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Busted Budget?

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Tuesday, regional council adopted a $580 million operating budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year.

The police budget was bumped up by $1.5 million ($2.6 million next year) in order to expand the force by 32 officers. Crime stats are notoriously spun, politicized, racialized and, when it comes down to it, utterly meaningless---a talented bureaucrat or politician can make them say whatever he or she wants. But that reality didn'tmatter anyway: no paperwork, no business case, nothing, was presented to councillors to justify the expansion of the force beyond "we're getting back to pre-amalgamation levels of policing." The argument, evidently, is that modern-day Bedford needs as many cops per capita as 1990s-era Halifax. But, as councillor Sue Uteck pointed out, "It's politically incorrect to question the need for more police." So, more cops we get.

Council also adopted what a few years ago would have been a reasonably aggressive five-year plan for expanding transit services. Of course, the earth has shifted recently---the era of cheap oil is over, done, kaput, which is a milestone in human civilization as momentous as the invention of the nuclear bomb---and transit services are now a fundamental need for all communities. The responsibility to fund transit isn't entirely council's---the provincial budget includes exactly zero dollars for Halifax transit---but it's clear that our local pols have no clue as to the true scale of the crisis we're facing.

Case in point: The budget assumes that the price of oil for the next year will stay steady at $100 a barrel. This actual price, of course, is now kissing $120 a barrel and economists are predicting ever-skyrocketing prices, forever. Still, budget director Dale McLennan defended the $100 price, telling council she had confidence in her models. Fuel is a major part of the budget, affecting everything from buses to snow plows to heating oil for city buildings, and there are fuel adjustment clauses written into garbage and other service contracts. The $100 figure is therefore a budget buster---expect emergency council meetings later this year to deal with burgeoning fuel costs.

This fails the "Buddy on the next bar stool over" test. If Buddy could do a better job after his eighth drink than six-figure bureaucrats do in all sobriety, then the bureaucrats ought to lose their jobs.

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