Red Deer is undergoing a transition that presents challenges and opportunities, says Mayor Tara Veer.
Speaking at a Red Deer Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday, Veer described how the city is approaching 100,000 people, with a regional population of 300,000 to 350,000.
As Alberta’s “emerging city,” an ad hoc process of governing and delivering services is no longer adequate, she said.
What’s needed is an integrated approach that emphasizes “effectiveness, efficiency and innovation,” and responds quickly to emerging issues and the needs of citizens.
Red Deer’s 2014 operating and capital budgets were “cautiously optimistic,” said Veer, and based on expectations of marginal economic growth while recognizing that recovery from the recession continues.
On the operational side, property taxes and user fees are expected to maintain rather than enhance service levels, she said. Exceptions included policing and pubic safety, and snow and ice control.
Veer also said council has worked to reduce Red Deer’s debt to a manageable level.
“Eight years ago, the city was anticipating maxing out its provincially prescribed debtload capacity,” she said.
Now, municipal debt is expected to be about half of the maximum in 2015.
“This ultimately leaves us with the financial flexibility that we will need to respond to new and emerging items, and to deal with unanticipated items as they arise.”
The 2014 capital budget lays the groundwork for future growth, said Veer. It includes work on the north leg of the north highway connector, servicing and powerline burial in Red Deer’s Riverlands district, road upgrades, and infrastructure maintenance and upgrades.
The city’s bid for the 2019 Canada Winter Games reflects a tremendous opportunity, said Veer. If successful, it will result in upgrades to Red Deer’s recreational and cultural facilities — upgrades that are already contemplated in the city’s long-term capital plans.
“The games will secure significant provincial and federal capital funding dollars for Red Deer that would otherwise not be available to us.”
Going forward, Red Deer must find a way to provide the facilities and services that the public expects but at a cost that it can afford.
“In this new normal, the presence of corporate, service club and private sponsorship will be absolutely critical to the planning and success and realization of new community capital projects and programming,” said Veer.
She also stressed the importance of elevating Red Deer’s provincial profile. This will help attract money from the Alberta government for schools and other facilities, like a new courthouse.
“As much as possible, what we need to do is recognize that if Red Deer is going to grow both on population and in business, our quality of life needs to match that, so that people don’t feel as though as we’re becoming a larger city they’re trading off the benefits of our small-town feel,” Veer later summed up for reporters.