Ponoka town council used some creative methods, including cutting their own salaries, to create a $25,430,870 interim capital and operating budget with a low tax rate increase, which they approved during their regular meeting on Dec. 10.
All councillors voted unanimously to approve the budget, which reduces their 2020 compensation by 1.5 per cent from 2019 levels, and has a tentative tax increase rate of 2.7 per cent, a slight increase from the 2.2 per cent raise last year.
The total budget includes an operating budget of $18,824,920 and a capital budget of $6,605,950.
“This was a really tough budget to work through due to recently announced provincial funding cuts to municipalities,” said Mayor Rick Bonnett in a release.
“However, with considerable fiscal restraint and cost cutting, we are pleased that we can minimize property tax increases for 2020 while continuing to maintain funding for existing service levels and provide the day-to-day services that our residents have come to expect and rely on.”
More provincial funding cuts are expected in 2021.
“Whether we will be able to continue to avoid cuts to municipal services in 2021 remains to be seen,” he said.
The interim budget allows operations to continue from the beginning of the fiscal year until the final 2020 capital and operating budgets are approved in the spring.
The operating and capital budgets for 2020 can only be finalized after the town completes its 2019 year end and financial statements, receives its audit report, the surplus for the current year is known, and property assessments are completed, which will take until the end of March or beginning of April.
Council is expected to be presented with the final operating and capital budgets in April and a new tax bylaw and new tax rate will then be put before council in May.
The interim budget is essentially the same after council’s two days of deliberations held Nov. 20 and 21, with a few changes. Council made “straw votes,” during deliberations, meaning votes weren’t binding, but had the purpose of providing direction to administration.
As directed, along with the cut to council’s wages, administration reduced the operating expenses of purchased services, supplies and materials and other services by 2.5 per cent each, resulting in a savings of $651,130 from the initially proposed budget.
The interim budget also cancelled a scheduled transfer of $42,100 to the contingency reserve transfer, because the lean 2020 budget left no funds available, and the transfer will remain as a carry forward item for 2021 town budget.
A total of $350,000 from the 2018 operating surplus will be used to help balance the 2020 budget, instead of transferring the funds to reserves.
A $75,000 consulting fee for a service level review project was also removed from the budget, and the project will now be completed in-house.
The projected tax rate increase of 2.7 per cent would equate to an increase of about $22 per $100,000 of residential property assessment, and about $29 per $100,000 of commercial property assessment.
According to CAO Albert Flootman, the average amount of property taxes paid per household in Ponoka remains among the lowest of municipalities along the Hwy. 2 corridor.
A vote to direct administration to begin the process of exercising the town’s lease option to purchase the Ponoka Civic Centre from Thackeray Enterprises Inc. carried, with only the mayor voting opposed. No discussion was held on the matter during the Dec. 10 meeting.
The interim budget includes $2,177,770 for protective services, $2,508,240 for transportation, roads and the airport, $1,997,100 for parks and recreation and $248,100 for culture.
Some of the capital projects include $100,000 for the building planning and design of a new protective services building, which is being paid for by MSI grant funding from 2019, $100,000 from reserves for a community wellness centre (field house) and $525,000 from reserves for upgrades and maintenance of the town’s lagoon.
Capital projects in the 2020 interim budget are almost all funded by provincial or federal grants, including the continuation of a three-year project to improve roads and storm drainage in the southwest industrial park, beginning the design process to replace underground and roadway infrastructure on 52 Ave., $500,000 for annual paving and concrete improvements and funding for park improvements such as the one-acre park space at the southwest corner of the old hospital site.
Town council and administration considered feedback received from its public consultation when preparing the 2020 interim budget.
“We gave the public input and survey results careful consideration during the budget deliberations,” said Bonnett.
“When asked which option they would choose to the balance the budget — increase taxes or cut services — a majority of people were open to a small increase in taxes to maintain or enhance services.”
Full budget information can be viewed at ponoka.civicweb.net.