Sudbury

Request to move to zero-based budget process turned down by Sudbury city council

A Sudbury city councillor has lost his bid to have the city go back to the drawing board with its budget planning. Michael Vagnini wanted the city to adopt a zero-based budget process, which means the financial plan starts from scratch, and expenses match revenues.

Council opposes Michael Vagnini's motion to alter how yearly budget is created

Council for the City of Greater Sudbury will deliberate on Dec. 3, 4 and 5 to determine its 2020 budget. A 3.5 per cent tax increase is proposed. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

Sudbury city council spent some time this week considering a switch to a zero-based budgeting process.

A zero-based budget would see them start from scratch and then create a budget matching expenses with revenue.

Councillor Michael Vagnini put forward the motion, saying zero-based, or bottom up, budgeting provides a more in-depth review of spending decisions.

"The zero-based budget allows us to look at things through more of a — if you want to call it a magnifying glass, or the opportunity to analyze things a little bit differently," he said.

Vagnini also asked city council to defer budget deliberations until January.

"I want to make it very clear that this is not a slight toward staff, this is not a slight about the budget," he told council when the motion was introduced.

Sudbury's Chief Administrative officer Ed Archer explained to council how the current budget process works, with work starting in May when staff examines service demands, workloads, contracts and other anticipated changes.

A report is then prepared for city councillors which estimates costs. They're also provided a recommended levy.

Archer went on to say councillors are provided with a budget binder four weeks before deliberations to review specific numbers. If they have any questions at that time, they can direct them to staff.

City council then spends three days deliberating to reach a final budget for the upcoming year.

"Once council ratifies the budget, then it's back to [city staff] to execute the plan," Archer said.

"We do that throughout the year and give you progress updates."

Ward 7 city councillor Mike Jakubo is chair of Greater Sudbury's finance and administration committee. (Yvon Theriault/Radio-Canada)

Councillor Mike Jakubo, chair of the finance committee, says councillors and city staff work hard over an eight month timeframe to consider all spending decisions before reaching a final financial plan.

"I'm very supportive of the way that this council has already changed the budget process. I think we're really on the right track to making strategic decisions for the future and that's what I sit in this chair to do," Jakubo said.

He added that regardless of how a budget is prepared, city council still has to work through all the numbers to come up with a plan.

"You would still go through the subsequent year and have the ebbs and flows of the year."

"Those same opportunities in terms of changes in programming and funding that present themselves as the year goes on, and the opportunity to change the budget in year, both by adding expenditures and equal revenues such that the net levy to the taxpayer would not change," Jakubo said.

Short term benefits to detriment of long term goals

Jakubo did take the opportunity to explain the disadvantages that go with zero-based over service-based budgets.

"It emphasizes short-term benefits to the detriment of long term goals."

One of the other disadvantages Jakubo mentioned is that the process may become too rigid, in that council may not be able to react to unforeseen opportunities or threats.

"We're the board of governors of this organization we have to have the foresight and the ability to change quickly in the sight of these possible changes that are coming down the road," he said.

Councillor Fern Cormier said he couldn't support the motion because it would halt the current budget process and put a heavy demand on city staff to prepare a zero-based budget by mid-January.

However, he said he would be willing to reconsider this type of process on a department by department basis, in the near future.

"If at some point in the future there's an attempt to be more constructive with a direction such as this, perhaps a little limited in scope but certainly with enough lead time for staff to be able to appropriately respond."

Vagnini's motion for a zero-based budget process was voted down by most of Sudbury city council.

City council will deliberate the 2020 budget on Dec. 3, 4, and 5. A 3.5 per cent tax increase is proposed.

About the Author

Angela Gemmill

Journalist

Angela Gemmill is a CBC journalist who has covered news in Sudbury, Ont., for 14 years. Connect with her on Twitter @AngelaGemmill. Send story ideas to angela.gemmill@cbc.ca

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