Free firewood axed

Get ready to bring your own firewood to the fire pits in Red Deer parks this year.

Get ready to bring your own firewood to the fire pits in Red Deer parks this year.

As one of the cost-saving measures in the 2014 operating budget, Red Deer city council voted 8-1 in support of halting the free supply of firewood at Rotary Park, Kin Kanyon, McKenzie Trails and the Kiwanis Picnic Area. Coun. Dianne Wyntjes opposed the reduction saying this is one service that sets Red Deer apart from other municipalities. Wyntjes said the province may have stopped the practice a few years ago but it doesn’t mean Red Deer has to follow suit.

Some councillors suggested residents can stop at a nearby business and buy firewood.

“Not all people can afford that,” said Wyntjes. “That firewood could mean the choice of a jug of milk or some food on the table. For me it’s a small price to pay for people to enjoy our parks.”

Wyntjes said one of the things she hears constantly from the public is how they admire the park system and greenspaces in the city.

“Yet here we are eroding it,” she said. “I am disappointed.”

The firewood is supplied in the parks from May to September for $40,000 a year. Red Deer was one of the few municipalities that provided this service. The city stopped supplying firewood in the winter months a few years ago.

Some councillors voiced concerns for the homeless population who may depend on the firewood to stay warm in the winter months.

“We don’t actually provide firewood over the winter months,” said Greg Scott, director of the Community Services division.

“Through our social planning department and the agencies in our community our ending homeless plan is working very well. There’s lots of opportunities for those folks to find accommodation (inside) as opposed to (outdoor) shelter.”

Scott said there were number of challenges of providing the service, which explains why other municipalities do not provide free firewood. Scott estimated 30 per cent of the wood in the park is stolen. He also noted outdoor shelters have been burned to the ground in recent years.

“I look at it more as the firewood was being misused,” said Coun. Lawrence Lee. “If that privilege was abused than we shouldn’t continue to have it available for the citizens.”

Scott said there are private companies and contractors that supply firewood to the public for a cost.

Council approved $48,655 in cost-savings in the area that affects services and the council’s own budget on the sixth day of budget deliberations on Tuesday.

Mayor Tara Veer said sometimes they seem like small ideas but they all require due consideration because they do have impacts on the residents in the community.

The 2014 municipal operating budget is expected to be passed today. As it stands, the budget sits at a proposed $305-million budget with a proposed 3.93 per cent tax hike. Taxpayers will not know the final number until the education portion is factored in this spring.

Other budget highlights:

lCouncil directed administration to develop budget guidelines in order to for the budget to reflect the community’s priorities as part of its Enterprise Business Planning. The guidelines will be brought forward to council by April 30.

lCoun. Paul Harris unsuccessfully argued to put away $2 million annually into a capital reserve fund citing concerns over the capital infrastructure deficit in the community. Harris told council he continually hears from the community that the city has to stop borrowing money for projects but to pay as it goes for projects. He said part of this means the city needs to save for projects.

“It doesn’t mean we have to wait until we know what we’re buying but it does mean we need to put money away so that when we know what we need to buy. the money is already put away,” said Harris. “This is part of a healthy financial plan that you always want to save as the same time as you are managing your operating.”

Harris said he was not under any illusion that motion would pass but he wanted to start the conversation. Council reasoned the conversation needs to happen during the context of the city’s overall financial sustainability plan and capital reserves discussions this year.

lCouncil’s seminar and conference travel was reduced by 10 per cent or $4,714 for 2014. The decision came by a 5-4 vote with Councillors Dianne Wyntjes, Frank Wong, Tanya Handley, Ken Johnston and Mayor Tara Veer in support. The overall budget for councillors is usually about 20 per cent underspent. Opposed were Councillors Paul Harris, Lawrence Lee, Buck Buchanan and Lynne Mulder who reasoned professional development is key for council’s work. Mulder said this is particularly important for the new councillors. She did agree with the past actions of floating unspent money between councillors. Council lunches at meetings were also reduced by $3,000. There’s still $1,100 remaining in the bucket.

lResidents who sit on city committees will continue to be served a good meal. Council voted to continue providing a meal to the volunteers who sit on the committees. The item was on the table for cutting to save $6,900 in the budget. Coun. Buck Buchanan said the committees that the city has are made up of volunteers and in some cases there’s no compensation. He said the city is in the position right now for the first time where there is only one position vacant on one committee. “To cut back something right now is a bit of a perk for their time and their efforts is not the right thing to do,” said Buchanan. “It’s such a minimal dollar figure in a $305-million budget.”

Some councillors argued that some committees have moved to meet later to avoid the dinner time. Mulder said that some of the valuable networking occurs over dinner time.

lCoun. Ken Johnston introduced a motion late on Tuesday to fund the $1.7 million proposed for the snow clearing budget out of reserves. Council will begin the seventh day of budget talks debating this item.

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