Council concluded budget talks for the 2016-18 budget. While the bulk of the budget was set at last year's four-year budget, every November Council reviews the budget and makes changes where desired.
As most of the budget was set last year, you can read my blog on last year's budget decisions here and see what went into my decision to vote against it.
This year was a tougher budget year as growth in tax assessment grew even less than our conservative estimates. A number of difficult decisions were made and in the end the tax increase was reduced to what was planned last year.
We were able to invest in a number of projects that will improve the quality of life of GP residents. Below is a number of the decisions that were made and how I voted:
The Leisure Centre Pool
Council voted to remove the remaining $5 million that was allocated to the Leisure Centre and invest it in other projects this budget year. In the Spring, Council will be presented with a Recreation Master plan that was developed with the County. This plan will advise regional municipalities on when we should begin planning for another indoor aquatics facility.
More Police Resources
$1.1 million - Supported
Given crime trends in the region, local police authorities requested additional resources to compliment the additional 12 officers that were budgeted for last year. In an 8-1 decision, Council voted to have an extra 5 officers budgeted for. These officers will be dedicated to a Drug Enforcement Unit. An additional 5 municipal staff will also be hired for administrative support, data entry, and analytics so that officers can spend more time in the field.
$1.1 million - Not supported
Last year Council budgeted $2 million for the building of bleachers and grandstands (complete with washrooms, dressing rooms, etc.) with the expectation that the remaining amount would be funded with private donations. Fundraising has been a little slower given the economy and so Council was asked whether we wanted to fund the remaining amount. I did not feel that this project was a top priority and was willing to wait until additional sponsorship dollars came in. Defeated 2-7.
Bear Creek Pool
$5 million - Supported
There was unanimous support on Council for the reopening of this facility. There was much debate on which option to choose though. When all the dust settled, the $5 million mark was agreed upon which would give us enough funding for the basic version of Option D (see below) without the waterslide and splash park.
I proposed the motion for this amount because I felt Option D found a good balance between residents wanting to use the pool for fitness as well as having expanded features for younger children. Given the tough budget year, I felt we could reduce overall expenses by not including the waterslide and splash park. However, the water hook-ups for these features could still be added so that these pieces could be added in the future.
While there is a higher upfront capital cost, outdoor pools are quite inexpensive to run (only about 1% of the Eastlink Centre budget).
Please note that we have not approved the final design of the pool yet, so there may still be modifications made.
$500,000/year - Supported
In last year's budget, Council supported the start of a major project to replace the underground infrastructure and streetscape of the downtown core. You can see details of the plan here. With the major investment in public infrastructure, we wanted to encourage private investment in our city's core. Recognizing that it is more difficult and expensive to develop there than other places in the city, we are putting in place a 3-year incentive program that will be used to encourage new development and improve the look of existing buildings. Passed 8-1.
$2 million - Not supported
While I am in complete support of this project, given the tight budget year this was not a priority for me. Passed 7-2.
$850,000 - Supported
The South Peace Regional Archives, housed in the GP Museum, stores much of the region's history. The Archives have reached maximum capacity in their existing space with archivists and documents filling every nook and cranny available to them. While Council was not in a position to fund a new building, we did recognize the need to build additional space which will extend the usefulness of their current location for the foreseeable future.
The Museum has been renting temporary storage space for some years that has been inadequate for storing old artefacts. I felt it was important to invest in a permanent storage space that will adequately preserve our region's history. These projects were passed 8-1.
QEII Foundation Sponsorship
$250,000/year - Not supported
The QEII Foundation had requested that Council support their capital campaign for equipment at the new hospital to the amount of $350,000/year for 10 years. In a 7-2 decision, Council voted to include $250,000/year for the next 2 years. I was not in favour of this funding. While I am in complete support of the Foundation and will personally be giving to their campaign, I strongly felt that this was not an area that municipal tax dollars should be involved in.
I am always very cautious about extending the City's tax dollars into areas that I feel to be outside of our mandate. I believe hospital funding is and should be the responsibility of the provincial government. Taking on a portion of this responsibility, however small it may be, sets a poor precedent in my opinion. There are many community needs in other provincial areas like education, highways, and colleges. I believe we have to be very careful to not overextend ourselves into these areas. Passed 7-2.
Young Offenders Centre - Safety Upgrades
Up to $500,000 - Supported
I was very disappointed with the outcome on this item. When Council accepted the YOC from the provincial government, we knew that there were a number of safety upgrades that were going to be required in order make the facility usable again. Earlier this Fall, an RFP went out to community groups, asking for proposals for the Centre. As part of the RFP, the City indicated that it would cover the costs of the safety upgrades while leasehold improvements would be the responsibility of the organization.
The organization that scored the highest once proposals came in was Rising Above. City administration and Rising Above then began working out a lease agreement. I felt that since we had committed to the community that we would be funding the safety upgrades, we needed to honour our commitment and ensure funding was available in the budget. Unfortunately, this item was defeated 4-5.
Going forward, Rising Above and the City will continue to work out a lease agreement and I anticipate that there will likely be a request for funding of the safety upgrades before the lease is signed.
Cultural Integration Academy
$48,000 - Not supported
This is a fantastic program, funded by the Province, which brought people new to Canada together to learn about Canadian laws and customs, law enforcement, political structures, and to learn about local resources available to them. With the Province no longer providing funding to the program, there was a request to have the City fund it for the next couple of years.
Council decided in a 7-2 decision to fund the program, but only until the end of the program's year.
I did not vote for this funding as I felt this was another area where the City needed to be careful in taking over provincially funded programs.
$500,000/year - Supported reduced amount
This was an item already in the budget that the Mayor flagged as an area we could find some savings for this year. It was determined that some of this budget item could be delayed to future years without any major impact to operations. The Mayor made the motion to reduce this amount to $250,000/year for 2015 and 2016. I supported this motion. Passed 6-3.
Seniors Property Tax Rebate
$50,000/year - Not supported
The City has a program which provides a $100/year rebate to low-income seniors. I made a motion to remove funding for this program. There are two main reasons I made this motion:
1. One of the intents of the program is to provide some property tax relief to seniors so that they are able to stay in their homes longer. There's a couple points on this. First of all, I question how effective a $100 rebate on a $3,000 tax bill is in being the deciding factor in whether a senior stays in their home or not. Second, the Province created a program that allows low-income seniors to defer paying their entire property tax bill until they sell their house. I believe this program is much more effective in the aim of keeping low-income seniors in their homes longer.
2. I believe the program is inequitable. There are many property owners who would benefit from some tax relief, in addition to seniors. As such, I feel that any programs to make housing more affordable should be accessible to our entire population.
Given these concerns, I felt that money used for this program would be better used for general tax relief or to be transferred to a more effective program. Motion was defeated 2-7.
Other major projects that were previously budgeted for this year which are going ahead:
68th Ave Twinning - Funds are in place to complete the bridge over the winter with construction on the road twinning beginning in the Spring. Right now there is enough funding to twin from 108 St (Hwy 40) to 100 St. Ideally, we would like to finish twinning right to Poplar Drive. Once the tenders come in early next year, Council will decide whether to proceed with this section.
Upgrade to Pavilion in South Bear Creek Park - $800,000
Additional ball diamond - $400,000
Intersection, sidewalks, and pathway upgrades and renewal - $3.8 million
Road repair, rehab, overlay, and line painting - $8.9 million
Storm line upgrades - $1.5 million
Snow plow - $300,000
So that's Budget 2016! While I still have concerns with the level of operational funding (which I laid out in last year's budget), I was pleased with the number of capital items approved this year that have very low operating costs. Council will vote on the budget on the 30th, but the budget can still be amended until the mill rate is set in the Spring.