Red Deerians will see some improvement when it comes to safety, crime prevention, road safety and snow removal after council approved the 2014 operating budget on Wednesday.
By a vote of 6-3, Red Deer city council approved a $305-million operating budget with a 3.93-per-cent tax increase after seven days of deliberations.
On a house assessed at $300,000, the owner would pay $1,798 in taxes this year compared to $1,730 in 2013.
Councillors Buck Buchanan, Tanya Handley and Paul Harris voted against the budget.
The three councillors said there were some bright spots but some gaps in the overall budget while the remaining six argued the overall budget will make a difference in core services in the community.
Harris said the revamped snow policy did not go far enough to address the needs of pedestrians and transit users. He said the overall budget does not balance the social needs in the community. On Tuesday, Harris unsuccessfully tired to convince council to set aside $2 million for a capital reserve fund to meet the demand for new facilities such as an aquatics centre. In his closing statement, Harris did not give up the fight saying the city needs to grow up and start providing the amenities that people expect from the hub of Alberta.
“I don’t think the operating budget balances the community needs of social amenities and services,” said Harris. “We need to focus more on services, particularly social infrastructure. This budget considers the present without a clear focus on the future.”
One of the big ticket items in the budget that drove the tax rate was the boost to the snow removal program.
The snow and ice budget was increased to $4.2 million this year and $5.1 million in 2015 from $3.4 million in 2013. The new funding also comes with new proposed standards for snow clearing. The policy will be reviewed in June after it is refined at committee level.
First-time Coun. Ken Johnston’s passionate plea to pay for the boost in snow removal funding out of the city’s tax stabilization fund did not convince the other members. If the motion passed, taxpayers would have seen a smaller tax increase for the next two years. A few councillors argued they were on council when the tax increases were in the double digits because the reserves were depleted. Councillors also voiced concerns about more cuts from the provincial government and the need to prepare for a recession.
Johnston said he thinks he left a message at the table that there are opportunities in the community to pursue and that council should not constantly go to the taxpayer but should broaden the tax base.
Coun. Dianne Wyntjes added the bottom line is there may be savings now but in the long run it’s deferring the inevitable spikes.
Four more police officers and a new ALERT member were approved after the policing budget was boosted by $2.4 million, bringing the budget to $30.5 million from $27.7 million in 2013. The funding also covers two municipal employees in 2014, the carry over from the 2013 decision to hire 12 officers and eight municipal employees, the ongoing RCMP fee agreement and one-time provincial shortfall. Two additional ALERT members will be hired in 2015 to the tune of $140,000.
Johnston said he looks forward to having some input on the hiring of the new superintendent, who replaces Supt. Warren Dosko who stepped down in December.
“I think there needs to be more attention on policing, particularly during night time hours,” said Johnston. “A significant part of what I will be talking about is on the ground enforcement in patrol cars and night time enforcement.”
Handley told council she noticed a few things that she would like to see changed in the budgeting process, including working towards an increase that matches population growth and inflation, zero-based budgeting and exploring a bylaw that would a cap or limit the amount spent in an operating budget. Throughout the debate Handley argued against hiring consultants as opposed to field staff from the city pool.
“Just a reminder for us to focus on our core services and a little less on charters, studies and strategies and consultants,” said Handley. “Create policies that allow excellence in delivering the services that our citizens require.”
Council passed a resolution on Tuesday that directed administration to bring forward new guidelines for the budgeting process that includes public consultation.
Coun. Lynne Mulder said she is pleased where council landed with the 3.93-per-cent tax increase. She said she believes the public will view it as a positive. Mulder said everyone wants a lower tax increase but in a growing city sometimes it takes more money to invest and move forward.
Buchanan said he didn’t think it was a bad budget but he took issue with the items that were deemed critical in the budget, including contractual commitments and strategic charter initiatives. Buchanan also looked at some of the funding adjustments and did not see the need for them.
Wyntjes said she is looking forward to the work ahead, which includes the Dialogue Charter in order to have better conversations with the community about what they do, why they do it and the value of the services. She said the tax increase is manageable but she is worried about those who are on fixed incomes and seniors.
“Every budget has different themes and I think this was a core service budget,” said Mayor Tara Veer. “I think we’ve seen some of our core services fall behind and I think we’ve seen investment in the community in past years. I think we needed to work on core services.”
Taxpayers will not know the final tax increase until the education portion is set by the provincial government in the spring.
Budget Numbers by Division/Departments in 2014:
Planning Services – $11.7 million from $11 million in 2013
General – $8.9 million from $8.4 million in 2013
City Manager – $7 million from $7.4 million in 2013
Environmental Services – $49.9 million from $45.7 million in 2013
Public Works – $39.5 million from $38.7 million in 2013
Emergency Services – $26.9 million from $25.6 million in 2013
Electric Light & Power – $42.7 million from $33.6 million in 2013
Development Services – $6.3 million from $6.6 million in 2013
Recreation, Parks & Culture – $34.7 million from $33.7 million