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Vancouver budget comes with more than just numbers

Anyone who wants to see both main collections of Vancouver's historic photographs has to spend time trekking across town at the moment.

Some are at the Vancouver Public Library 's central branch, in the heart of downtown. Another large batch are at the Vancouver Archives, a small concrete bunker in Vanier Park by the Burrard Bridge.

But that could change soon, thanks to the ongoing push from Vancouver city manager Penny Ballem and her finance department to streamline the number of buildings the city is running and, ultimately, reduce costs.

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The city is reviewing the overlap between the two collections and looking at whether some or all of the archives, possibly the photographs, could be moved to the central branch. That would become part of the expansion of the Moshe Safdie-designed central library – 20 years after the library was opened in 1995 – into the top two floors of the building and the roof garden above.

That move is just a small part of the city's just-released 177-page budget document, which doesn't just provide a wealth of numbers but also a portrait of the city and a road map of its future direction. That makes it a very different budget from previous years, which have sometimes been bare-bones PowerPoints whose focus has typically been how to overcome, say, a $52-million gap between revenues and expenses.

This time, with healthy increased revenues from construction fees and parks, the budget document has a no-drama estimate that taxes will go up a modest 2 per cent to cover the projected $1.148-billion in expenses. And it's filled with information, not just about dollars but also performance measures and plans – like the possible library/archives combination – that were absent before.

"It's not about the money, it's about what we are getting for the money. It tells a story to our citizens," said Councillor Raymond Louie, chairman of the city's finance committee. The report makes a point of itemizing the number of full-time city employees – a tight 6,619, or 80 less than three years previously – and the ways in which it is saving money, like the efforts to combine spread-out services.

"You can see we've kept the numbers under control," Mr. Louie said. "And when we took office last term, we said we have too many facilities." Now the city is acting on that.

The Vision Vancouver council had been criticized the last few years by the opposition Non-Partisan Association and residents for providing so little information about the way it was spending. But now the report is filled with a treasure trove of numbers about the highs and lows of the city. It still doesn't have a breakdown of how the money allocated for the mysterious city manager's office budget is spent – something that will be included in future reports, Mr. Louie says.

But there are many other numbers. For example: Reference librarians answered 1,415,002 questions. City garbage crews picked up 6,500 abandoned mattresses in 2011, compared to 1,500 in 2010. The number of metered parking spaces in the city is going up (from 8,500 in 2008 to about 10,100 now) but the number of parking tickets is decreasing slightly, likely because of pay-by-phone options.

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As well, the city has a lot of plans. It is going to provide neighbourhoods with a first-ever pool of $1-million, for projects that local communities decide they want – a first-ever effort at what's called "participatory budgeting." It is going to put new, solar-powered trash bins throughout the downtown, which will only be picked up when a wireless signal tells city crews they are full. It is adding yet more parking meters in 2013, this time possibly at the Olympic village.

And, as part of its greenest city plan, it is going to plant fewer annuals and more perennial plants in an effort to run the city on "more sustainable energy."

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