Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Few questions from the public for Council at Budget Consultation Forum

The City's CFO, Corinne Bomben
provided a Budget Update 

for the audience at Monday's 
Budget consultation
meeting at the Lester Centre 

For the most part it was the City's Financial Officer Corinne Bomben who carried the bulk of the workload on Monday evening, as the CFO not only provided the presentation that laid out the blue print for the City's financial plan for 2016, but handled the bulk of the few questions that the those in the audience had regarding the Budget Process.

The evening opened with Mayor Lee Brain outlining the process ahead for the night, providing a short tutorial on the voting process that the City would be using at the forum, as well the Mayor noted for those in attendance that any questions on the evening should be directed through city staff, as Council members traditionally don't take questions or respond during public information sessions.

There were few questions or observations
for Council at Monday's
Budget Information session
A theme that would leave the five of six councillors in attendance on the evening, (Councillor Nelson Kinney was not at the Lester Centre on Monday) with little to do but to make for the backdrop on the stage.

From there it was over to Ms. Bomben, who provided much of the same presentation that she made to Council a few weeks back, with some additional video presentations to help residents to better understand the process of mill rates and tax collection.

From that point she outlined that she was pleased to announce that the City's budget was balanced and how there would be no tax increase required this year for City services, but then began the process of making the case for a slight increase to taxes this spring in order to address Asset Renewal issues, noting those requirements include such things as sidewalks, roads, bridges, equipment and buildings.

She then provided a short tutorial on how increases in taxes would affect individual taxpayers and where some may see increases, while other residents may not see much of a change in their formula for the 2016 tax year.

On that topic Ms. Bomben observed that depending on assessment values yet to be finalized by BC Assessments, that 1774 residents would find decreased taxes or no change this year, while the remainder of the tax base would see increases as noted below:

A graphic that was part of her presentation highlighted the distribution of City expenses through the year, with the RCMP, Fire Service, Recreation Department and Roads and Services taking up 63 per cent of the yearly budget.

There was also the now annual reminder of the troublesome issue of the provincial taxation caps on Port properties, which the City says provides for less revenue for the city than what they believe they should collect.

A concern that the city has been quick to note frequently this year, that is one that is a Provincial issue and not related to the Prince Rupert Port Authority.

The City outlined its expense allocations
at Monday's Council session

Provincial Taxation caps provided
for much of the them of Monday's
Budge engagement session 

One change from the previous budget presentation was the announcement that the City would be returning full funding towards the Prince Rupert Library, Ms. Bomben noted that the return to full funding would be made part of the Five year bylaw process this April.

The CFO however did not offer up an explanation during her presentation as to how the City managed to find the money that it said it didn't have just a few months ago.

With those talking points complete it was on to the Question and Answer period of the evening, a relatively quick part of the night, with only four residents taking to the microphone to ask questions or offer a statement.

Two of those participants were from the Prince Rupert Library, who took advantage of Forum to thank the city for the reinstatement of the funding. Joe Zelwietro, the Chief Librarian  started the short public engagement session off, noting that he understood the challenges that the City faced while making such decisions and was appreciative of their work on the issue.

Devlin Fernandes, a member of the Library Board, also thanked the city for the return of Library funding, providing an update that there has been an increase of residents making use of the Library and its services in the first three months of the year. She also noted that the Library like the RCMP building is an aging structure and she looks forward to discussing asset issues with the City in the future.

Larry Golden inquired if a financial update featuring dollar items for specific items, as requested at a previous council session by Councillor Thorkelson, had ever been provided to the city's website prior to the Budget meeting. Ms. Bomben noted that a paper form of the update was available at the front of the stage. (the on line version has still to be posted to the city's website)

Mr. Golden would return a few minutes later with a follow up question asking about the status of some major projects such as the required RCMP building replacement and the need for a sewage treatment system.

Ms. Bomben noted that the City is currently actively working with the province on the RCMP building replacement issue, while the planning for the sewage treatment facility is still in the planning stage and has not been finalized yet and has yet to be taken to the province yet.

Former City Councllor Gina Garon spoke in favour of the idea of adding to the asset management reserves,  but only if there is proper planning for such projects. On that theme, she questioned the city's planning when it came to the current sidewalk replacement program. Asking why the project had been started heading into the winter season, which she noted required extra expense of boarding being required. She also observed that she had been unaware that the city's financial information was available to public and that she would also head to the front of the stage to pick up her copy.

Ms. Bomben outlined that the Director of  Public Works department could provide an update on the asset replacement program at a future council session.

The Mayor spoke to that topic as well, noting that the project is going to be a five year process, highlighting some of the challenges the sidewalk replacement plan requires. Looking forward he noted that road work and improvements to facades in the downtown area would also be part of the plan.

He said that when it came to the recent sidewalk work along Third Avenue West, he could not speak as to why that work had been started in the winter.  An interesting observation considering the enthusiasm that the Mayor greeted the launch of the project with in October noting that it was part of the city's Re:Build Rupert initiative.

Those few questions appeared to be all that were on the minds of those in attendance on the night and with no follow up questions to field Council moved on to their two prepared proposition questions on the night, both of which asked for feedback on the issue of asset replacement.

The City had two questions for those in the audience and those watching at home to answer as part of their Community Engagement process:

The First was:

1) The City has an extremely large infrastructure deficit. Do you agree the City needs to make asset renewal a priority in this and future budgets? 

On that question the vote totals found 28 respondents in favour of the concept, while 5 voted No on the topic

While they waited to reset the process for the second vote, Mayor Brain observed that the results from question one indicated that people definitely believe that the issue is a priority.

The Second question looked for approval to move forward with their plan to address the asset renewal issue:

 2) Do you agree with the City’s recommendation in the 2016 budget to set aside funds into asset renewal reserves?

On that question, 32 of those that participated voted Yes, while 6 of those that voted said No to the proposal.

From those results the Mayor observed that the majority of the voters believed that the city should put money away for asset renewable.

Mayor Lee Brain taking in one of the questions
from Monday nights budget consultation at the Lester Centre

Following the voting process, Mayor Brain provided a few more concluding observations on the evening,  noting that this years budget was very much a status quo budget, but that it won't get the city well ahead of the curve, leaving little room at the moment for the "nice to haves".

Outlining some of the current work taking place involves things that the city has to do. Starting with some background on the dam, the Mayor noted that the first phase involves road construction as the main focus at this time for that project. Noting that money from the Legacy fund was being used on that project, he then offered up a bit of background on the nature of that fund and how the City plans to use it.

He also touched on the topic of the RCMP building replacement issue which has to be addressed, as well as the requirement for a waste water treatment facility, the latter which is mandated by the province and must be constructed by 2020 a project that will cost around 150 Million dollars.

He noted that the City was using the Legacy Fund to go into major projects and that if the City were to receive any new money from the Lot 444 lands (such as the 18 million received from WCC LNG) that the Legacy Fund was set up to handle, that fund would be used on those kinds of projects.

The Mayor also returned to the theme of the Provincial Caps that are in place on industrial land in Prince Rupert and how it puts the city in a tough spot, as it loses significant revenue from those facilities.

He also noted that this was not an issue with the Port of Prince Rupert, but rather a topic of discussion with the Provincial government related to their legislation.  He outlined that the through the work of council and staff, the province can see some of the unintended consequences of their policy and are working towards a solution.

The more recent topic of the Ridley Island Tax Agreement also made an appearance at Monday's Budget Forum, with the Mayor providing the City's view on the nature of the agreement and what kind of savings the City could realize by renegotiating that agreement. The Mayor observed that the world has hanged since the 1980's and No agreement is forever. Adding that the City is paying many bills in the area and needs to be creative in bringing in new revenue.

He outlined that the City has plans to discuss the issue with Port Edward officials, but provided no timeline for the public as to when that conversation may take place. More background on the City of Prince Rupert's concerns related to that agreement can be found from our blog item of March 9th.

The Mayor then offered up a few more notes on the challenges of budget making and the issues that the city faces each year, most of them focusing on the asset replacement issue and he possible tax increase that it may require, as well as the city's commitments to grant recipients and how the new council continues to do the best that it can on those issues.

Mayor Brain then concluded his commentary by making note of some of the positive economic signs in the community, the expansion of the Container Port and Watson Island's decommissioning and how it could be an economic opportunity for the city in the years to come.

He then looked ahead hoping for a day when new revenue comes in the City can deliver on the "nice to haves, like renovating and repairing all of Third Avenue, or building a sea wall, but noting that the immediate challenges take precedence at the moment.

He then turned to the public for one more opportunity to provide comment or ask questions.

An opportunity that no one in the audience took advantage of, leaving the Mayor to bring the session to close, noting that there is one more opportunity for public comment, that comes up at the City Council session on March 21st.

At some point the city may post the full video of Monday's Budget Presentation to their You Tube Archive.

For more items related to the City's Budget process see our archive page here.

Further background on City Council discussions see our archive page here.

Update: The City posted the video of the March 14th Public Forum to its YouTube portal on March 22nd, you can review the full presentation below:

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