Council holds firm on 1.5% tax increase plan

Town council was clear in its instruction to administration: find a way to make the budget work at a 1.5 per cent increase.

Town council was clear in their instruction to administration: find a way to make the budget work at a 1.5 per cent increase.

Council and administration reviewed the 2016 interim budget Monday, April 11, which saw the potential of a 4.5 or 6.5 per cent tax increase. By the end of the meeting, however, council and administration teamed up to find a way to shrink that down.

Administration was left with the task of finding ways to achieve a total of just over $83,000 in spending cuts in specific departments after council provided instructions on the interim budget.

Among the chief considerations at this meeting was determining the debenture payment needed for the North Bridge and road realignment project. Interest and principal on the bridge is estimated at $116,045 for 2016. If that payment was considered in the operations budget, rather than paying out of reserves, it would require a 6.5 per cent tax increase.

However, that cost will balance out in two years, said Sandra Lund, director of corporate services, as the town has some debenture payments being finalized by 2017.

Other areas that saw increases were in the electrical department operations including billing services charged by Enmax to the Town of Ponoka at $20,000 to $21,000 per month.

Lund said originally that amount was paid through the electrical department’s surplus annually but it should be considered as part of operational costs. “It has been under budgeted for only one month of expenses,” said Lund.

Also included in the budget was the on-call pay to members of the Ponoka Fire Department, which adds approximately $7,000 to operations. Lund said other increases to the fire services budget include an increase in training dollars to $20,000 from $10,000.

The town forecasts fire services expenses in 2016 at $324,127 with total revenue estimated at $76,667, compared to 2015 with revenue at $263,084 and expenses at $434,051.

Finding ways to save

Way-finding signage costs, estimated at $50,000, turned out to be a potential area for administration to make use of the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding.

Lund said MSI funding project applications have been opened up by the province. She has contacted the province to determine if way-finding falls under MSI. Town CAO Albert Flootman told council that MSI allows for welcoming signs, which is similar to way-finding but administration needs confirmation if way-finding is allowed.

Of the $500,000 MSI funding budgeted for the town’s new rescue truck, approximately $380,000 was spent on it, leaving approximately $120,000 for other projects. That money could go to recreation capital projects, suggested Underhill. She prefers to do this than to bring a higher tax increase. “I’m not going above 1.5 per cent,” said Underhill.

She added that at some point, considering the economic climate, operations may have to take a hit until the economy improves. “Everybody has to tighten their belt.”

Council wants to see ways to reduce operations costs thereby reducing a tax increase burden on residents.

Coun. Carla Prediger suggested there are ways to make operations cuts within each department. “It’s up to you where you want to pull that from,” said Prediger.

Flootman’s concern is that training would fall to the wayside, hurting the town’s potential as a strong employer. He added that in some cases, training is an essential part of the job.

“Somewhere along the way we have to cut back some fluff,” replied Prediger.

While she is not opposed to training, she suggested there may be ways to conduct training efficiently such as webinars rather than with conferences or training out of province. “Every household in this community has been asked to become more efficient right? And we need to do the same thing.”

Mayor Rick Bonnett asked if there are also ways to add revenue to the community. He suggested that since the Fire Hall will have less equipment in it, there may be options at renting out a portion to balance out the costs.

Underhill added administration needs to take into consideration what the future of the Hudson Green Nature and Activity Centre looks like. She suggested the $238,600 budgeted for in the 2016 carry forward projects for the centre could better be used in other areas.

In attendance was Mayor Rick Bonnett and councillors Carla Prediger, Loanna Gulka and Teri Underhill. Coun. Sandra Lyon attended by phone and councillors Marc Yaworski and Tim Falkiner were not in attendance.

No decisions were made at the meeting as the final approval is set for Tuesday, April 26. Council will discuss the provincial budget during a committee of the whole meeting on Thursday, April 21 at 6 p.m. and how it affects the community, with areas such as the school requisition a provincial requirement and the carbon tax being discussed.