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Role of audit and finance committee in budget process debated

The role of the Amherstburg audit and finance committee during the budget process was debated during the first budget deliberation session.

John Purdie presented twice to town council, once on behalf of the committee and its motions and a second delegation with more topics of discussion that took place during the Dec. 18 meeting. The debate that ensued ranged from the committee's involvement, what they did and didn't discuss due to time constraints, and the terms of reference.

Purdie said they discussed issue papers within the budget documents and not the proposed tax increase itself. In the past, Purdie said the audit and finance committee meet three to four time as opposed to once this budget cycle, adding there is “usually a more in-depth analysis.”Councillor Diane Pouget said she attended the Dec. 18 committee meeting and they had two hours to make their recommendations. She noted town council was given three days to have its discussions, adding the budget was tabled Dec. 4.

“I'm very, very disturbed by this,” she said. “I think it's very unfair.”Pouget added she values the work of the committee, as they have found items in the past that town council may not have been aware of. Councillor Peter Courtney added if the committee felt it had time to do the work it wanted, asking if there was a way to accommodate the committee going forward.

Purdie said the committee didn't believe it had the time to fulfill the requirements of town council. He indicated the committee didn't go into the depth and breadth they usually do, wanted prior year numbers, didn't had comparable numbers from other surrounding municipalities and wondered why the budget couldn't have been deliberated in February or March.

Other issues the committee had included analyzing risk factors such as underfunded capital projects, cost/benefit analysis of major projects and an over-reliance of the town on the residential tax base.

CAO Valerie Critchley said she has been involved in developing municipal budgets for 21 years and has never drafted a base budget based on what other municipalities do. It is difficult to find good comparative municipalities, though best practices can be obtained.

As for doing the budget early in the season, Critchley stated it is advantageous in order to get better pricing when putting out construction tenders.

Deputy Mayor Chris Gibb, an audit and finance committee member, said he found the meeting informative and much of the information they are requesting is already publicly available. He added the budget documents were presented “well ahead of time” for review.

Gibb later added he believes the focus of the committee should change, believing the town's financial status has improved since it was first founded. He added it wasn't the purview of the committee to talk tax rate, adding he didn't want council to give that responsibility to someone else.

If the committee wanted to meet again, why didn't they, was a question of Councillor Don McArthur. Clerk Kevin Fox said administration would have accommodated that request, but Pouget said the committee's terms of reference impacted the ability to make that happen.

McArthur also questioned the statement about the tax rate, stating programs and spending that was discussed relate to the tax rate.

Councillor Linden Crain didn't recall a request by the committee to change the terms of reference.

Purdie added the committee did discuss convening again, but timing was stringent and there was no mandate on what to work on.

Pouget made a motion to have the presentations from the committee and Purdie at the next regular council meeting so elected officials can discuss ways to enhance terms of reference and the budget process. It lost in a 5-2 vote with Pouget and Councillor Molly Allaire in favour, though McArthur indicated he would be open to discussing a report but not hearing the entire presentations again.

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