An austerity operating budget was approved by Red Deer city council on Wednesday that still requires a property tax increase of 2.15 per cent in 2019.
One per cent of this will be reserved for future capital projects, so new operating spending will go up by 1.15 per cent, said Mayor Tara Veer.
This is below the recommended 2.5 per cent that administration had initially proposed, and reflects central Alberta’s slow economy and declining city revenues, she added.
The impact on property taxes to an average city home assessed at $325,000 will be an increase of $47.44 a year, or $3.95 a month, said chief financial officer Dean Krejci.
This does not include the provincial portion of the requisition, which will be set by the province and school boards in the spring.
Council may not always agree on the “what” and “how” of budget decisions, but it is always committed to the community, stressed Veer, who feels budget decisions were made out of “an attentiveness and concern” for public priorities and recognition of the economic hardship many residents are experiencing.
In Red Deer’s overall operating budget of $369.8 million, most new spending aligns with the top community priorities of crime reduction and public safety.
A designated RCMP officer will be hired in the latter part of 2019 to work on solving child abuse cases through the Central Alberta Child Advocacy Centre. And $690,000 was pre-approved for hiring a combination of additional officers (two to four) and civilian police workers in 2020 to stay on top of crime and the opioid crisis.
Council also had to add $175,000 to the policing budget for this year because of a shortfall in provincial funding for three officers’ salaries.
A further $200,000 was approved for the cleanup of rough sleeper camps and needle debris, since an $80,000 provincial grant for this purpose was not enough. (Council decried the downloading of various costs on municipalities by senior governments after also not receiving enough dollars to deal with the costs around cannabis legalization).
Local arts and cultural groups experiencing a hard time fundraising will also receive a hand up. The municipal grant fund they can apply to was expanded by a third ($130,000 was added to a previous $400,000) and a $30,000 cap per group was removed in recognition of this fiscally difficult time.
The budget was also achieved through some recreation fee increases and service reductions. This spring, the Collicutt Centre and G.H. Dawe Centre will close an hour earlier Mondays through Saturdays. As well, transit users will wait an hour between Sunday bus service rather than previous half-hour waits.
City manager Craig Curtis, who retires in March, received many thanks from council after finishing his last budget after four decades in municipal work.
“This is a challenging time,” admitted Curtis, who believes the next city manager could be dealing with a provincial government intent on making deficit cuts, as well as changing policies that affect municipalities.
“It may be difficult, but it’s always interesting,” said the outgoing manager, who considers his retirement “bittersweet.”
Coun. Michael Dawe cautioned that the 2020 budget could be even tougher if the economy continues to slump.