The sky is falling; it's that time of year.



This talk of cutting at city hall has a familiar ring to it, even if it is happening a little earlier in the year.

After more than a decade covering Brockville budgets, one gets a feel for those natural political cycles that happen much like the change in seasons.

And this is the part of budget season when the sky starts falling.

I do not wish to downplay the seriousness of the budget challenges facing city council.

The city's infrastructure needs fixing, maintaining and adding to; policing costs are going up; the firefighters are in mediation even as I write this words; and tax writeoffs could cost the city as much as $600,000 more in 2014 – the “juggernaut” in next year's budget, in the words of city manager Bob Casselman.

Casselman and his fellow administrators crunched the numbers and concluded a levy increase of 5.18 per cent is needed to address these problems and maintain existing service levels.

No way, city councillors replied, instead passing a motion to set the levy hike ceiling at four per cent.

This is where the sky starts falling.

“We may have to reduce the level of service, somewhere, somehow,” Casselman warned council Tuesday.

To be fair, the city's top administrator did not make this statement as a sky-is-falling type of warning.

It was more like an administrative warning. Casselman wanted it clearly stated, on the record, that if city council expects its staff to meet the four per cent target, staff cannot be bound by obligations to maintain current service levels.

Still, it had the effect usually created by the annual sky-is-falling talk from the politicians.

Budget processes tend to start, naturally, with talk of service reductions and even staffing cuts, then wind their way down to something less than apocalyptic.

It's the kind of anticlimax that makes everyone look good.

Of course, there have been some staff reductions, most notably as a result of the service delivery review outlined in October 2012. At that point, three city staff members lost their jobs and the eventual restructuring of the fire department was announced.

And the current OPP costing process might be a sign city politicians have become more willing to make – or at least contemplate – unpopular decisions.

But the reductions and restructurings we've seen so far are of a lower order of magnitude than what is implied in the sky-is-falling talk.

Consider, for instance, Councillor Jeff Earle – who actually wants the sky to drop because he feels we can't keep it as high as it is – and his take on the matter.

“You're either going to cut service levels or you're going to cut staff, which happens to be the biggest cost,” he said.

“We're going to make some unpopular decisions – assuming we get the nerve up and make the decisions we have to,” added Earle.

Whether those decisions actually take place, or whether this budget season follows the cycles and leads to lesser measures – and higher taxes – remains to be seen.

Councillor Leigh Bursey said Wednesday he is not convinced of the need for service cuts.

And council's newest member, Tom Blanchard, exhibited what I would call a healthy skepticism toward this sky-is-falling stuff.

“Everybody's posturing,” said Blanchard.