Measuring Red Deer’s budget’s value

City council has made its choices. Now voters get to judge the results. And we have more than eight months before the Oct. 21 municipal election to decide if council is on the right track.

City council has made its choices. Now voters get to judge the results.

And we have more than eight months before the Oct. 21 municipal election to decide if council is on the right track.

Certainly, voters should evaluate council’s performance over the last 28 months when they go to the polls in the fall.

To narrow our focus too dramatically would be both unfair and unwise.

And it should never be just about dollars and cents. It must be about sense, too.

But what happens between now and October, given the tools council has now given city staff, should be the principal measuring stick.

The question, addressed to members of council who intend to pursue re-election, should be: What have you done for us lately? The operating and capital budgets should be front and centre.

For newcomers who want to be considered for a new four-year council (which provincial law will soon mandate), the questions should be: Are you with the current council or against it, why in either case, and what alternatives do you offer?

Again, Red Deer city council’s two recent budget documents — capital and operating — should be the starting point.

One document, $107.5-million capital budget hammered out in November, details spending on key infrastructure for the next year, and outlines projects further down the road. It pushed our debt load for 2013 to $254 million, against a provincially-mandated debt limit of $431 million.

Of course, evaluating our community’s leadership, and potential leaders, should be based on more than budgetary decisions.

It should also be based on the future vision those budgetary decisions reflect.

It should also be based on the kind of relationship council has with city administration, and how that relationship drives our city’s progress (keeping in mind that Mayor Morris Flewwelling is not seeking re-election).

Anyone who doesn’t understand the depth of city administration’s control over what services the city provides, and how much it costs, simply doesn’t understand how thoroughly politics is dictated by reality — and bureaucracy.

Red Deer city council completed deliberations on Friday, endorsing a $288.5-million operating budget that means property owners will face a tax increase of 4.28 per cent this year. The average homeowner will pay $5.92 a month more in taxes to the city this year (plus significantly more for a variety of services and utilities). In addition, we could face education tax increases tacked onto our city bill, once the province determines that levy in the spring.

Council began operating budget talks last week with a projected increase of 4.15 per cent, as proposed by city administration.

And at one point in the process, the tax increase was projected at 3.91 per cent, again as the result of a change in administration accounting. Only when council got directly involved in the budget process — led by Coun. Buck Buchanan — did the administration-driven budget get tweaked (upward).

After hours of debate, 18 additional policing-related positions were approved (the Community Services budget request initially sought funding for only six positions: four RCMP officers and two support staff). The final tally: $888,375 more spent this year, and $1.25 million in 2014 to phase in eight constables, six municipal support personnel and four supervisors.

The vast majority of Red Deerians would readily agree that they want to feel safer in their community. And adding police is part of the equation. Simply, we don’t compare well to other communities when it comes to most policing measurements, and our crime rates are too high.

But during the next eight months, we need council to do more than point to additional spending on policing when the subject of public safety comes up.

And so the policing service standards review, to be completed in March, becomes critical.

How will those extra officers be deployed? How will the civilian staff added to the workforce contribute to public safety?

Essentially, it comes down to the kinds of choices council makes with the money they have budgeted for policing.

As always, it’s about making the spending count. And that’s how we should be prepared to judge this council.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.