Council must be aggressive with budget

Am I the only one wondering if Red Deer city council is out to lunch with this year’s operating budget?

Am I the only one wondering if Red Deer city council is out to lunch with this year’s operating budget?

The difference between the private and public sectors is stark when it comes to economic realities, especially today as we move through the back end of a recession and toward the optimism of economic recovery.

Recovery will not bring us again to the Alberta heyday that preceded the recession. It will be gradual and fragile. The private sector is well aware of the difficult economic times we’ve been through. The public sector, which includes the City of Red Deer, seems more oblivious than in tune with it, as the city’s budget process would indicate.

In Red Deer, we have a considerable number of invisible unemployed. They are your neighbours or friends of friends — people who have never before known unemployment. Everything might look normal on the outside of that newer bungalow, but it’s not. A regular paycheque is missing or if it isn’t, there’s a household full of uncertainly. RSPs, credit cards and savings are taking a hit as the expected call back to work just doesn’t come.

For the first time in 15 years, Alberta lost more people to other parts of Canada than it gained in the third quarter of 2009. Local Christmas charities saw significant increases in the number of needy in December.

As City Hall goes through the 2010 draft operating budget, we hear how careful it has been trying to “hold the line.” We also hear Mayor Morris Flewwelling’s warning that council keep in mind they will have to answer to the electorate in October. If it weren’t an election year would a tax increase be even higher?

Since when is a projected average 4.06 per cent tax increase a hold-the-line budget? A residential garbage collection rate increase of 11.8 per cent, and a 9.7 per cent in recycling fees is hardly holding the line. Council is also looking at a 13 per cent increase in wastewater rates.

Last year the city’s operating budget increased by 7.05 per cent. Over two years, if council sticks with this year’s proposal, homeowners will have seen their rates go up 11 per cent — this in a recession.

In many cases, private sector layoffs, especially in the oil industry, are not temporary like they used to be. Many job losses are permanent as companies face the global economy and trim down and/or merge.

The city plans to add 15 positions to its existing 1,300 full-time equivalent positions. As far as has been revealed, there wasn’t a single layoff at the city last year during the throes of the recession.

Last year council, managers and other non-union staff received a 4.25 per cent pay increase. Many workers in the private sector saw more modest increases, if at all — a trend likely to continue in 2010.

The Office of the Mayor and City Manager Division wants to hire an employee who would look after city council needs, plus a strategic projects co-ordinator within the city manager’s office — costing $51,000 this year but $123,750 in 2011 when the positions run a full year.

The Communications and Strategic Planning Department’s draft budget is already $853,000. That should already buy a lot of strategizing and communicating.

Council continues their budget deliberations this week. Forget hold the line. A zero per cent tax increase this year makes more sense than it ever has.

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