COLUMN: Cash control should be the focus in 2013

We’ve gone through a year of significant change at city hall. New mayor, new councillor, and now, a new city manager.

We’ve gone through a year of significant change at city hall. New mayor, new councillor, and now, a new city manager.

Let the changes continue.

Mayor Bruce Banman has shown some promise. So has Coun. Henry Braun. Both were skeptical of the critical water need which was the mantra of the previous administration. It seems they were on the mark. Conservation measures and slowing growth has put the requirement for a new water source much further down the road than previously predicted.

Now we need to see some fresh research into viable options that won’t cost an immense fortune, but will prepare the community for future growth.

For Abbotsford, it’s all about the money…

Which brings us to the YMCA proposal.

The majority of councillors have pounced on this plan, saying it’s a good deal for the city, getting a new recreational facility for half price, and no operating costs.

To me, paying $17.5 million for half of a project that doesn’t represent a penny in city assets, doesn’t make much sense.

Other cities have deals with the YMCA that involve some or full ownership of the facilities, along with the Y handling the operating expenses.

But more importantly, Abbotsford is cash-strapped, and its taxpayers are tapped.

The city’s capital reserves were drawn down years ago for the Plan A projects – primarily featuring the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre – and the two highway interchange projects.

Banman has said the city has $12 million in capital funds now, which could be used to pay for the YMCA proposal, and therefore avoid a tax increase.

Yet, last month council voted in favour of a .7 per cent capital levy in 2013, while assuring us it had nothing to do with the Y.

But to taxpayers, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a tax increase…

The point is this. That $12 million can be earmarked for all sorts of projects, such as a new water source, sewer treatment plant upgrades, a new police station, road improvement – the list is long.

Drain away funds for the YMCA, and we’ll have to replace them, since those other projects are not going away, and in fact, some are steadily increasing in priority.

So where does the YMCA fit in? Pretty deep in the list, I’d say. If this city was flush with cash, and not subsidizing an entertainment centre, and a professional hockey team to the tune of a few million annually, sure, bring on the Y.

However, to my way of thinking, if you’re deep in debt, and can’t afford a new car, (nor really need one), you also can’t afford one at half-price, especially when you won’t even actually own it.

As to the aforementioned pair of money pits, we’re going into year four of red ink on the AESC and the Heat.

I’d like to hear some truly creative thinking on how the city is going to fix those situations, rather than just hoping they solve themselves.

Meanwhile, city spending needs to reflect some sincere austerity in 2013. Such as an end to 10 per cent-plus salary increases for some city employees, which we saw last year. Most councillors rubber-stamped those lavish pay hikes – costing taxpayers nearly $500,000 – without raising an eyebrow.

In the past few weeks, we witnessed council almost throw another few hundred thousand out the window by voting to shelve a series of environmental strategy studies. And if it wasn’t for the fact that we need at least one of them to qualify for federal gas grants, the subsequent reversal of that decision may not have occurred.

Also in the last month, city hall contracted a private company to conduct a $22,000 marketing survey pertaining to public recreational facilities. Putting aside the timing of this and the YMCA proposal, is this information really necessary? And if it is, does city hall not have enough people on its payroll to phone 300 people over a few weeks, and ask some questions?

Collectively, it’s this sort of stuff that has created taxpayer angst and distrust over the past several years.

Banman and company have their work cut out for them in 2013.