Lacombe council seeking answers about policing cost overruns

Council surprised to find out about $240,000 policing budget shortfall

A surprise $240,000 Lacombe policing budget shortfall has unhappy city council members seeking answers.

Councillors aired their concerns at Tuesday’s meeting about how the over-expenditure came to light so late, and what is being done to avoid a repeat this year.

Lacombe chief administrative officer Matthew Goudy said the budget overrun was due to several factors — a budget oversight that saw a staff member not budgeted for, increased costs related to statutory holiday payments, and additional expenses connected to bail hearing policing.

The shortfall was identified in early February following the city’s routine year-end financial reviews.

Goudy said the city can expect policing will not come in on budget this year either. The police budget is about $3.4 million.

“Unfortunately, we are at a spot where I do expect there to be an overage in the department again,” he said, later adding that the deficit is not expected to be as high as last year’s.

Mayor Grant Creasey said he was not assigning blame, but is concerned that the department is running a deficit again.

“I don’t want to be having this conversation again in a year, saying, ‘Oh, we’re out another $240,000.’

“This is not acceptable. This is not sustainable.”

Creasey questioned why council only found out about the deficit now, when it was spotted two months ago.

Goudy said administration wanted to bring the information forward as part of the overall budget and surplus update.

Creasey said he accepted that response, but the “sooner we get on top of this, the better.

“In future, sooner communication would be appreciated.”

Creasey said while the community is very happy with its police force, some adjustments may be needed to fit within it budget.

The mayor said council needs to hear from the police commission about how the financial problems will be addressed. It will likely happen when the police chief delivers his annual report in early June.

Coun. Reuben Konik, who is council’s representative on the Lacombe police commission, said the department’s budget had been on track throughout the year, and the commission found out about the deficit earlier this year.

While the department’s budget is running behind again this year, the deficit will not be a repeat of 2018, he said.

“There’s going to be a deficit, but we don’t anticipate it’s going to be anywhere near what we see here.”

The trend for officers taking cash for statutory holidays has been factored in this year and the department is also looking at additional revenue sources, such as adding red light cameras, he said.

The commission will also be looking at police service levels, however, residents recognize that Lacombe is safer than surrounding communities because of its police force, said Konik.

Coun. Jonathan Jacobson said the department is in a “structural deficit” position, which means the city either has to provide more money, or the Lacombe police commission — which oversees the police force — has to reduce staffing levels.

“(The commission) is really not functioning the way it’s supposed to,” he said, adding he would like to see more discussion about how to avoid these problems in the future.

Councillors Cora Hoekstra and Thalia Hibbs said they want to see more financial details about the deficit.

Hibbs said she was disappointed council was not already given this information.

“That’s a huge dollar value. I’m sorry, but people in this community want to know what the heck happened and we should be providing the details.”

The city ran a $319,000 surplus in 2018, largely due to better investment returns and because expected borrowing costs connected with a multimillion-dollar project to service future development west of Highway 2 did not materialize.

Council voted to cover the 2018 shortfall by pulling $143,000 out of a policing reserve fund and taking about $94,000 from the city’s $319,000 surplus.

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