Friday, April 10, 2015

Council takes first steps towards adoption of 2015 Budget

CFO Bomben providing her final
report on the budget process 
Tuesday evening, Prince Rupert City Council put in motion its plan to finalize the 2015 budget, though not without a final bit of discussion on future plans and ways to address the budget process.

Corrine Bomben, the City's Chief Financial Officer started the discussion off by providing a final brief outline of the latest change to the Budget request, making note of the final assessment values provided by BC assessment.

Those numbers provided on March 31st provided for a decrease of 4 million dollars in assessments, which required for the city to adjust its financial planning accordingly.

Towards that end, Ms. Bomben advised that staff would be recommending an increase of the mill rate to 2 percent. A subtle shift that will result in an average increase of 38 dollars this year, one dollar more than that recommended in February.

Following her presentation, Council then spent a fair amount of time discussing an initiative from Councillor Blair Mirau seeking to develop A Revenue Growth Strategy for the City (see our item on that initiative here).

For the most part, the majority of the council members expressed their support for the need to reduce the burden on local ratepayers, seemingly looking to make Councillor Mirau's idea part of the process moving forward.

Though Councillor Randhawa was so enthused by the options outlined, that he would like to see Council act on the recommendations as part of the 2015 process.

The remainder of council to one degree or another all spoke to the issue of not wanting to raise taxes, some more vociferously than others, with Councillor Thorkelson calling the concept of not wanting to raise taxes as a bit of a motherhood issue.

Though she perhaps was not quite as ready to embrace Councillor Mirau's request of staff to seek out more savings, cautioning council members that there were few areas that the City can cut costs with.

Adding that unless the City wished to radically change the nature of the city, an increase of 1 to 2 percent is something akin to a Cost of Living rate. Suggesting that the city's residents consider such civic increases as such and budget accordingly, much as they would for hydro or gas increases.

And while Council appears to be holding to their belief that there are not many areas for cuts at the moment, there are some items as part of this years budget process that perhaps they could have discussed a bit more in public sessions during the budget run up.

According to the documentation provided as part of the original budget presentation of February 23rd  ( see here ) a few questions perhaps could have been explored a bit further in a quest to reduce the city's costs.

In Appendix B under Major Grants, the city has recommended that 40,000 dollars be allocated to the Golf Course for Equipment and that 122,000 dollars be allocated for Wages and Benefits for the Superintendent.

Considering the Golf Course is now run by a local Society, Council might have explored whether that level of funding is still a fair level to be provided by the city.  With one option to have the Golf Society take over those requirements and seek out corporate donations, or increase membership fees to bridge any potential  reduction in funding from the City.

As well, Council might wish to offer some non-monetary assistance to those Community partners looking for grants, by pointing them towards such potential funding sources for the community.

Such options as the Community Investment Fund at the Prince Rupert Port Authority or through the revenues distributed by the BC Lottery Corporation. That program recently revealed the level of community grants that it provides to the community. If local community groups or societies can access sources of funding from other areas, the burden on the city to continue to fund those initiatives could be reduced as well.

Another topic that Prince Rupert residents might be wondering about is the Airport Ferry, which continues to be a major expense for the City of Prince Rupert. With the City now seemingly embracing the idea of community partnerships on a number of issues, perhaps the time has come to explore a potential regional approach with either Metlakatla, or Lax Kw'alaams.

Looking to see if either of those communities would be interested in sharing the cost of transportation, perhaps even going so far as to turning operation of the service to one or the other community. The city could then offer a payment for services, while funding for additional transportation costs may be easier to obtain for those communities through any potential provincial or federal programs.

And while those ideas be a hard sell for the city to make to the other communities, the fact that the airport ferry is one of the largest costs on the city's books should have at least received some public mention and discussion during the last few months of the budget process.

Ms. Bomben also outlined in her presentation of February that contractual wage increases and benefit rate increases will result in an additional cost of $400,000,  yet again no discussion of that topic was conducted in any public session of Council during the budget overview.

The Legacy Fund allocations might have made for an interesting public review as well, considering that the City is currently in the process of hiring on staff through that funding.

At this moment there is no guarantee that any of the proposed LNG projects are going to make it to the finish line, leaving the question of whether the City isn't getting a bit ahead of itself on its environmental overview and long term planning.

With that in mind, some in the community might be wondering if perhaps a portion of that Fund should not be addressed to more immediate needs for the city.

And then there is CityWest, early on in the Budget process, it was announced that the city owned communication company would be delivering a dividend of 400,000 dollars, still a far amount less than just a few years ago.

Considering that three of CityWest's Board members are senior staff for the City, someone on Council should have asked in a public session if CityWest could perhaps increase that dividend, and if not, have someone provide an explanation as to why the City can't earn a larger return on its investment.

There probably are other items that local residents might be wondering about as well, areas where perhaps the city's residents might be in disagreement with Council members on the concept that there is nowhere to make cuts or seek savings.

Though to be fair to the council members, the turn out at the public forums on the budget did not indicate much interest, or concern for that matter from the public, when it comes to matters of budget planning.

As for the 2015 budget, after a fairly long discussion on the topic, City Council voted 6-1 to move forward with the Budget Resolution process, a move that puts the City on the path to adopting a two percent increase to the mill rate for Prince Rupert ratepayers for 2015.

Once the budget is adopted, the increased cost to the average taxpayer in the city to be in the neighbourhood of 38 dollars added to your tax bill for this year.

The one hold out  on the evening was Councillor Randhawa, he cast the only dissenting vote on Tuesday night's motion, holding to his belief that Council should continue to look for ways to find savings to reduce the burden on local ratepayers. Suggesting that Council adopt Councillor Mirau's amendment and wait to see what savings might come from that review.

With Councillor Mirau's proposal to receive a review by Council sometime in May, perhaps the blue print will be put in place for the years to come.

Providing for examination of a number of areas of the city's plans and seek out potential revenue streams, as well as to address concerns as to how the city is allocating its financial disbursements.

You can review Ms. Bomben's presentation and request from the City's Video Archive it takes place from the ten minute mark and continues for about five minutes.  The actual adoption of the first reading comes much later in the evening, following a full review of the proposal from Councillor Mirau.

Some background on this years budget process can be found from our Budget page here.

For more items related to City Council discussions see our archive page here.

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