Budget Briefs – January 7

The economic downturn’s impact on development has been keenly felt in Red Deer’s Inspections and Licensing Department.

Department faces revenue shortfall

The economic downturn’s impact on development has been keenly felt in Red Deer’s Inspections and Licensing Department.

A revenue shortfall of $842,062 has been projected for 2011, an indication of the dramatic decrease in permit applications for gas and plumbing, heating, electrical, air conditioning and similar building-related requirements.

In 2007, more than $2 million in revenue was generated by those permit applications. That number is expected to be about $1.2 million this year. It was arrived at following careful analysis after revenue projections came up short in 2009 and 2010 as the downturn lingered.

To offset the projected 2011 shortfall, department managers plan to leave three vacant positions unfilled to save $267,128, city council was told during budget presentations on Thursday.

The remaining $574,934 is part of a request for one-time funding. The department’s proposed base budget is $8.03 million.

Russ Pye, inspections and licensing co-manager, said as part of the request the department has committed to not filling the vacant positions, but making deeper cuts would be risky.

The public expects certain service levels from the department and the inspection service is required to meet a provincial quality management plan.

Also, the city has invested significant amounts of time and money in training staff. All of Red Deer’s safety codes officers have reached the highest level of training available and the position is in high demand in municipalities. If the city was to cut staff during a downturn, there is no guarantee those jobs could be filled again when the economy improves.

The city is planning a major review of the department in 2011.

More parkade revenue anticipated

It is hoped an improving economy will see a few more parking spaces snapped up at the downtown parkade.

The City of Red Deer is anticipating the parkade will generate just under $370,000 in revenue from monthly permits and daily or hourly rates.

That number is based on the parkade being used at 80 per cent of its capacity.

So far, Sorenson Station, which opened last September, has 140 of the 312 — 45 per cent — of monthly parking stalls leased out. Another 100 stalls are available at daily or hourly rates.

Councillor Tara Veer asked if the Inspections and Licensing Department expected to hit its revenue targets.

Russ Pye, Inspections and Licensing co-manager, said it was too early to predict. Some equipment that would allow a “pay-on-foot” system where drivers can pay as they leave by putting a ticket in a dispenser has yet to arrive.

Also, the newly built Executive Place officer tower has not filled with tenants — and potential parkade customers — yet. As that building fills, it is expected more monthly stalls will be leased.

Commuter bike pilot program planned

Engineering Services will be busy this year working on a commuter bike pilot program, said department manager Frank Colosimo.

The $75,000 capital project approved last November during capital budget talks will include a $75,000 feasibility study, marketing, an educational component, and bicycle and storage facilities.

“We’re going to make some actions as far as how we want bicycles to move within the city,” said Colosimo following his department’s draft 2011 operational budget presentation on Thursday.

The department will also be involved heavily with the Greater Downtown Action Plan and specifically the Gaetz Avenue revitalization project from 46th Street to 53rd Street.

“We’re going to see some changes with the pedestrian crossings and sidewalks (on that portion of Gaetz Avenue),” said Colosimo. “We’re really going to develop a very strong theme to Gaetz Avenue.”

Engineering Services base budget is $2.5 million ($2.8 million in expenses, $277,390 in revenues).

Council learned the slow rebound to development may affect the overall departmental budget, as about 30 per cent of its operating expenses are funded through revenue and labour recovery.

Department to work with SPCA

Red Deer’s Inspections and Licensing Department plans to work with the SPCA to see if there are better ways to handle animal abuse complaints.

The department does not have the mandate to investigate animal abuse claims. It is also not the role of Alberta Animal Services, which is contracted to handle pet complaints and wildlife issues, or the Red Deer and District SPCA, which operates the animal adoption centre.

Animal abuse complaints are handled by the Alberta SPCA, which is based in Edmonton.

“As the city grows we may need to look at this issue and consider future options to ensure that animal abuse cases are responded to with immediacy,” says a budget document prepared for city council.

City looking at incentives to clean up ‘brownfields’

Offering property tax breaks or other incentives to encourage property owners to clean up abandoned or rundown sites will be explored by the City of Red Deer.

City manager Craig Curtis said the city is looking at an initiative to see what the city can do to reduce the number of so-called brownfields, properties that have been abandoned or allowed to deteriorate.

“I view it as a priority in 2011,” said Curtis, who said there are a large number of sites in Red Deer that could be improved.

A staff member from the Planning Department has been assigned the job of finding out what sort of efforts have proven successful elsewhere. Among the possibilities is allowing those who develop an unsightly property to pay lower taxes on the premise that the city will later recover the money as the property value increases.

There are legal implications that will have to be researched before the city considers incentives, he said.

The city’s Revenue and Assessment Services Department plans to review tax options as a joint effort with other departments to come up with recommendations for council.

City councillor and businessman Paul Harris made tackling unsightly properties, such as the boarded up stretch of lots on Ross Street downtown, part of his campaign platform last fall.

Harris said the issue needs to be approached from both the environmental angle — fixing sites that are bad for the environment — and from an economic development perspective.

“There’s a huge benefit for us to increase our tax base without increasing our taxation,” he said. “If we can recover our brownfield sites, we can actually improve services for our community without increasing taxation.”

The same approach should be taken to deal with abandoned buildings.

Harris sees a lot of promise in offering incentives to nudge owners into improving their properties. It also gives the city a say in what is developed so particular needs, such as downtown condominium housing, can be addressed.

“So we would go to them and say we would do this if you do that. So we get a nice trade. They get what they need and we get what, as a community, we need.”

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