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New streamlined multi-year budget process confusing on Day 1

The aim is not to be overly prescriptive for how money is spent, said city manager
The City of Red Deer began deliberating the proposed two-year budget on Monday. They are expected to spend the next few days going over the spending of different departments. (Advocate file photo)

The City of Red Deer’s new high-level budget presentation for 2023 and 2024 left some city councillors wanting details that weren’t in the slimmed-down binder.

Coun. Kraymer Barnstable was among those who asked administration for more information on Monday. He explained he needed to understand exactly what’s being proposed so he can explain it to citizens who question him at the grocery store.

Coun. Vesna Higham agreed that it’s sometimes a struggle to understand some of the budget items in the small binder and to follow exactly where the money is going.

Red Deer city council began discussing a proposed two-year budget on Monday — with recommended tax increases of 4.7 per cent in 2023 and 4.3 per cent in 2024.

City Manager Tara Lodewyk helped streamline this week’s multi-year-budget process to finish two years of budgeting in three to five days, instead of taking upwards of two weeks just to do one year’s budget as was done in the past.

She explained the idea is not to have councillors deliberate every proposed item but to instead focus on the bigger picture — especially since there’s little new spending this year anyway.

Lodewyk explained that council gave administration direction earlier this year to come up with budgets for the next two years that achieve a property tax increase of 4.7 in 2023 and 4.3 per cent in 2024 — and this is what department managers did.

Rather than being overly prescriptive for how this money is spent, councillors could consider their overall spending priorities, she added. If the overall operating budget of a certain department needed to be reduced, its manager should be allowed to figure out how this is best done, she added.

“This is a maintenance budget,” said Lodewyk, who told council that administration is mostly recommending increases to keep up with rising inflation so as to not have to roll back city services.

One per cent of the proposed tax increases in each year would be set aside to help the city rebuild financial reserves that were depleted over the last couple of years because of the pandemic, Westerner Park loan and other unexpected expenses.

Council heard about proposals for higher corporate investments, such as for digital modernizations, hybrid workforce support, strategic plan outcome dashboards, and benchmarking surveys to measure customer service.

Lisa Perkins, the city’s general manager of corporate and employee services, told council that Red Deer is growing and needs to update its corporate processes, as well as what it offers employees, or it will face staff retention and recruitment problems.

When Higham questioned whether these were “nice to haves” instead of must-haves, she and other councillors were reminded to not do a line-by-line itemizing.

None of the proposed budget items for 2023 or 2024 will be voted on until the very end of the budget process this week.

On Tuesday, the city’s protective services general manager Ken McMullen is expected to provide details on the $5 million of additional spending proposed for the Emergency Services department.