Rookie council struggles with budget

By Geoff Lee

December 15, 2016 12:00 AM

Council approved an interim 2017 city budget, with some clarification needed on departmental balance sheets before final approval can be given.
“An interim budget that we’ve given approval to today is the opportunity for council to examine things in a much more in depth perspective,”  said Mayor Gerald Aalbers at a council meeting that dragged for more than five and-a-half hours Monday.
“As you can appreciate, approximately 52 days ago we came into office as a new council.”
Aalbers said, by the time the new council was sworn in, administration had already presented the former council with a budget, then he and five new councillors came in with a second draft and a ton of questions.
He said they now have a little more time to question administration and get some of the budget details they need to make decisions.
Technically, the budget, as it was presented to council on Monday, is balanced, with about $79 million in expenses and $79 million in revenue.
Aalbers noted throughout the election campaign people asked where does this money go.
“We need some clear direction,” said Alan Cayford, director of public works, speaking from the administration’s perspective.
“We’ve been doing things one way for a long time, and this is a new group and looking for a different kind of information.”
Cayford confirmed the city has budgeted $1.8 million for an automated water meter reading system in the 2017 capital budget to improve monthly billing.
“We’ll be able to monitor significantly more closely where our water losses are,” said Cayford,
“We’ll be able to tell better where things are leaking.”
Coun. Michael Diachuk said council needs a month’s extension to get everything sorted out.
“That’s why we’re going to have an interim budget today and we’re going to take some time under the leadership of our mayor and we’re going to go through those items,” he said.
When council approves the budget, they want to be able to explain it to the public with a “certain level of intelligence so they can understand it too,” he said.
Council has requested a departmental explanation of major differences from the 2016 budget and the 2017 budget.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to know on a departmental basis where we are with wages, where we are with operating costs—where we are with equipment capital expenditures,” said Coun. Ken Baker. He added the budget document they were handed doesn’t give one the details of that.
Coun. Michael Diachuk, for instance, wants to know what accounts for a $5 million reduction in 2016 operating expenses of about $50 million to about $45 million in 2017.
“So I’m trying to wrap my head around what that $5 million means,” he said.
“Does it mean a reduction of staff, a reduction of services—are there strategies for efficiencies? We are brand new at the game and want to make the right decision.”
The passage of an interim budget also means the proposed four per cent tax hike is also on the table for adjustment.
“No one wants a tax increase,” said Aalbers.
“If I can bring a budget in and lead council to two per cent, that would be a more realistic number in everybody’s opinion.
“It will be fully worked over to make sure it’s as low as it can be—we’ll do the best that we can do.”
Aalbers noted there’s not a whole lot more that can be cut without sacrificing services.
He said the tax rate will be made very clear when that budget is finalized.
Council also agreed to follow the example of the city’s administration and unionized workers and take a two per cent wage cut.
“I think it’s only appropriate that we take that two per cent decrease as well,” said Coun. Stephanie Brown Munro.
Not all city-funded community groups will get what they’re asking for either, as the interim budget reflected.
The SPCA, for example, was awarded an annual operational grant of $50,000, but council denied an additional $25,000 for a spay/neuter program.
“The new program certainly has merit,” said Aalbers.
“Council felt how can we put money there and deny some other places?”
Streetscapes Destination Downtown was given a grant of $145,000, but a $149,000 planning study for revitalization was denied.
Council received a request from Lloydminster Interval Home Society for a donation of land from the city for its future emergency shelter as information only.
Other city groups, including the Lloydminster Library, Vic Juba Community Theatre, Regional Business Accelerator and the Lloydminster Regional Archives Association had their funding requests met.
The city also signed a one-year building lease agreement with Marlene Barrett, the owner of the Clock Tower Pasta and burger Bar.
The agreement covers eight months in 2017 at a 24 per cent reduced rate from the previous agreement in keeping with the economy.

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