No wiggle room on tax hike

After three days of heavily scrutinizing the City of Red Deer’s draft 2012 operating budget, city council whittled down the municipal property tax increase to 4.32 per cent on Monday.

After three days of heavily scrutinizing the City of Red Deer’s draft 2012 operating budget, city council whittled down the municipal property tax increase to 4.32 per cent on Monday.

Civic leaders spent nearly seven hours reviewing cost-savings and in the end, approved a budget standing at $272.6 million. The total budget heading into debate stood at $272.3 million, thanks to a few minute add-ons, and a projected municipal property tax increase at 4.55 per cent. A total of $4.1 million out of the operating budget will support the tax increase.

The operating budget of $263.58 million finalized last January saw the average municipal tax bill for homeowners climb by 3.9 per cent. Typically, the final property tax rate comes in lower when the educational portion of the taxes are finalized in the spring.

Mayor Morris Flewwelling said council had very little wiggle room on which to make changes, considering that departments were asked to limit their spending to essentials.

“To get the (tax increase) down to a couple tenths of a percentage doesn’t sound like much,” Flewwelling said. “If you come in with a sloppy budget, you can change it. But when you come in with a budget this tight, you are not going to change it that much.”

While Flewwelling said he recognizes many taxpayers will be OK with such an increase, he expects single families, the working poor and seniors living on a fixed income and in their own homes, will likely feel the impact of higher bills in addition to increased utility rates that are coming as well.

Last November, council endorsed a capital budget of $94.8 million — one that came with few frills. The city will spend money on Red Deer’s first spray park and skateboard park, both of which are slated to be finished in 2013.

Coun. Chris Stephan wasn’t so pleased with the budget. He was the sole opponent on a number of budgetary items, including the six charters or workplans that will go forward in 2012. He would have liked to have seen the city approve several more Mounties outright, instead of waiting and see what comes out of further discussions on policing and crime prevention initiatives through the Safety charter.

He said he was taking a hard line because council must answer to taxpayers.

“I didn’t support a lot of the spending and some of the cost savings as well,” Stephan said.

Stephan said some of the cost savings passed, such as in areas of policing and parks, are areas that taxpayers are concerned about.

“We need to reallocate resources — we need to cut,” said Stephan. “That means reducing staffing in some areas and adding in other areas. In this budget we could have easily done that without any tax increase.”

Coun. Paul Harris said he’s ecstatic about the operating budget overall. People he’s spoken with, on the left and the right of the political spectrum, seem to be pleased, he added.

“This budget represents a 2.1 per cent tax increase going into savings,” said Harris. “It (also) represents 2.2 per cent going into how we fund our operations. If you look at the Alberta consumer pricing index, it’s 3.2. So we’re actually decreasing the amount of money going into operations by almost one per cent.”

The city is being fiscally responsible, both in terms of savings to deal with debt repayment and also in terms of cutting back to deal with slower economic times, Harris said.

ltester@bprda.wpengine.com

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