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Budget Deliberations- Day 3

Council has finished budget deliberations (for now). Following is what happened on day three. We made decisions on windrows, the tax rate, the proposed Regional Performing Media Arts Centre, and railway crossings.

If you haven't already, I would encourage you to check out my summary from the first two days by clicking here. Especially worthwhile reading: a decision has been made on downtown, and a description about Priority Base Budgeting, a system I am incredibly excited to see us adopt next year.

These deliberations were the first time that Council made some decisions which were not my first choice. I've been thinking a lot about how to handle that.

In these update posts, I will occasionally express my disagreement with a decision. However, for the most part, I won't be sharing my own views. Instead, I will do my best to explain why I think those who voted for a motion supported it. This blog will serve readers better if it mostly sticks to giving rationale for Council decisions rather than giving my opinions. However, this time I will be sharing some of my votes because I feel that budgeting is one of our most important jobs

You can read my thoughts heading into Budget deliberations by clicking here and here.

With that being said, here were some decisions Council made:
 

Windrows

Currently, 8209 houses receive windrows as a result of snow removal. This does NOT include the 1311 houses which have a green pylon. We have all heard concerns about these piles of snow and ice and misery. Well, they are soon to be a thing of history (for this year at least).

Administration made a plan to remove windrows. It will involve a bobcat following the graders. It will remove two bobcat shovels worth of snow from each driveway. It might not create pretty piles. It also might not completely clear very wide driveways. But it will mean that everyone will be able to get in and out of their driveway without lifting a shovel.

Assuming we need to clear residential roads five times (we have only had to do it three times for the past two seasons), this will cost $300-350,000 per year.

Council voted to approve this bobcat pilot program starting December 1st. We will try it out this winter and then re-evaluate. The biggest risk administration identified: the bobcats will be going onto private property (ie: driveways). This will almost certainly generate some complaints. We need to keep our eyes on how many and how serious they are.

This pilot program will be funded out of the Winter Stabilization Reserve, which is near its maximum funding. Council was comfortable funding this out of a reserve because it is a pilot program. However, if continued, it will need to come out of general tax revenues in future years.


Tax Rate

In my last post, I discussed some scenario budgets that administration prepared: one that came with a 4.2% increase, one with a 3% increase, and one with a 0% increase. Council had a very long debate about which budget to approve.

Ultimately, Council approved a 2% rate increase as well as a $1,000,000 withdrawal from reserves. This will allow the City to deliver services that were presented under the 3% budget.

Council felt safe pulling from reserves for this year. We are coming out of a recession, and recessionary times are a big reason we have a Financial Stabilization Reserve in the first place. Additionally, administration is creating an asset management strategy to present with next year's budget. It is very confident that this strategy will find some reserves (especially Fleet) as over-funded. 

Funding from reserves this year does not put us in a precarious position. However, it also cannot be done every year. To maintain the services it will deliver this year, the City will need to find savings, find new sources of revenue, or raise taxes to make up for the reserve spending.

There were many motions made and defeated before we arrived at a final budget. The first motion was for a 0% increase. I did not support this motion because it did not allow us to fund administration's recommendation to increase our RCMP officers by four. I also wasn't comfortable with the service levels in the transportation department which a 0% budget entailed.

I followed up this motion with one for a 1.3% increase. This percentage matches the official Alberta inflation rate for 2017. I felt that it is reasonable to raise taxes with inflation, and this increase made room for expanded RCMP and transportation services.

Another motion was made to approve a 1.3% increase and draw $1.5 million from reserves. I voted against it as I did not want to see that much spent from our reserves. I also voted against the following motion to approve a 4.2% increase.

I then made a motion to approve a 1.3% increase and draw $750,000 from reserves. This wasn't a spending level I was excited to suggest, but I was looking for a compromise. This motion was defeated.

The following motion that got made was to approve a 2% increase and to draw $1 million from reserve. I did not like the spending this motion entailed. At the same time, I was worried that we might end up with an even higher spending target if debate continued. Going into this discussion, Council was pretty evenly split into two perspectives. This motion put the spending target right between our hoped-for outcomes. I compromised by supporting it.

I would've liked to see us approve a smaller increase and less money drawn from reserves. At the same time, we arrived at a spending number I can live with. However, this process made me very excited for Priority Based Budgeting. I am excited for us to have a great tool to find savings and return better value to taxpayers. The last few days made its need very clear to me. 


Regional Performing Media Arts Centre

Part of the Capital Budget was a $200,000 feasibility study for the proposed Regional Performing Media Arts Centre. This study is an essential step in moving forward with that project. It will be a huge part of attracting regional participation, private partners, and funding from senior levels of government.

Council voted to not fund the study this year. However, it also voted to have it put into the 2019 budget deliberations.

This is a contentious topic. So I want to be clear that the following is a personal opinion I hold. However, it seems to be shared by a number of other Councillors:

This project is likely to be a very serious want which is also supportable in the future (ie: ten plus years). However, our Council won't have time to start on the very expensive parts of this project. This means that it will likely be the next Council deciding whether to push it forward or not. They should have solid data available to them so that they can talk about this throughout their campaign and (if desired) start in on it at the beginning of their term. At the same time, they should have fresh data available to them, not data which is 2-3 years out of date. I think our current Council has a strong appetite to order this study in our term. But most of us did not feel that the timing was right.


Railway Crossings

The budget funded a railway safety crossing audit. If we want to upgrade crossings so whistles are no longer needed, this is a mandatory first step. It will return cost estimates for those crossing upgrades. At that time, Council will need to decide whether it wants to go forward with upgrades and, if so, how to fund them.

I personally would like to see the upgrades happen. At the same time, I would hate to see us spend $80,000 on a study if we did not have an appetite to spend capital undertaking its recommendations. I respectfully asked my colleagues to make a motion to remove funding to this study if any were opposed to the eventual upgrades. No one made the motion. None of us will have our minds made up until we get cost estimates. But this tells me that we are likely to approve upgrades this term.

Those were the major undertakings in budget deliberations. I had motions defeated and supported. We made decisions I am happy about and some I don't love but can live with. Overall, I was completely thrilled with the process.

Administration worked hard to give realistic scenarios we could discuss. The public gave rational and valuable feedback. And I enjoy my colleagues: debate has been respectful when heated, and even when I disagree with others I know all of them have put serious thought into their stances. I am excited for our team.

Thanks,

Dylan