When it comes to scrutinizing city spending, Ward Five councillor Chad Collins likes to drill down to the fine print, and Thursday’s 2021 capital budget session was no exception. Collins wanted to know why the various departments had so many projects for which funding had been provided but little or no money spent. The councillor sent a lengthy list of examples to council colleagues and staff and noted that he was only part-way through the massive budget book and promises the list of questions will be longer the next time council meets on the budget.
Wrote the councillor, “I have a number of questions noted below. Most of them are posed in the context of staff’s ability to start or substantially complete recommended projects through calendar year 2021. I note that many projects ‘on the books’ from prior years have been delayed, in many instances, by COVID-19. Conversely, some departments faired very well through the pandemic,” For instance, the massive overhaul at the Woodward Wastewater treatment centre is on schedule according to Hamilton Water staff.
Collins provided dozens of examples where funded projects had not progressed at the same time as the department in question was asking for money for new projects.
Collins wrote, referring to the city’s long term care facilities, “Between 2017 and 2020, there are 17 capital budget projects approved by Council for Macassa and Wentworth Lodge. Of the 17 projects, 9 of them have yet to start, with no funds drawn on projects up to June of this calendar year. Another 3 projects have less than 10% of the funds used. Almost 4 years of capital budget funds sit in account. Staff are proposing 7 new projects for 2021. Can you advise as to the likelihood of completing the proposed 2021 budget requests in light of the backlog of approved projects and the continued impact of Covid-19 into 2021 where contractors/construction might be limited in some areas as we try to protect our residents from the outside?
\Regarding information technology he asked, “Our IT department has a number of open accounts from prior years. Many of the projects listed presented for consideration in 2021 have open accounts with a substantial amount of resources in account. Two projects approved in 2020 and two projects approved in 2019 have yet to start (per June 2020 balance).
Economic Development did not escape the councillor’s attention. “I believe $2M was approved in 2017 (as is proposed this year). The 2017 account still has a balance of $1.1M, similar to balances in 2018 and 2019. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of activity on the account. Can you advise as to what the annual withdrawals look like from 2017 to 2020? I question why we’d top up a fund that doesn’t seem to have a lot of activity.
Similarly, for Tourism and Culture; “Tourism & Culture are one of the smallest divisions in the budget book, yet they have one of the longest list of unfinished projects in the update we received last month with 44 Work In Progress (uncompleted projects) accounts. If memory serves me right, Culture Division receives about $2M in block funding a year. They currently have over $8m in WIP accounts with the below projects either not started or in the early stages. Most of the updates from July state that many of these projects have been delayed as a result of Covid-19, with many to restart late 2020 or first part of 2021. Of the $1.8m council provided in 2020 only 1 project of 11 is over 50% complete, the next one is at 35%. We’re being asked to approve another 15 projects to their already long list of previously approved works. What are the chances they’ll even start some of these projects, let along complete any of them? We continue to budget levy dollars that sit in account because the department doesn’t have the capacity to complete the projects for which they’ve received funding.
Council voted to defer further consideration of the budget items to an additional meeting later in December. As Mayor Eisenberger put it, “with COVID, we are not going anywhere this Christmas so we might as well have another meeting.”
Collins’ questions will have staff scrambling between now and the next meeting to make sure they don’t fall victim to “use it or lose it,” on some of these projects, and COVID is probably not going to be an acceptable excuse. The city has kept its full time staff complement of 8300 on the payroll during the pandemic, and a staff report this summer indicated that less than four dozen had no work to do.