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Retired CAO gives budget advice to Courtenay council

Keep it simple.

Keep it simple.

That was the message of a retired accountant and former Abbotsford CAO to Courtenay council last week.

Gary Guthrie had five suggestions to council to improve preparing the annual budget, and sharing the results in a more understandable way with taxpayers.

And he even waded in a bit on the controversial hiring of 12 new city hall employees.

Guthrie suggested, for starters, changing the budget timing cycle. He noted that this year council was deliberating the budget in late April, and the province requires it be done by May 15.Instead, he said, present financial plans in the fall and approve them before Dec. 31, which leaves lots of time in the new year to deliberate on a budget.

He also suggested improving access to budget information.

On the city’s website, he said, budget documents were available, but not linked to supporting reports, while staff reports were linked to council minutes.

And “simplify”, he said. Most municipal budgets are difficult to understand, he said, even by trained accountants.

“Budget presentations to council and taxpayers must be easily understood. Focus on the changes, not what’s staying the same. Make it easy for taxpayers to understand,” he said.

And then he asked if taxpayers truly understood why 12 new staff members are required.

“The answer is no.”

Guthrie questioned whether the city had really fallen behind in its staff numbers, and suggested council should direct staff to justify the requirement of each individual position.

Guthrie also said the city might be making “a terrible commitment” in using surplus funds to pay the new salaries.

“Council needs to clarify the reasoning for using surplus funds for wages. If the city is running balanced budgets, why are there such large surpluses,” he asked. “Funding long-term liabilities or obligations with one-time money is very risky.

“Clarity and financial transparency foster a higher level of public trust and better decision making,” Guthrie said.

Counc. Doug Hillian said many of the issues raised by Guthrie did in fact come up at council meetings and were discussed.

“I appreciate your point that we could do a better job of making sense of this for the average citizen,” he said.

Counc. Manno Theos said he thought Guthrie’s presentation was “brilliant”, while Counc. Erik Eriksson said the report was “critical, but constructive. You’ve given us some thoughts to ponder.”