Texas junket for lucky five is inexcusable

City hall should lead by example. For many, this year will hurt more than usual as people try to get through reduced work hours, temporary layoffs, or even permanent job losses.

City hall should lead by example.

For many, this year will hurt more than usual as people try to get through reduced work hours, temporary layoffs, or even permanent job losses.

Local job fairs are attracting a lot of these people at a time when students are also flooding the market.

There’s pain felt by individuals and businesses, as well as a lot of worry about how long this recession is going to last. No one knows. The only good news is recessions do eventually end.

City council is trying to offer taxpayers comfort by reminding them that this year’s increase in property taxes is lower than it’s been in a few years, and oh yes, council sweated hard over the 2009 budget, looking for savings.

Well, not hard enough if you consider that no less than five city bigwigs recently attended a convention in San Antonio, Tex., at public expense.

Council approved a 7.05 per cent municipal tax increase recently for 2009. The overall increase, when blended with the education tax the province wants, actually works out to an average 5.5 per cent increase in taxes.

The city’s 2009 operating budget is about $209 million. The capital budget is a whopping $473 million, and still many citizens would argue we need even more capital projects, such as recreation facilities.

But the city has to follow a budget, and must always keep in mind that it’s spending public dollars, a trust never to be taken lightly.

Most reasonable people would probably say the city offers decent services for the taxes it takes.

But once in awhile the city does something that makes me wonder: “What were they thinking?” — the San Antonio trip, for example.

For three days, Mayor Morris Flewwelling, councillors Lorna Watkinson-Zimmer and Cindy Jefferies, city manager Craig Curtis and Development Services Department director Paul Goranson attended the International Downtown Association conference. It cost $15,000.

City-provided estimates for each individual were $550 for airfare, $1,500 for room, registration of $550, food and miscellaneous of $400, or $3,000 per person. And I thought the $250 per night hotel room I stayed in once at the world-class tourist hotspot of Banff was expensive.

In defence, the mayor says the city doesn’t normally send five people to a convention, but the city is looking at developing the Riverlands area, and since San Antonio has a similar river walk to what’s proposed in Red Deer, it made sense.

City council has a travel, seminar and conference budget over and above regular pay. It amounts to about $47,000 in total. The cost of sending two non-council city officials would not come out of this budget.

While all five city officials involved in the San Antonio trip have a role to play one way or another in the Riverlands redevelopment, all of them going to Texas was extravagant. And it was insensitive to the economic reality of the day.

Meanwhile, soon, Red Deer property owners will start receiving their tax bills in the mail.

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.

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