Nanaimo takes new approach to budget process

NANAIMO – A new budget process is anticipated to give council more information to help with decision-making.

A new approach to budgeting will allow Nanaimo city councillors higher scrutiny of services – a move that could foster better decision-making, says the city’s mayor.

Nanaimo city staff mapped out a new budget process last week, which they say will act like a core review.

For the first time, politicians will get the a chance to scrutinize department service levels and make decisions on priorities and spending early on in the budget process. Staff members will show council the ramifications of any changes in real time.

Ian Howat, the city’s acting manager of corporate services, said the new approach completely “flips the table” on the budget process, giving council more detailed information and tools to make meaningful decisions. They will have a role in completing the budget, instead of deciding on a budget that staff have nearly finished for them.

The old system – which had staff recommending a budget based on former decisions and capital plans – didn’t seem to work for city councillors, who were making decisions with rhetoric and opinion rather than in-depth information, said Mayor John Ruttan.

By seeing the outcome of its choices early on and getting a breakdown of service levels, council will make more well-informed decisions, he said.

The process is still in the early stages and will be piloted on the parks, recreation and culture department this year. As part of the process, council will also no longer be passing a provisional budget. Last year’s plan will be used until the 2014 financial plan is finalized in May.

“It’s pretty broad and … very innovative and staff are confident it will bring us to a higher level of understanding and I totally support that,” Ruttan said.

Coun. Bill McKay, who heard of the plan for the first time last week, said he’s encouraged by the new model.

He’s been calling for a core services review since the beginning of his term and is eager to take a look at how services are being provided.

The new approach is anticipated to give councillors information and statistics about service levels they didn’t receive before, including expenditures revenue and usage.

For example, city council members will examine attendance and subsidies for pools, and if they are underused, could look at reducing the hours they are open, McKay said.

City staff members warn the process is complicated and is still being piloted to see if it works. Council members will start the process in October.