When my three year old daughter grows up, I want to leave her a Barrie that is stronger than today. That means a city with a stronger economy, and with governments able to afford the services she will depend on. And that future depends on good decisions today.
From Greece, to the USA, to here in Ontario, clear messages have been sent to governments who are living beyond their means: improve your finances, and have the guts to make tough decisions, or you face economic disaster.
In Barrie, Council heard this message – but we had heard it already, several years ago. Improving the city’s financial condition has been a key aspect of City budgets for the past four years. The city’s financial condition will need many more years of prudent decision making to push it onto a better course, but the good news is that through better long-term planning, careful cost control, and most of all, doing business differently, our financial health can be restored.
As one example, Barrie has in recent years incurred significant debt to fund major projects. Few cities avoid issuing at least some debt – Mississauga, one of the longest holdouts against debt, recently issued the first debt in its history. However, although a prudent amount of debt is reasonable and often necessary, limiting the amount of additional debt that will be required in coming years is now a critical step for Barrie.
Through the course of last year, two major steps were taken. First, by changing the timing and funding plan for the police facility, Council removed the need for about $20M in debt. Second, the 2011 and the 2012 budgets together reduced forecast debt by about $7M in total.
Controlling operating costs is crucial. In April, I asked Council to approve conducting service reviews of 6 city departments. These reviews were conducted in 2011 and have identified half a million dollars in savings in 2012, and up to $2M of annual, ongoing savings in 2013.
This year, Council had to make the very tough decision to close two under-used city facilities. These closures are painful and are a loss of services to those who use them, however few in number. I don’t like that they are closing and I hope we are able to use the next six months to find partners to continue to offer some of their services on site. But in times of restraint, tough decisions must be made.
Yet against these savings, we have also been told clearly by our residents that some services need improving, such as road maintenance and public transit. While cuts have been made to underused facilities and services, there are also new services being provided as the city grows — including additional road resurfacing work, and the foundation for improvements to Barrie Transit. No tax increase is acceptable without being able to clearly show what residents are getting for their money, but the tax increase this year has been targeted at the priorities residents told us are key.
Standard and Poors (S&P), the company now famous for downgrading America, also reviewed Barrie’s credit rating a few months ago, and reaffirmed our credit rating on the strength of our long-term financial plan. Sticking to this plan – by making sometimes tough, potentially unpopular budget decisions – should be the standard by which Barrie residents hold Council accountable.