Fire medics, road work approved on first day of 2015 operating budget debate

Red Deer city council will debate the proposed $329-million operating budget for a second day on Monday.

Red Deer city council will debate the proposed $329-million operating budget for a second day on Monday.

The draft budget calls for a 4.31 per cent property tax increase to the municipal portion of the tax bill. Owners of a $325,000 house could see a $80.17 increase in the municipal port of their taxes to $1,940 in 2015.

Education taxes are not included and won’t be known until the province crunches its numbers later this year.

During the four-hour session council approved base budget items, prior year budget items and the new requests under the Office of the Mayor and City Manager ($5.1 million), Corporate Services ($22.1 million) and Development Services ($18.3 million) Divisions.

While council was on the same page for most items, Coun. Lawrence Lee voted against a one-time funding request for a $200,000 value for money audit early in the day.

The city has not determined what area will be put under the microscope and council will have final approval.

“Red Deer didn’t just open for business yesterday,” said Lee following the debate. “We have 100 years of history and operating as a city. As a city council we would look to our city manager for the outputs and the learnings from the value for money audits. We just did one in 2012 on utilities. There has been a similar one done. What has happened with those learnings?”

Lee said there are other initiatives coming up that would produce similar outcomes to a value for money audit.

Lee said it would be more prudent to use those avenues first before putting the expenditure in the books for 2015.

City Manager Craig Curtis said the city felt the audit or detailed study was a valuable exercise where a number of funding and structural issues were identified.

Most councillors said the utilities value for money audit was a win-win for the city including Coun. Paul Harris, who sits on the audit committee. Harris stressed next time to ensure the purpose statement is clear in the terms of reference.

“One of the primary jobs of council is to make sure each department is doing their jobs effectively and efficiently and also that they are looking at new ways to find revenue and also cost savings,” said Harris. “This is a great opportunity.”

One of the common themes that came up repeatedly over the last week was the new fees and charges policy. The principles are expected to come to council for approval later this year.

Some proposed fee increases in the budget already went through the lens of the new guidelines including the new fee for criminal record checks and the increased adult admission fees to recreation facilities.

Council debated a $100,000 item that would support more work on the new policy and the city’s participation in a benchmarking initiative with mid-sized cities to determine how the cities are faring in various service levels like transit.

Citing concerns of timing and practicality, Coun. Ken Johnston voted against the expenditure.

Johnston said the city can increase or justify a fee increase anytime without a $200,000 investment.

“Transit can do that right now,” he said. “Parks and Recreation can do that right now… Hopefully we don’t invest anymore money on what I think is something that we can easily do internally.”

Coun. Tanya Handley spoke in strong support of the development of the fees and charges policy. She said in the end the city will have a consistent pattern for all the fees and charges.

Council spent more than half an hour debating a $12,000 line item for increased bank fees that was eventually struck from the budget after a close vote.

Bank fees are expected to rise this year because of the high cost to handle coins and the general growth in city operations.

Johnston, a former banker, the issue was broader than a $12,000 line item.

“I think we were remiss in not pursuing an RFP because I think in the 2015 reality of banking that we would have found a financial partner that could do way more than handle our bank accounts and handle our cashflow,” said Johnston. “It’s unfortunate that council didn’t want to go there. It was a small item but I think there would be a large pay off in sponsorships and collaboration down the road.”

Among the big ticket items were approvals for 10 new fire medics ($877,165) and additional funding ($417,114) for crews to get catch up on the back lanes and roads that have not been kept up-to-date in recent years.

A new staffer will split his/her time working on city grants and Canada Winter Games work. For the first time, council will have a dedicated administrative support staff.

The transit department will hire a new project manager for the Greening the Fleet initiative.

The entire operating budget is expected to be passed by Jan.14.

The debate will start in council chambers at 1 p.m. on Monday.

crhyno@bprda.wpengine.com

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