Red Deer County council was split over its 2023 operating and capital budgets.
Three councillors, Christine Moore, Lonny Kennett and Dana Depalme voted against approving the county’s operating spending plans for the next three years and its 2023-2027 capital spending plans. Councillors voiced concerns about broadband spending, a proposed two per cent cost of living adjustment and a potential 3.5 per municipal tax rate increase.
The narrow approval was an unusual show of council division on its future financial direction. In past years, budgets have almost always been approved unanimously.
Mayor Jim Wood was not concerned that not all councillors were on board with next year’s $55.8 million operating and $17.6 million capital budgets.
“I would say it’s healthy to have a good debate,” said Wood, shortly after the vote.
“This budget in my opinion is a very progressive budget. It’s a budget that invests in our future and will make Red Deer County a better place to be.
“I think the key thing that this budget recognizes is that we came in at 3.5 per cent. I believe that we are significantly lower than many of our counterpart municipalities.”
“We did what we could in a year where we had inflation, six to eight per cent, and we’re still able to keep (tax rate increases) at 3.5, we’re still able to put all of these major projects in place and not reduce service.”
Wood said the county has also faced rising policing costs as part of a provincial policy to make rural municipalities pay a larger share of policing bills, as well as less provincial and federal financial support.
“Because we’re a very financially strong and progressive municipality we’re able to get new businesses and new residents who want to live here and work here and have their busnesses here. That’s creating growth.
”Even though times may often sound bleak when you listen to the news, if you look at the stats for Red Deer County we’re continuing to grow through this.
“I think our budget sets a path forward for our success.”
Coun. Brent Ramsay said the county must be cautious with its spending but was happy with the proposed budgets.
“I’m glad we were able to come in at (3.5 per cent increase) at this time. Hopefully, we get some good news in the spring when we set our mill rates.”
Coun. Depalme, who voted against the budget, said she was “struggling” with the 3.5 per cent tax rate increase.
“To raises taxes on some (residents) is going to hurt a lot,” she said, suggesting some capital projects could be delayed to reduce a tax increase.
Depalme proposed an amendment to reduce a proposed cost of living adjustment for county staff to 1.5 per cent from two per cent. It was defeated with councillors Moore and Kennett in support.
Kennett expressed concern with the $5 million set aside in the capital budget over the next two years for broadband. Council heard the spending is contingent on a $10-million federal grant. An answer on whether the county is successful is expected within weeks.
Kennett wants to see the county focus on signing up more customers for wifi before continuing to spend more money on the broadband initiative that has seen $18 million invested over the last three years.
He also proposed a successful amendment to add a $1.5 million project to a list of asterisked items — meaning they will return to council for further review — in the budget
Moore also called for a pause on additional spending while the county signed up more residents to ensure the project was a good use of tax dollars.
“I’m not saying this isn’t a good project. But I’m being real and realistic.”
County corporate services director Heather Surkan said while a 3.5 per cent tax rate increase is proposed to balance the budget if assessment growth is higher than expected that number could change.
Final assessment numbers will not be known until the spring. “I’m hoping to surprise you guys in a good way,” said Surkan.
Last spring, council froze the basic tax rates for residential, non-residential and farm properties. However, small increases were proposed for levies used to help cover the cost of protective services, such as fire and enforcement, and community services.
For years, the county aimed to freeze taxes. 2021 was the fifth year in a row that council did not increase farm and residential taxes. Non-residential taxes have increased once since 2016. In 2018, slight increases to non-residential taxes and to a levy that helps pay for community services were approved.