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Your Words Matter! Do not adopt the 2022 draft budget blindly!

Richmond Hill resident and CPA Mary Sun sent the email below to Council on December 2nd with her concerns about the 2022 Budget which is coming forward for approval at the December 8th Council meeting.

Dear Councillors and City Clerk,

I’m a resident in Richmond Hill. Thanks to the mayoral by-election, I started to pay attention to RH Liberal and learnt about the council's intention to adopt the 2022 draft operating budgets from the Nov. 5th issue. For the first time in the past 18 years that I flipped through the city’s 2022 draft operating budgets…or any RH budget for that matter, I was overwhelmed by the 150+ pages PDF files that include an overview and 7 divisional/department (however it’s called) budgets with huge amount of information which the city employees must have worked for months putting together (City of Richmond Hill Budget website), have all councilors spent the time discussing these documents and are confident that adopting the budgets is the intention of RH residents? Not mine, at least not without my questions answered!

How many RH residents do you think would have the expertise, background information, knowledge, resources or even the time to study the draft budgets? Not many, perhaps rarely any, let alone many of the residents have language barrier to begin with! That’s why we have the councilors representing the residents, have you forgotten it? Has any councilor tried making the residents aware of the draft budgets, explain the details, have some Q&A sessions? Not in my ward, neither this year nor in the past 18 years. Don’t you personally have any questions about the budgets at all?

The public seems to be welcome to speak at council meetings about the budget or anything for the sake of democracy, sounds good? Not to me! I watched a recent council meeting on YouTube and got enough flavor of the “democracy”: the atmosphere was intimidating; the councilors were unfriendly among themselves and toward 2 residents who spoke. One of the residents was presenting indigenous issue in RH, he was pretty much fast reading what he wrote beforehand knowing that he was given only 5 minutes, he was reminded a couple of times that his time was up during his 5 minutes reading, not speaking! The councilors didn’t appear to have any interest and patience in the issues presented whatsoever…those are 2 English speaking residents, would any public resident whose first language is not English even want to try to speak at the council meeting about the complex operating budgets?! I wouldn’t, in fear of embarrassment, that doesn’t mean that I’d agree for the council to adopt the 2022 draft budgets without any questions.

Being a CPA myself I had hard time comprehending the numbers and charts in the draft budgets, naturally I pay attention to the city employees income adjustment because it’s more relatable than anything else. Wherever there is increase, the budget notes “mainly due to grade/step level, benefit rates and general cost of living increases for staff”, who is the city kidding?! Has any of the signing officials asked: am I part of the reason why the cost of living is high? In 2020, 370 city employees of 176 job positions got on the Sunshine list for a total salaries close to $48m, those figures are unproportionately high compared to similar cities in and outside of York Region.

Employees in the City of Richmond Hill who made the 2021 Sunshine List

Has any councilor questioned why RH needs 2 city managers and why they both made over $300k in 2020 while most similar cities only have 1 city manager or chief administrative officer who makes less than $300k? If cost of living increase is the reason why RH city employees get pay raise, which appears to be guaranteed year after year while most of the residents suffer economic downturn, has any councilor moved to cut property tax due to residents’ affordability reduction for the same reason? 0% property tax increase won't fool me, again!

Devils are in the details. Some details that I’m interested in are not disclosed in 2022 draft budgets, such as, compared to 2021 budget by service category:

  1. “Administration and all other services” increases by 1%, why? Is it for the salary increase for city employees? What’s the salary increase percentage for EACH of the 7 budget categories?

  2. “Fire and Emergency” remains at 15% of total budget, second largest department next to Administration. Do you know that half of the city employees made to 2020 sunshine list are fire fighters? I’m sure they risk their own safety to save others, but in the past 18 years that I lived in RH, I don’t recall any devastating fire incident that would warrant unreasonably high pay to fire fighters. Rather, I see them park their trucks at grocery store parking lot almost every weekend in the summer while they are inside shopping. It might all be misperception, then why don’t the councilors make some effort to correct the residents’ misunderstanding?

  3. “Building and Planning” decreases by 1%, why? Should the residents be worried?

  4. “Road Maintenance” remains at 6% of total budget, does that mean road construction will continue to be as slow as forever? The most recent example is Major Mac between Yonge and Bathurst, it’s still not done after 3 months! Did any councilor care to know why the city didn’t get it done during summer (don’t blame everything on Covid!)? Will you push the city to get it done before the traffic changes from being bad to worse?

  5. “Environmental service” is eliminated vs. 2% of total 2021 budget, why? Councilor Muench, environment is near and dear to your heart based on your Fall 2021 Update, did you look into this and make sure environmental service won’t be swiped under other services? how could the residents trust that there will even be money for environmental service?

Speaking of Trust, it’s shocking to read an article on RH Liberal Nov. 18 issue about councilors’ accountability, not only we have a city government that shamelessly give themselves pay raise year after year, but also a council where some of the members’ behaviors are questionable! Blaming your political rival for putting dirt on you doesn’t even explain it. If you feel that you are being underpaid for what you do, you know that you have an option called “step down”! You are not taking the residents seriously by giving out free blue bins regardless of the source of the funding. You are all long-term councilors, 4 of you are running for mayor in the by-election, you should know that leadership, past achievement, commitment are all expected instead of something showcasing yourselves for your campaign. RH residents are crying for change, democracy rating is historically low, it all happened while you are in the councilor seats, don’t you think that you owe the voters an answer for why RH got in this situation for them to believe that you could do better job as a mayor than a councilor? Having blindly adopted the city budgets in the past might be one of the reasons, I’d accept it if you admit it.

No doubt that it costs money to run a city---and let’s not forget that RH is not a big city at all, 67% of operating expenditure budget on personnel is way too much, that doesn’t even include contract and services which is another 13% of total budget. Has any councilor asked if this is a good budget from a taxpayer's perspective given 64% source of the operating revenue budget comes from taxation? It’s understandable that the city has its own mandate to boost the economy, and must create revenue generating opportunities, such as approval building and development plans which the residents often oppose, therefore the council is caught in between. Councilors should never forget that you are obligated to represent the residents, unfortunately you are more than often perceived as representing the city. If the 2022 draft budgets are adopted without thorough polling or consulting the residents, councilors would just prove the residents right that the council collaborates with the city leaving the residents never standing a chance!

I challenge all councilors, especially those who run for mayor, the following:

  • Post my email to your campaign website and social media.

  • Answer as many of my questions as you can, directly to me or publicly on social media, public media, in-person events, what have you. You will earn my vote if you answer all my questions, regardless if I will like your answers or not.

  • Collect and answer at least 3 questions which the residents in your ward concern the most about the budgets and publish them on your campaign website (if you run for mayor), personal site or social media. Show the residents that you genuinely care and listen.

  • The issue of overspending is not RH unique; it exists in government on all levels globally. We’ve seen officials benchmarking and giving themselves pay raises, quietly or publicly while they all label themselves as having leadership, achievement, accountability, commitment, etc.. Be the first to say that “I can do better with less, starting with looking deeply into Richmond Hill 2022 Draft Budgets”.

Councilors, don’t you feel grateful that RH residents are good at paying taxes and following the law and orders? That requires more of your dedication to serve as our channel to oversee the city government, because none of the residents can do that, only you can. Do not adopt the 2022 draft budget blindly!

Mary Sun---a concerned resident in Richmond Hill.

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