2017 “budget like no other”: mayor

Economic downturn loomed over city budgeting

Extraordinary is the word many Red Deer city councillors grasped to describe this budget cycle.

And they didn’t mean it in the good sense.

When council laid its own raises on the budget chopping block, Coun. Tanya Handley said it was “absolutely the right thing to do in these extraordinary times.”

Coun. Frank Wong alluded to the difficulty of budgeting in an “extraordinary year.”

Mayor Tara Veer called 2017’s $356-million operating balance sheet a “budget like no other.”

At another point she called it a “budget of many sacrifices.”

More than once the budget process was compared with taking a scalpel to city finances — the inference being surgical-like precision was used to slice out savings however small.

Minutes after passing the budget, Mayor Tara Veer explained the analogy.

“On some occasions, governments will take axes to budgets,” she said. “But in the process they will compromise services to a community and they will compromise on the community’s future.

“What we’ve done with this budget is methodically take a scalpel to every aspect of city operations and services so we can maintain our commitments to the public and meet the public’s expectations, but to do that in a way that absolutely kept in mind the financial realities.”

For council, 2017 was like no other budget because of a collision of sobering statistics and economic markers.

Unemployment sits at eight per cent and 15 per cent of Red Deer families are living in poverty.

For the first time in memory, the city’s population declined, slipping by 1,000 residents back under 100,000.

The ripples spread wide. Construction growth, which could once be counted on to add about $3 million to city coffers was pencilled in at $1.3 million for this year.

Overall, it is estimated the Red Deer economy contracted three per cent over the last two years, and with it the tax base. Transit rider numbers declined and the number of people using city recreation facilities also waned.

The Red Deer and District Chamber of Commerce set the tone early by challenging council to hold the lines on taxes to reflect Alberta’s limping economy. After nine days of deliberations, council ended up at 1.52 per cent.

Veer said in this economic climate a zero per cent tax increase was possible but at the cost of losing services and the community made it clear that it wanted no compromise on policing and core services.

“But when push came to shove for us to deliver on a zero per cent would have meant cuts in service that our community would likely not have found acceptable.”

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com

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