Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Budget 2015-18: The Rationale Part II

And we're back!
I failed to mention in the last post that as a reference, every $1 million dollar decision results in roughly a 1% tax increase/decrease.
Sports & Recreation

The Leisure Centre Pool Reopening - Not Supported

I've been consistent all along in my belief that it would be financially irresponsible to reopen the Leisure Centre pool.  With the Eastlink Centre pool only operating at 43% capacity, I don't believe there would be sufficient demand to make the operation sustainable.

I believe that the numbers that were presented to us validated my assumptions.  To operate the Leisure Centre pool, an operating taxpayer subsidy of $1.1 million each year will be required which represents 67% of expenses!  To put this in perspective, the Eastlink Centre subsidy only represents 32% of expenses.

I also believe that given the high costs of retrofitting pools, the $11 million price tag for the retrofit will only balloon from there.

However, in the end, Council voted 6-3 in favour of reopening.  It is expected to be opened to the public in 2017.

I would like to note that without the reopening of the pool, we could have seen no tax increases for 2015 and 2016 and reduced increases in the following years.

Eastlink Centre

There were $6.1 million in various projects that Council could have funded to upgrade the Eastlink Centre.  In the end, just under $1 million was approved.  Given this year's deficit, I was not prepared to invest significantly in the facility.

I did support several smaller items and was pleased to see them go through:

  • Child Mind children's room improvements
  • On-deck washroom in pool area
  • Sound baffles to reduce noise in aquatics area
Operationally, Council chose to not increase the $4 million subsidy that the Eastlink Centre has been receiving.  Expenses will be curtailed and increased user revenues will put the Centre back on track.

CKC Field
Grandstands  - $2,315,250
Scoreboard - $398,000

This project would add a grandstands (with bleachers, washrooms, changing rooms) and a scoreboard to the artificial turf fields at Charles Spencer school.  Council felt that this project could be cost shared with private donors, but there was debate as to what that amount should be. 

I was comfortable with us funding 70% of the projects.  Once the votes were cast, $2 million was decided on for the grandstands in 2016.  I did not vote for this amount.

$200,000 was decided on for the scoreboard in 2015 which I supported.

Plug: we are currently looking for Corporate/Private donations to fund the rest of these projects!

SCORES Partnerships
$2 million

There has been strong pressure put on the City by the Province to partner with school boards to fund recreational facilities that are attached to new schools.  I am supportive of these types of partnerships when there is a community need for a facility.  However, when there is no identified need, I think that it is an unfair expectation to have us partner with every new school that comes online (and with GP's growth...that can add up!)

Therefore, I made the motion that we honour our commitment to the Catholic School District to partner with them for $1 million, but that we not include the other unallocated $1 million.  The motion passed 6-3.

Community Group Funding
$17.4 million

I like to break community group funding into four areas: FCSS, Culture & Heritage, Recreation & Sport, and the Library.  Grande Prairie is very fortunate to have so many community groups that enhance our quality of life in so many ways.  I was very pleased to support many of the groups who applied. 

However, I did raise some concerns with our overall spending amounts.  Community group funding for 2015 was increased by 26%, or almost $1 million (now at $4.8 million).  This will increase at around 5% each year after meaning that approximately $17.4 million will be given to community groups over the next four years.  I felt that the increase in this budget line was too great and I made some difficult decisions as a result.

FCSS (Family & Community Support Services)
$1.2 million
I was very pleased to support 16 different local agencies who provide such valuable services to our community:

John Howard Society
Big Brothers Big Sisters
Catholic Family Services
Cool Aid Society
HIV North Society
Suicide Prevention Resource Centre
GP & Area Council on Aging
GP Hospice
Volunteer Services Bureau
Circle of Life
Odyssey House
Sunrise House
Pregnant & Parenting Teens
GP Council for Lifelong Learning

The FCSS program was established by the Province a number of years ago to support a variety of community groups based on social needs in the community.  The program was established with a 80/20 funding split meaning the Province would fund 80% while municipalities funded 20%. 

Over the years, some municipalities have chosen to spend over and above the 20% as is the case in Grande Prairie.  In 2014, our share represented 43% to the Province's 57%.  With the increases this year, we've moved our share to 50% in 2015.  In comparison, cities double our size, like Red Deer and Lethbridge, have remained at the 20% share level.

One of the constraints that the Province has put on municipalities is that they have not increased FCSS funding since has remained flatlined.  I believe this is shameful on behalf of the Province.  With the Province's plethora of revenue generating abilities, I believe it is contingent upon them to assist in these valuable programs.  If they insist on having municipalities fund these programs, they should relinquish some of the revenue generating tools they have to the municipalities.

As this doesn't appear to be happening any time soon, I think we should be more prudent with our spending in this area so that there is greater pressure on the Province to act.  As such, I made the motion to increase FCSS funding by 5% this year, an amount that I felt represented an increase in line with inflation and population growth.  The motion did not pass.  FCSS funding in 2015 will now be $1.2 million representing a 63% increase.

GP Library
$1.5 million

I supported the Library's request for a 5% increase in funding which I thought was reasonable.

Culture & Heritage

I was very pleased to support a number of our culture and heritage groups which add so much to our city's vibrancy! 

Centre for Creative Arts
GP Boys’ Choir
GP International Street Performers Festival
GP Live Theatre
GP Performing Arts Guild
Prairie Gallery Society
South Peace Regional Archives Society
Reel Shorts Festival
Peace Regional Independent Media Arts

There was one concern I had within this budget.  The Art Gallery asked for an increase of funding of 39% this year bringing its total to $286,000.  The reason for the large increase was a significant drop in provincial grant money.  I again felt that this was another area in which we couldn't let the Province off the hook by filling in the gap they left.  As such, I proposed a more modest increase which did not pass.

Recreation & Sport

This area saw the following organizations funded:

Wolverine Wheelchair Sports Association
Canadian Paraplegic Association (Alberta)
Peace Wapiti Speed Skating
Wapiti Striders Track Club o/a Wolves
GP Sports Council

This budget area saw a major increase in funding this year (183%).  This was largely due to some significant requests from the Nitehawk Ski Hill.

Nitehawk was asking for $50,000/year in operational funding and $300,000 for capital purchases split over two years.  In the past, Nitehawk has received funding from the MD of Greenview (which it is located in), from the County, and the City based on a 50/25/25 cost share.  This was also the request this year.

I really struggled with this one.  Nitehawk provides such an incredible recreational option in our region and is well used by City residents.  However, I wrestled with whether the City should be providing funding to the society. 

My hesitation to fund Nitehawk is based on two reasons:

1. The MD of Greenview could easily fund the entire operation.

The MD of Greenview (pop. 5000) receives $65 million in bonus money each year mostly from the oil and gas sector.  The City receives $1 million by comparison.  The MD has so much money coming in, it literally cannot spend it all and ends up saving it (they have $90 million in reserves) or giving it away to other municipalities like Valleyview, Fox Creek, and Grande Cache ($6 million/year).

My belief is that since the MD overwhelmingly has the financial capacity to assist, it should be responsible for helping Nitehawk along. 

2. The City has limited dollars to spend and must make tough decisions as to which recreational options it funds.

I'm in favour of providing public dollars to support recreational options that will encourage the health and wellness of our population.  To that end, I support putting money into programs which are lower cost and can be accessed by a wide range of people.  This is why I am so passionate about our parks and trails.  They are relatively inexpensive to operate and can be freely accessed by the young, old, rich and poor in any season of the year.

While ski hills do provide great recreational opportunities, they are not very accessible to a wide range of users.  There is the transportation to get to the hill and then there is the high cost of participating that makes downhill skiing not accessible to many people.  I would rather see that money spent in areas which provide more value to a greater number of residents.

With these reasons in mind, I moved that this item be unfunded.  The motion was defeated.

RCMP Officers
Addition of 12 Officers - Supported
$1.7 million

Very pleased to support the addition of 12 new officers over the next four years.  Our 80 current officers have very high caseloads and the addition of new officers is sorely needed.


Montrose Greenway project - Not Supported
$2.1 million
This project would create a greenway with trees, benches, fountain, etc. on the south side of the Montrose Cultural Centre.

While I'm in support of landscaping this area, my lack of support for this project was based on timing. First, with all the other constraints we have on us, this was not a priority for me right now.  Second, we are currently working on a plan for what we want to see on the entire Montrose site. I thought that funding the previously designed greenway was premature as it may not fit into our overall vision for the site. 

The project will proceed in 2016 however based on the 5-4 vote in favour.

Rehabilitation and Streetscape Upgrades - Supported
$20 million

One of Council's focuses in our Strategic Plan was a commitment to build up and enhance our core.  One of the limiting factors to growth in the downtown is that our water and wastewater infrastructure is so old...some of it dating back to the 1930s.  There are a number of developments that we could not physically support because of inadequate underground infrastructure.

If you make the decision to tear up roads to fix the stuff underneath, it gives you the opportunity to redesign the stuff on the surface when it's all put back together.  As such, we have an opportunity to completely reimagine the downtown core and it excites me to see what the community can come up with!

We engaged a consultant to give us an estimate of what a rehabilitation and redesign of this magnitude would cost.  The results came in showing that we're looking at a $100 million project. Ouch. But how do you eat an elephant?

Council has made the decision to invest in this project block by block.  We will be putting $5 million towards the project each year, for the next four years at least.

I was a supporter of this project as I see a lot of potential for downtown. Revitalization efforts in other communities have livened up the core of the city and provided ample opportunities for economic development.  I can't wait to see the end result!

And there you have it!  My decisions for Budget 2015-2018.  There were a number of other items discussed, so if you'd like to know where I stood on those, just let me know.  I don't know if it's reached the "cheesy" level yet, but here it goes anyway:
Let's Thrive, GP!

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