In many ways, the budget felt like our biggest responsibility when I first got elected, and really understanding it was probably my greatest challenge. I had been on boards and committees of management before council and that was very helpful even though the scale of finances was different. Council budgets often get presented with $000 left off so at first glance it all looked pretty similar!
Council spending is spread across many different areas and in some cases, we don’t have much discretion. Basics services have to be delivered and a really high proportion of Darebin council’s expenditure goes on direct staff costs. As a council, we are largely in favour of an in-house workforce model so it’s not easy to find savings to fund all the things everyone said they would do in their election campaigns.
I was part of a new council team where 5 of the councillors (of 9) had been elected for the first time. This was good in many respects because it meant we were all learning together. When we initially saw that the operating budget surplus figure was over ten million, some councillors thought, “fantastic”, money to spend on other stuff. We had to all get our heads around the fact that we also need significant reserves for capital expenditure items.
The staff at Darebin has been fantastic at taking the time to go through the budget and answer questions, and also listen to what we are hoping to achieve.
We have big plans to be a more environmentally sustainable city and to address inequity but big plans take money.
I got a bit tired of hearing the staff say, “the pie is the pie, is the pie” but there is only so much money and we have to think how to prioritise.
Things that helped me get my head around the budget included:
1. Taking the time to really go through the expenditure items – we got these presented in various formats, including summary sheets, line by line, and by programs, and this was useful.
2. Asking lots of questions and re-asking when I didn’t always understand the answers. It’s easy to nod and pretend to understand but I didn’t want to still be nodding politely in 3 years time. I had to ask about the impact of rate capping several times to be sure I understood the effect of new rateable properties being built in the municipality.
3. Joining the audit and risk committee. This meant that I got to participate in some additional budget discussions which just reinforced my knowledge.
Taking the time to understand the budget and budgeting processes is worthwhile because it empowers you with the knowledge you need to be a more effective advocate for the things that matter to your community. It can help you overcome obstacles such as peers or staff who say, “no we couldn’t afford that”, and ultimately, financial responsibility is such a significant part of my role as a councillor. When we set budgets, we are spending ratepayers money. We want to do it well.