CORNWALL, Ontario – At their meeting on Monday, Jan. 25, Cornwall City Council rejected a motion from councillors Eric Bergeron and Dean Hollingsworth to change the way that the various city departments present their operating budgets.
The motion asked that department heads present their operating budgets in detail as they would their capital budgets, along with pointing out any changes from the previous year.
Council was deeply divided by the motion.
“We’ve received our budget book. It has been a couple of weeks now,” said Councillor Carilyne Hébert.
Hébert said that it was unfair to administration to have them “sing for their supper” in a budget meeting.
“To go through operational budgets line-by-line is such a slap of the face. I think we should be doing our homework right now. We will still have a three day budget deliberation regardless of this and I will do my homework,” Hébert said.
Councillor Elaine MacDonald pointed out that any information that a councillor could want about the budget was already readily available.
“I have never heard any member of administration say I won’t tell you or I won’t answer that. Even the most trivial information. No one has ever been denied information around this table,” she said.
MacDonald went on to state that she felt this was “late in the day” to be asking administration to change their presentation system for this year’s budget, with those presentations being roughly a week away.
“I think this is an attempt at micromanaging to an level I’ve never seen before around this council table,” MacDonald added.
Councillor Dean Hollingsworth who seconded the motion said that going over the city budget was the main job of a councillor and therefore, should be done meticulously.
“Budgeting is 60 per cent of our job,” he said. “Line-by-line will be meticulous, but that’s part of the job. I don’t understand this notion that you should sit there quietly and let them go on their way or that you should have all your questions ready based on what you’ve read.”
Eric Bergeron, who was the main mover of the motion, said that budget meetings were the time to have this information presented to council and when council should be asking the questions.
“Quarterly reports are not where we should question whether we would fund something going forward. That is what budget is for,” he said. “The reason why this notice was made was to give our department heads enough time to make it to our meeting.”
“I’m trying to get department heads to say “hey, here is the difference from last year,”” Bergeron added. “I’d really like us as a council to look at the operating budget the same way we do capital. It’s very confusing for me that we would look at capital in detail, and not operating in detail.”
Councillor Glen Grant countered that this was a matter of preparedness, which is a councillor’s responsibility.
“I take the budget book, compare it to 2019, then to 2020, then to 2021 then base my questions on that,” he said. “I do my homework before budgets. We get these reports throughout the year. There isn’t much change.”
Mayor Bernadette Clement explained that while she agreed the budget was an important responsibility of council, she felt that the work being asked of in the motion was already being done.
“I agree with the comments made about budget process being pretty much the single most important thing that we do. A city our size has significant challenges around that. We are a full service city, but we are not a big city. We don’t have a lot of people to pay for all of these crucial services that we need. So there is a lot of focus on growth,” she said. “I’m not concerned about long meetings. I never have been.”
“The issue that I have with this motion, is that I think that all of this work is already being done. I think these opportunities are always present,” Clement added that if councillors had concerns or changes they wanted to make to the operating budget of any department, they could bring that motion forward during a meeting.
The motion failed 6-5 with Mayor Bernadette Clement and councillors Carilyne Hébert, Elaine MacDonald, Glen Grant, Claude McIntosh, and Syd Gardiner voting against and councillors Eric Bergeron, Dean Hollingsworth, Justin Towndale, Maurice Dupelle and Todd Bennett voting in favour.