Opinion: Progress at city hall provides good reason for optimism

In May, the City of Red Deer hired its new city manager, Allan Seabrooke, from Peterborough, Ont., to replace the retiring, longtime former city manager, Craig Curtis.

Since then, the city has initiated a number of long-overdue projects with the goal of addressing several serious issues affecting our city’s ability to retain our existing businesses and attract new ones.

We’ll have to wait to judge the efficacy of its efforts, but it is a positive step to see these measures in progress.

One of his first moves as city manager was to change the way in which the City of Red Deer does its budget, from annually to a three-year budget.

This move will better allow the city to plan longer term and free up important council time from its usual budget deliberations that have taken weeks in past years.

This was combined with an announcement by Mayor Tara Veer that administration was asked to save $15 million over the next three years. It is unlikely this sum will be enough to cover reduced transfers from the provincial government and improve the city’s tax competitiveness with Red Deer County, but again, a positive effort reflective of the struggles many of our city’s residents and businesses are experiencing.

Another positive gesture was council’s move to freeze its salaries this year, following the significant pay increase they granted themselves in response to changes to the federal tax exemption for elected municipal office holders.

In an attempt to avoid the “awkwardness of setting their own salary increases,” the authority to grant salary increases was moved out of council’s hands to those of the city manager — who council is responsible for hiring and firing.

Seabrooke will be responsible for comparing the remuneration of council to similar communities to ensure pay is kept within five per cent. Additionally, union-exempt staff will see their raises determined by Alberta’s consumer price index (inflation rate) or the lowest union settlement in the City of Red Deer’s collective agreements.

The changes are still out of step with business, which must rely on financial realities to determine salaries. Many have had to make significant cuts to staff hours, salaries and benefits to survive.

In September, city administration brought forward the economic leader document outlining seven recommendations to support business.

The recommendations were supported by council in principal and feature: grant funds to pay for downtown facade improvements, environmental assessments for brownfield sites, utility connection fees, creating streetscapes, reducing parking requirements for downtown residential developments, a tax offset program for residential and mixed-use properties downtown, and lastly and most important, a red-tape reduction program.

There is a strong argument to be made for why tax incentives are a better tool than grants for these types of initiatives, including the need to reduce operational spending.

However, the programs are likely to be welcomed by downtown business owners, along with developers and investors hammered by the high costs of utility connections, parking lots and brownfield redevelopment.

Without a doubt, the biggest opportunity lies with the city’s willingness to pursue a red-tape reduction strategy.

The time and cost of red tape within the City of Red Deer is often cited as the biggest hurdle to doing business in our community.

The opportunity exists to eliminate bylaws and procedures that no longer make sense and streamline others that do.

In a lunchtime address to chamber members, Seabrooke addressed the need to shift the culture from one of zero risk to one that is friendly to customers, using common sense and a risk-management framework.

Top of mind are the recent crime and community safety public engagement sessions, giving the public an opportunity to share how the issues are affecting them and their ideas to address them.

Crime is certainly the most complicated issue affecting our region, requiring commitments from all three levels of government.

The City of Red Deer places much of the blame for the drug crisis at the hands of the provincial government, calling for “the need for a strategic provincial approach to the drug crisis, the problem of needle debris, determining the appropriate location for permanent safe consumption services, and a local long-term treatment facility and/or solution.”

This is an impressive start for just six months on the job. While we should wait to reserve final judgment based on results, these undertakings give our residents and businesses a good reason to be optimistic about the future of our city.

Reg Warkentin is the Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce’s policy and advocacy manager.

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