Municipalities unsure what to expect from future provincial budget tightening

Red Deer County preparing as best it can for budget unknowns

Red Deer County already knows it will get around $750,000 less in provincial grants next year.

What remains a mystery is what other financial impacts can be expected from provincial belt-tightening.

County corporate services director Heather Surkan and her staff have been poring through the provincial budget released last week to bring a report back to council next month on how municipal finances are likely to be affected.

“There will be some challenges,” said Surkan on Tuesday.

This year’s budget is not expected to change much. “We’re going to meet our targets for 2019.”

It will be a different story for the next three years. The province requires municipalities to create three-year budgets.

“We’re looking at some (Municipal Sustainability Initiative) changes.”

That provincial grant program provides about $3.7 million to the county. It will be cut by 20 per cent next year, which is where the $750,000 drop in grant revenues comes from.

The province has already said it wants rural municipalities and smaller communities under 5,000 people to pick up a share of policing costs — anywhere from 15 to 70 per cent. How that will pan out is anyone’s guess.

“There’s a bunch of unknowns,” she said.

Mayor Jim Wood said he was talking to Rural Municipalities of Alberta president Al Kemmere, a Mountain View County councillor, about the budget and the consensus seems to be 2019 will be fine, but the future is blurry for coming years.

“We’re definitely OK, for sure, this year. But the next year?

“We all know we’ll probably all have to pull in our belts.”

Despite the challenges coming, Wood is confident that Red Deer County is well positioned, thanks to fiscally responsible budgeting in past years and a diversification strategy that helped Gasoline Alley flourish and another Highway 2 commercial area, Junction 42, take root.

The county also ensured it did not build up an infrastructure deficit by fast-tracking projects during the economic downturn to take advantage of competitive pricing.

On the policing front, the county is not opposed to paying a share — and is already doing so by funding in partnership with Lacombe County, a pair of RCMP investigators focused on rural crime. The county also has seven of its own peace officers.

Community safety is among the county’s top priorities, he said.

“We just have to make sure that the solution makes sense, and it is, in fact, affordable.

“I don’t want to see a situation where we put out a lot of money that we can’t afford and we don’t see a better result.”

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