon have three mutually contradictory objectives: low, zero or, (gasp!), even negative, changes to tax rates, no increases in user fees, and no reductions in services.

These three goals cannot be attained simultaneously unless the overall size of the economy of Vernon grows, so that we have a larger tax base to fund the same level of services with no tax or user fee increases. This is such an obvious point that it surprises me how little discussion there has been recently of what Vernon can do to improve its economy. During the last civic election campaign a number of residents expressed concern about the parlous state of the local economy. Many voices were heard asking what can be done to create decent full-time employment in Vernon to make possible a viable future for our children here. It seems to me that the best way to manage that and simultaneously to address our never-ending, self-inflicted, budget shortfalls is to grow the local economy and thus increase the tax base. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could afford to pay for all the nice things that we want and not have to continually increase taxes? Well, we can, but only if we have more taxpayers (and taxpaying businesses) here.

We are currently going through a Core Services Review in an attempt to find cost savings; I recently attended the ‘public workshop’ in support of this review. Most of the potential cost-savings opportunities presented, some of them in the millions of dollars per year, were summarily rejected by the public present. To quote Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy and he is us. How can we possibly balance our budget when we refuse to accept that we must cut costs somewhere?

Nor is it clear to me that the citizens of Vernon have grappled with what must be done to fund many of the large near term or recently approved expenditures – a new ice surface (to replace the Civic Arena), the sports field proposed near Okanagan College, the new library, $2 million for upgrades to 30th Avenue, $1 million for more of the ‘Polson Greenway’, recent million dollar allocations for Polson Park and a variety of essential infrastructure upgrades. Yes, some of these are not paid for in their entirety by the City of Vernon, but we should remember that each taxpayer has only one wallet. And deferring capital expenditures or maintenance just creates even greater costs in the future. Borrowing money appears to be anathema to Vernon residents, but we face significant capital needs that might best be addressed by amortizing the cost over the lifetime of the resource. But regardless of how we pay for these large expenditures, at least a part of their cost must be paid for from current funds. We are wasting our time and resources trying to prioritize whether and how we want Vernon to be ‘green’ versus building rec facilities, versus repairing infrastructure, versus paying for social services.

We simply cannot afford to do what we want until we can find some way to pay for it.

In both the Core Services Review Public Workshop as well as the budget review in council chambers plenty of good reasons could be found to spend more money, and cutting services (and thus expenses) was almost always rejected. Why is it always easier to find reasons to spend than to not spend? Why is it always easier to hire more staff than to reduce staff, this at a time when the amount and proportion of the city budget dedicated to staff wages continues to grow faster than either the tax base or the population? How can this possibly be sustainable? Have we not learned from the Canadian experience in the 1990s, and the U.S. and European experiences right now that, while paying the piper can be postponed at a cost, sooner or later he insists on being paid?

It seems to me that, given our collective unwillingness to cut services, our only option is to grow the economy so that we have the tax base to pay for the things we want. The best approach to doing this is for our leadership to focus on one and only one aspect of Vernon – making it an attractive place for investment. How can we do this better than we do now? Without going into specifics where reasonable people may differ with regard to tactics, an obvious first step is for our political leaders to declare their vision and commitment to the world (business, investment, entrepreneurs, other governments…) – that Vernon’s exclusive focus is the economy, and that all other considerations, bar none, are of far less importance.

Ah, but I hear you muttering under your breath, what about my favourite crusade (insert personal agenda here)? Well, if Vernon cannot afford to pay for your favoured program, it will have to be cut in the future if not today, so why don’t we stop bickering over who gets a slice of a shrinking pie and instead try to make the pie larger? It may even be that some of our other wants will be attained by focusing on growing the economy; we will have to make Vernon attractive and this may entail improving services such as, for example, recreational facilities.

If we continue on our current trajectory, our city will continue to slide into irrelevance, our taxes will increase, our services will diminish, and our city bureaucracy will increase until it consumes our entire budget. We need to wake up from our Okanagan dreamland and face reality.

Wynn Polnicky