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Day 2 of Budget Deliberations

Today, Council had its second day of budget deliberations.

At the end of yesterday, management was tasked with finding additional savings in the proposed budget. They worked late into the evening to do that. I was thankful for their work- it set us up well to have great discussion today.

I’m happy to report that my goals going into the budget are currently all accomplished (although Council may still make changes). We plan to invest more into targeting crime (see yesterday’s post). We plan to invest $1,784,000 more in road rehabilitation and overlay in 2019 than we invested in 2018 (slightly less than my goal but still a significant increase). There is money set aside to do engineering studies and selective demolition on the Leisure Centre site. And while more may be added in, the budget currently reflects a slight decrease before any loans are refinanced and before increased revenue from electric franchise fees and a fees and charges review is counted.

Following is what was decided. A few notes:

Any mistakes or opinions expressed here belong to me and me alone. Of especial note: I did my best to take personal notes, but have not had an opportunity to verify them against the meeting minutes.

In 2018, $1,170,000 in spending is roughly equivalent to a 1% property tax increase or decrease.

No decisions are final yet. The budget created for this process will need to be ratified at a normal Council meeting. Additionally, we do not pass a tax bylaw until the spring- the target tax change is subject to change until then.


Operational Cuts

Council made a number of cuts from the budget as it was originally proposed. They included:

  • Staff travel budgets to attend out of town conferences and meetings. $150,000 was taken out- a 18.7% cut to bring the total to $801,700. I supported this. I don’t think we were getting maximum value from this budget line.

  • Council members’ discretionary budgets. These are used to attend events, out of town meetings, conferences, and professional development opportunities. This was a 10% reduction. Every member will now have $9000. I supported this- we can still do our jobs effectively with this budget.

  • Vacancy Optimization Review. There are a number of out-of-scope staff positions which are already vacant. Due to the demographics of our workforce, we also expect some natural attrition to happen with other out-of-scope positions. Management believes that it can effectively deliver services without re-filling $652,905 worth of these positions. I voted in favour of this. I’m confident that the loss of the positions targeted will not have a noticeable effect on our community. At the same time, it should be acknowledged there is some financial risk to this: these positions are not needed now, but could become necessary again as our community changes and needs increase. If this happens, management may need to ask Council for additional funding mid-year.

The following cuts were brought up but rejected by Council:

  • Driveway Windrow Removal Program. Eliminating this would’ve realized a $350,000 savings, taking 6% out of the snow removal budget to bring it to $5,525,000. I voted against this suggested cut. It is a service that residents have come to expect and that I think is well worth the investment.

  • Large Scale Tourism Event Funding. It was proposed to remove $100,000 from this fund, bringing the total to $100,000. I voted against this suggested cut. We are submitting a bid for the Arctic Winter Games. Although I voted against submitting the bid, I recognize that if it is successful, we need to have funding available for it.

  • Corporate Sponsorship Funding. It was proposed to completely defund this $25,000 budget which goes towards sponsoring events in our community. I voted against this cut. It is a small budget item and I think it is important for us to have a corporate presence at some events.

  • Service Review. Management is working hard to find savings by spending money more efficiently and targeting it better (click here for more info). They found savings in 2018. In their proposed budget, they promised an additional $750,000 in savings in 2019. They said they could possibly find $1,200,000 in even more savings in 2019. However, this would’ve led to quick cuts instead of well thought out ones- it could’ve hampered organisational efficiency and effectiveness in the long term. Additionally, there was a a risk that these savings could not have been realized which would’ve led to a deficit. I opposed this recommendation to direct these drastic cuts. Our budget is heading in the right direction because we have worked hard to get tools like Lean and Priority Based Budgeting in place. I believe we’ll find better efficiency long-term by taking the time to use these tools in a measured and considered fashion.


Budget

Council also made cuts from the capital budget. These include:

  • Eastlink Centre Fitness Equipment. $200,000 was proposed to replace ~40% of the Eastlink Centre’s Fitness Equipment. This was reduced by 50% to $100,000. I supported this. While I think it is important to replace equipment as it reaches end of life, management was confident that some replacements could be delayed without significant impact.

  • Marketing Department Furniture. $40,000 was proposed to buy new furniture for the marketing department. This was completely defunded with my support. Management was confident they could find surplus office furniture elsewhere. Additionally, this department will be housed in City on 99, where well furnished rooms are available to meet clients.

  • Playground Replacement Program. $450,000 was budgeted to replace playgrounds in 2019. This was completely defunded. While I felt this budget could’ve been scaled back, I opposed the complete removal of funding- I was hoping to see this reduced to $225,000.

  • Bear Creek Ball Diamond 4 Repair. $200,000 was budgeted to replace a ball diamond in South Bear Creek Park. The main expense: adding additional dirt- there isn’t a thick enough layer to safely play over a decommissioned landfill. This was completely de-funded, which I opposed.

  • Digital Video Wall at Revolution Place. $30,000 was proposed to put in a digitial wall to thank the sponsors of plaza bricks which have been removed. This was reduced to $5000 to fund a cheaper recognition offer. I supported this. Recognizing sponsors is important, but should be done cost effectively.

  • Road Rehabilitation and Overlay. In 2018 this program received $8,000,000. The 2019 budget originally allocated $11,000,000. An motion was made to reduce this 2019 amount by $716,000. An amendment was successfully made to turn the proposed reduction into $1,216,000. I opposed that amendment but supported the motion as amended. I wish we had invested a little bit more here, but am still very happy to see a 20% increase over 2018 levels.

The following cuts were considered but not made:

  • Storm System Replacement Program. It was proposed to remove $500,000 from this $1,500,000 program. I opposed cutting this- “saving” money by defunding basic infrastructure maintenance is likely to cost us more in the long run.

  • Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) Upgrades. $166,500 is in the budget to upgrade the EOC, where large scale emergency responses are coordinated. These upgrades would allow for better GIS service in the EOC, and would allow for better realtime updates and video feeds to be projected for all workers to see. I opposed cutting this- the EOC needs to be effective and has not had significant upgrades in over a decade.



Strategic Initiatives

Within its proposed budget, management set aside $3,000,000 for Council to allocate to strategic initiatives. Today Council decided on how to allocate some of these funds. Decisions made:

  • Leisure Centre Demolition Funding. I firmly believe that we need to decide what to do with the Leisure Centre this term. This might entail a full demolition which would cost ~$500,000. It could entail a partial demolition which leaves the fieldhouse portion but costs ~$842,000. Or it could entail repairing and repurposing the building. We should decide what to do by early 2020 since the Composite High School will be demolished then and we may save money by doing our work at the same time. Whatever happens, it is important that we have resources set aside for “next steps.” I made a motion which was successfully passed to put $842,000 towards selective demolition. This does not actually commit us to demolition work. However, it ensures we have funds available for demolition if that is the course we take, or funds available to re-task to repairs if we decide to not demolish the building. Even though I am flexible on what they should be, I strongly believe we need to have resources set aside to take some next steps.

  • Affordable Housing Strategy. $500,000 was set aside to have available for affordable housing projects. I supported this. I don’t think that municipal government should be the primary funder of these projects. However, there are things we can do (such as setting up a Housing Development Corporation) to attract federal, provincial, and private investment into our community. As we decide how to best attain this investment, it is important we have resources available.

  • Economic Development Strategy. $500,000 was set aside to fund a yet-to-be-formed economic development strategy. I opposed this. I support us investing in attracting business to our community. But I thought this was too large an amount, especially with no strategy currently formed.

  • Nitehawk Funding. Nitehawk was granted $85,000 for capital projects including snow making equipment and erosion control. 50% of these are being funded by the MD of Greenview and 25% by the County of Grande Prairie (subject to approval by their Councils). I supported this- Nitehawk is an important recreation facility for our residents. That being said, we are working on a Regional Recreational Committee with other municipalities. In future years, I do not think we should be funding facilities outside of the City unless regional facilities within the City are being funded through this committee. But since this committee is relatively new and this funding to Nitehawk was already informally committed by the City, I supported funding this year.

Additionally, it was moved that we fund the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum for its operations to the tune of $200,000 over 2 years. This was defeated, and I was one of the “no” votes. This is a regional facility that I can support us contributing to in theory. However, before I support us giving new support to facilities outside our borders, I need to see other municipalities contributing a fair share to regional facilities within the City.


Big Decisions Remaining

That is what Council discussed today. We have some significant decisions yet to come. They include:

  • Community group funding. Tomorrow we will likely be discussing a motion to remove $500,000 from external community group funding. This would be an 11.3% reduction to bring the funding to $4,428,000.

  • Additional Strategic Initiatives. Some on the list for discussion: pickleball courts, community group capital project funding, and anti-train whistling measures.

  • Potential service enhancements from the Infrastructure & Sustainability, Organizational Efficiency, Community Enhancement. I won’t form opinions on these until I see the presentations.

  • Downtown Rehabilitation Phase 4. While I need to learn more about the cost and the Aquatera commitment, I currently oppose this. My understanding is that there is no urgency to replace the current pipe. Most arguments I hear to go ahead in 2019 in favour revolve around aesthetics. While I agree it would be great to give 100 Ave a uniform look, I don’t think this is worth over ten million dollars of debt. I’ve also had a number of businesses tell me they have a very good chance of going under if construction continues in 2019- they need more time to recover. Click here for more information on my view of downtown.

  • Debt Refinancing. I’m completely torn on this. On one hand, I agree with the idea that future taxpayers should pay for their own services and I’d love to see today’s taxpayers get a break. On the other hand, when I compare Grande Prairie to other municipalities we have high debt and low reserves. This strategy depletes our reserves by millions of dollars, and it will mean we take way longer to get our debt down. Currently I am leaning towards “no” on this: I think it is more equitable for today’s taxpayers, but its impact on reserves and and debt also puts them at greater risk. However, my mind is far from made up- I welcome any thoughts you have.


It was a long day and I want to be fresh for tomorrow. So I apologize for the quickly written post that likely has some spelling/grammar erros. I’ll also be having limited online interaction with people tonight. That being said, I will read every single comment made prior to debate tomorrow.

Thanks for reading!

-Dylan