Veer: Let’s Talk budget

After 13 years of participating in municipal budgets, 2017 is unequivocally “a budget like no other.”

While the city continues to make strong progress in a number of areas, from a financial perspective the public service sector is faced with the same aftershocks of the provincial economy as the private and not-for-profit sectors. City revenues are down from substantially diminished usage of recreation facilities and transit, anticipated construction growth has decreased, and for the first time in Red Deer’s recent history, our community lost population and reached a local unemployment rate of eight per cent at the time of publication. In addition to Alberta’s current economic challenges, we are also contending with the social consequences of the economy (the rate of property theft, for example, in our community a strong concern for all of us).

After 62 hours of capital and operating budget deliberations, it is evident that council has heard two consistent messages from our public loud and clear in response to economic and social challenges – keep our community’s cost of living affordable by keeping taxation, utility and other city charges to an absolute minimum, and do so without compromising the quality of service our public expects throughout city operations. After 11 days of debate, council has adopted capital and operating budgets which endeavour to respond to the needs of our public.

When city administration tabled the budget to council in November and December 2016, the recommendation was at a 2.51 per cent proposed increase. At conclusion, however, the 2017 budget includes $26 million less in capital projects than was anticipated in the previous year, and the percentage stands at 1.52 per cent. Of the 1.52 per cent, 0.3 per cent is a direct download from the provincial government as a result of carbon tax and increases in electrical charges, 0.43 per cent increase in operational costs (after $4.9 million in corporate cost savings were brought forward), and 0.79 per cent to fund capital.

Given that usage of recreation facilities and transit ridership is down, there is also obviously a price elasticity issue we need to rectify, so we have frozen 2017 transit fares as well as recreation admissions and user group fees to protect the financial accessibility of both services.

Out of respect for the economic hardship that is prevalent in our community, council also voted to freeze salaries of council and the city manager.

With an eye towards next year’s budget, council also adopted a strategic hiring freeze at 2017 city staffing levels, instead of assuming “business as usual” and automatically back filling of vacant positions.

Having said this, the 2017 budget still insists on progress for our city, as well as quality, continuously improved services for Red Deerians.

Some of the most notable investments in the 2017 budgets include (but are not limited to): crime reduction and public safety initiatives, enhanced environmental sustainability, transportation improvements, and local economic stimulus such as Canada Winter Games initiatives.

I hope this helps to answer some of your questions until next month. As always, council thanks you for the ongoing opportunity to represent you. We look forward to seeing you all in the near future and hearing about what is important to citizens in our community.

Until next time…

– Mayor Tara Veer

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