Budget lessons sinking in

Do we have a new mentality at City Hall? It’s refreshing to see Red Deer city council going through the city’s draft operating budget with a dose of economic caution.

Do we have a new mentality at City Hall?

It’s refreshing to see Red Deer city council going through the city’s draft operating budget with a dose of economic caution.

That’s two years in a row, if all goes according to plan, where we’ll see tax increases under four per cent. In a period when almost the only groups seeing decent pay increases have been those working in the public sector, it’s about time.

In fact, when City Hall powers-that-be met with the media in a briefing about the 2011 operating budget, they were told that for the first time council had asked staff to look into their base budgets and decide where they “could make, save or change the money within them.” It’s surprising it isn’t standard practice.

Maybe it’s finally sunk in. The boom is long gone.

What’s left is not overly rosy. Full economic recovery in Alberta has yet to arrive.

The recession, which really began in Canada in late 2008, hit hard in 2009. It took another year before city council began to respond. While the private sector was dumping jobs and projects every which way, not so at City Hall. The public pocket is treated differently. It shouldn’t be.

Those who had been paying attention could see the darkness coming even before the recession officially took hold — way back in 2008.

But in 2009, in the heart of the recession, council failed to bring in a budget that reflected the downturn.

In 2009, taxpayers saw a 7.05 per cent tax increase, before school taxes were figured into the equation. The previous year, in 2008, they saw an 8.66 per cent increase.

Both budgets included increases to staffing, not only at City Hall, but also in the police and Emergency Services Departments.

Last year, the city’s operating budget resulted in an average 3.31 per cent tax increase, before school taxes were included in the equation.

This year, the starting point is a 3.74 per cent average tax increase. Two big slices of the budget — policing and Emergency Services — will not see any new staffing increases. Interestingly, we are told that going to five from nine ambulances last year is working “just fine,” despite concerns that there could be problems as the province took over ambulance service.

From 2004 to 2009, council gave approvals to a total of 34 additional police officers and the equivalent of 27.5 full-time equivalent municipal support staff. A one-year break isn’t going to see Red Deer go to the dogs.

This year, the budget proposes several job vacancies remaining unfilled. We haven’t heard this before.

Although improving on the budget process, city council seems to be willing to let slip by a hard look at its Communications and Strategic Planning Department, created only in 2007. Among other things, it oversees the city’s website and puts out press releases. It’s 2011 proposed no-increase operational budget is $886,783, with nine staff.

The city could save taxpayers a lot of money by dumping this department, hiring a couple people to run the website, and when the media has questions, they can call the people at City Hall with the answers, like they do already.

The department told council last week it could take three or four years to update the city’s website. It’s absurd it should take that long.

As for the strategic planning — isn’t that what the top administrators are doing?

Overall though, it’s good to see city council catching up to the recession.

Mary-Ann Barr is the Advocate’s assistant city editor. She can be reached at barr@bprda.wpengine.com or by phone at 403-314-4332.