County passes preliminary 2016 budget

Ponoka County residents should be looking at things remaining relatively stable when it comes to their taxes.

Unless something dramatic comes out later next month, Ponoka County residents should be looking at things remaining relatively stable when it comes to their taxes.

County council agreed on a preliminary budget for 2016 that CAO Charlie Cutforth presented to them at their regular meeting on March 22. The document, which remained largely unchanged from what council got to see initially, revealed an overall budget of just under $31.5 million and keeps the tax rates at the same level as last year.

However, the reason council didn’t finalize the budget is because of the uncertainty surrounding funding and other potential effects on programs that may come in the provincial budget set to come out on April 14. Cutforth stated the budget complete with any changes should that be necessary will come back to council for final approval at a meeting on April 21.

Revenue streams

On the revenue side, it’s estimated that residential taxes will bring in about $90,000 more in 2016 primarily due to the addition of several new homes in the county. For a similar reason, Cutforth said that non-residential tax revenue is expected to rise by $1.4 million.

The hit to the economy in Alberta will take a bite out of the county coffers Cutforth added with a number of other sources of revenue anticipated to be reduced over the next year. That includes a significant drop of about $40,000 from dust control as work in the resource sector has fallen dramatically in the area.

Things such as the gravel levy at $190,000 and tax penalties and other costs at $175,000 were left unchanged from 2015 levels as the bulk of gravel sales are heading to Edmonton and other places that still have infrastructure projects on the go. Cutforth added the hard economic times have already led to several tax payment penalties and it may yet get worse in 2016.

One item that will rise is what the county will take in from the province for responding to accidents on provincial highways. Estimated at $75,000 up from $20,000 last year comes as a result of the new East County Fire Department taking over those calls after May 1.

As for grant revenue, Cutforth expects the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) capital funding from the province to remain the same as 2015 $3.3 million and anticipates the county will get just over $481,000 in gas tax rebate funds. Though he cautioned council there could be a need for significant work on the budget if either of these amounts change as a result of the provincial budget to be announced next month.

Cutforth did state the MSI operating grant was left out for 2016, as there have been suggestions the Alberta government is looking at eliminating that grant in the upcoming budget.

Donations tight

There were some changes made to the expense side of the budget, the majority coming in just how much will be spent on donations to various programs and groups throughout the county.

Cutforth budgeted for a total of $605,000 taking into account what has already been committed and has been historically provided by the county which also includes $25,000 in funds that have yet to be allocated.

He added that there are a number of other requests that have been left out of the equation as there simply isn’t the funds at the moment and given the doubt about what might be coming down in the provincial budget.

Those requests include three large projects looking for a total of almost $525,000 as well as requests totalling about another $200,000 that may be coming down the road.

Reeve Paul McLauchlin stated this seems to be the most reasonable route to take, given what has already been approved.

“With some uncertainty about MSI possibly getting a haircut, I’m not big on the big capital projects,” he said. “It’s a different conversation that many of those smaller ones, especially those to the non-profit organizations the county has traditionally supported and who provide wonderful services to the region.”

Other expenses that have risen are insurance premiums, costs to operate the new East County Fire Department to the tune of $230,000 and $650,000 for fuel and oil costs to which Cutforth added the county has already saved about $100,000 on this year with not having to do as much snow plowing.

Capital spending

On the capital expenses side, the county will buy three new graders at a cost of $950,000, though that will be mostly offset by the sale of fixed assets of $945,000 that includes the trade-in value of three graders.

In total, the county has set aside $2.3 million for capital expenditures in 2016 that will also help to pay for building 10 miles of county roads, work to widen Menaik Road and improvements to the intersection of Secondary Highway 771 and the local road leading to the Westlake boat launch. Also included in that money is $42,000 for a peace officer pickup truck and $665,000 to purchase and make improvements to the new East County Fire Hall.