OPINION: Town of Ponoka spending a systemic issue from past years

Looking at the spending history within the Town of Ponoka in this week's editorial.

The town spending problem is not a new one.

For as long as anyone can remember, the benefits of owning electrical distribution in the Town of Ponoka has allowed for some freedoms in operational spending, something past councils either allowed, didn’t care or didn’t know about.

This year was different; with the exception of parks and recreation every single department over spent and that electrical revenue was nowhere to be found.

This is not a council issue on its own. Operations and spending falls to administration to monitor, maintain and adjust accordingly. It is clear that didn’t happen last year.

This issue comes from years and years of bad habits, using the electrical revenue to offset costs. I wager that a line-by-line look at each department will show unnecessary spending. Administration even identified overtime hours and on call pay as an issue and that the electrical revenue was used to offset staffing.

Seeing this type of spending raises concerns that the town will not be able to manage the proposed learning centre but there’s definitely room for improvement in the spending side of things. We need to take into consideration that there is an almost brand new administration at the helm and so there will be lessons to learn.

Some of those lessons point clearly to the need to change bad habits.

How does overtime and on-call actually work? What is the agreement for coffee breaks, and do staff follow them? These are detailed questions that council has started to look at in serious depth considering how far the town went over budget in 2016.

This new learning centre proposal can be manageable. Through a combination of tax increases and tightening of belts, on the operations side of things, the town could make this a viable option.

It’s important to point out that town staff work hard to ensure services are met. Public works and the electrical department spent countless hours clearing up the mess from the storm last week and restoring power. These guys work hard, no one is arguing that, but past spending practices are a luxury town departments can no longer follow.

The cash cow that is the town’s electrical revenue this isn’t a bad thing is better suited to other areas rather than offsetting operational shuffling of taxpayers dollars.

Again, these are challenges the town’s new administration is facing and I’m guessing there would be some reluctance to see past practices change, especially ones that appear to have been ongoing for decades.

Where council is responsible is in ensuring duplication of resources and waste isn’t occurring. You do realize that there are currently two fire halls in the Town of Ponoka, allowed because of a majority vote by town council.

The fire department overspent in so many ways it hurts. A $3,500 budget for tools was blown to a spending of $40,000. Non-capital equipment showed $53,000 spent; its budget was $10,000.

These were unforeseen costs that came with the town coming into its own. Did anyone on the administration side look at these numbers and point that out? This decision to be a standalone department cost residents in both the town and county hundreds of thousands of dollars. Money gone forever that could’ve been used in other areas.

But it’s not just the fire department. Again, with the exception of parks and recreation, a person could probably look at the line-by-line categories of each department and find areas of overspending. The question that needs to be asked is if the spending can be justified.

If one has an answer to that question then we are doing good. If the justification sounds rotten off the lips, then it probably is.

So can the town handle a learning centre? At the face of it, yes, but it means town departments will have to find other ways to ensure they get the job done. That process has started with the approved increase of the town’s ATCO Gas franchise fee, which is believed to be relatively low compared to other communities. A plan is in the works to increase revenue with the electrical department.

It takes a sincere and honest look at how this can be accomplished on both council and administration’s side of things. Those in charge on the town side will need to re-evaluate priorities but probably more importantly, re-evaluate the culture and what appears to be a complete lack of respect for other people’s money.

Clearly the current way of doing things isn’t sustainable.