Wednesday, March 15, 2017

First of Two Budget comment opportunities takes place tonight at City Hall

The City of Prince Rupert hosts its first budget consultation session tonight
(image from City of PR website)

The next stage of the City of Prince Rupert Budget process takes place tonight at 7PM, as City Council members extend the annual welcome to the public to come receive a presentation on the City Budget and then offer the opportunity for the public to comment, or ask questions related to the city's financial blue print on the year ahead.

The venue choice for this years budget presentation makes for a shift from the large expanse of the Lester Centre, with staff and Council returning to the more familiar and somewhat smaller City Hall chambers, reflective perhaps of past attendance levels in recent years for the annual review of the financial plans.

And perhaps it is a wise decision to find a smaller venue, with the two budget comment opportunities for the public scheduled during the annual Spring Break for the city's school system, a period of time when a fair number of residents have taken to vacation plans, their concentration perhaps not quite focused on the details of civic governance and budget making.

A preview of what's ahead for tonight was delivered last week at City Council's regular council session, during that Council meeting, Corinne Bomben, the City's Financial Officer provided a twenty minute slide show presentation on selected budget themes.

The overview making for a companion item to go along with her written report,  the latter providing some further background to the financial planning for the year ahead.

You can review the result of her work from last week from our blog item of March 8th here.

The City's budget requirements for 2017 make for the city's proposal
for a 1.5 percent increase on the mill rate for taxation for the year ahead.
That as the city looks to tackle a projected deficit of $160,000

Ms. Bomben's comments and the accompanying report to Council do offer up a good starting point for the Budget discussion period set for tonight and provide some areas of note where the public may wish to hear more about the city's larger financial picture.

Providing as they do for a number of the elements that might have an impact on how the city spends and collects money, not only this year, but for those further down the road.

Not discussed during last week's Council meeting, but one issue that does make for an item of some interest is the Watson Island industrial site.

Watson Island was most recently in the news noted  as the focus of a video project from the city's Communication department which featured Mayor Lee Brain on a tour of the industrial site.

The city's review offering up a hopeful forecast for the decommissioning of the old pulp mill site and the prospect of a bright future for development there.

In among the images of imploding buildings and the outline of the process of decommissioning, the Mayor did acknowledge that the city still has a few legal challenges to address related to the site, though he did not expand on that theme during the video and the topic did not come up among Council members during the discussion on the budget planning elements from last week.

One of those challenges that the Mayor made note of might be related to a notice in a financial statement from the Colonial Coal company from December of 2016.

Pages four and eleven of the update for company's shareholders and potential shareholders and made available on the company website, notes that Colonial Coal International is still continuing to pursue its ambition for the acquisition of Watson Island through its litigation in the British Columbia Supreme Court against the City of Prince Rupert.

Colonial Coal, expands on the legal process that has taken place to this point (page four) and notes that WatCo, as the proposed development company is known as, offers up the goal of developing Watson Island to the the highest and best purposes and to maximize the reuse and repurposing of land, buildings and infrastructure and employ the lowest-impact approach to the operation of a proposed multi-product bulk facility.

That is a proposal (and a legal proceeding) that we haven't heard much about from City Council, though when it comes to Watson Island, other than last month's video, the topic is not really one that makes for much public conversation at Council sessions.

Since Watson Island still seems to loom large over the city and its hopes for the industrial site in the future, providing an update as to how much longer the legal challenges currently in motion will continue might provide some long term certainty for the city's taxpayers, a group which continues to foot the legal bills along the way.

Some guidance from the city on those issues, might also offer up a firm indication that there is indeed some sunshine to come from the long complicated story that has been the narrative of the industrial site.

Beyond the legal notes, as Ms. Bomben's own financial report related to the budget last week highlighted for us, the Watson Island site still does provide for some other challenges of its own for the City.

Last year's optimistic projection of a revenue stream would appear to be a forecast that was not attained and the same reporting period provided for an increase in expenditures incurred, a surge in the financial flow out that took the total spent on work related to Watson Island to above the 1 million dollar mark for the year.

As part of the media release to go along with the Mayor's video message on Watson Island it was noted that "additional costs of the decommissioning were borne by Prince Rupert Legacy Inc., a 100% wholly owned subsidiary of the City of Prince Rupert, so as not to burden taxpayers."

It was not disclosed as part of the Watson Island information package just how much those additional costs had been, though it does seem that when such "additional costs" pop up like a surprise, the Legacy Fund makes for a helpful bit of cash to have around.

One takeaway that the public may have when it comes to the Legacy fund, is how the fund is being used, and the impression that it is somewhat of a fall back mechanism for financial challenges related to project planning and one that is used at the discretion of Council.

However, the problem with relying on the Legacy fund for for redistribution towards Watson Island, means that the available funds would thus not be available for use for other initiatives.

As things turn out, using the fund for Watson Island was not the first time that money from the Legacy Fund was put into action on a civic project.

Last year the city dedicated 1.5 million dollars from the Fund towards renovations for the Digby Island Airport, using the cash to offset unforeesen circumstances with construction.

How the City uses the Legacy fund to shore up some of these financial surprises might be a topic that could be of interest for city residents, particularly as we weigh the idea of a proposed increase to the tax rate at tax time this July.

Council could perhaps provide some guidance for the public as to how they believe that fund should be used, as well as to publish a detailed report on how the fund has been allocated since it was created.

Further to the notes on Legacy, Council may wish to consider whether the time has come to reconsider how they make use of the money from the fund that remains available.

Such background would make for a delivery of information that might give residents a better understanding as to how Council makes its financial decisions, particularly when it comes to the fund that few outside of City Hall know much about.

Also from last weeks Budget presentation was a review of some of the key elements that have contributed to the potential ask of a 1.5 per cent mill rate increase for property taxes.

Among some of the factors cited by the Finance Department were:

Airport Ferry expenditures of $2,600,903, and anticipated revenues of only $1,539.000 provide for an area where the public might want to hear more about how the City might be able to address that ongoing financial issue.

The CFO noted in her budget overview that part of the problem facing the Airport and the Airport Ferry system is related to neighbouring communities using the airport but only paying user fees, which leaves the city to hold the burden of the expense of operation.

With an ongoing deficit situation a consistent theme of the Airport ferry story from year to year,  the city should continue to approach our neighbouring communities along with Regional District to explore further if they are interested in a shared approach to the transportation service.

If not, giving some thought to the idea of contracting out the service, or even an outright privatization of the ferry to help reduce the city's financial burdens might be worth a look.

While the theme of aviation is fresh in our minds, it might be useful for the public to know if the Airport Authority is making any progress in attempts to attract new air services to fill in the hole from the departure of Hawkair.

An update on what success, if any, that the airport has had in approaching such airlines as WestJet or Pacific Coastal to see what they may think of the prospect of servicing the Prince Rupert market would be well received by the public.

They may also wish to provide some background at to what incentives might be required to add to the flight movements in and out of Digby Island and generate revenue for the airport.

Emergency Services also make for a significant focus at Budget time, with both Fire protection and Police protection among the top line expenses the city faces.

The five million dollar cost of operating the police force through the local RCMP detachment is also one of the large expenditures on the city's financial listings, however it's not the only area were policing may soon loom large on the city's radar.

In past budget years, the city would make note of the need to begin planning for what is now a long overdue construction of a new RCMP detachment building for the city.

It was a topic which was flagged as somewhat urgent a few years ago and since then has quietly returned to the background.

Considering that the RCMP still operates out of the Sixth Avenue building to this date, one imagines that the need is still there. However the current Council has not brought that topic up for any significant discussion in public session since taking office, so an update on what impact the need for a new police station may have on the city's long term financial picture might be helpful for the public.

Likewise the city's Fire Department which has expenditures of close to three million dollars, has long been identified as in need for a new station, though the Fire Department seems destined to be on the back burner a little bit longer while the city looks towards its many infrastructure issues.

The need for more revenue to cover off other expenditures was also reviewed last week, as the city looks to address compensation requirements related to salaries and benefit packages for the city's Council, city staff and civic workforce.

The last two components are areas of recent growth for the city, as it moved forward with a range of initiatives related to its planning for major projects.

In addition to increases to the Mayor's salary and for city staff, a number of new positions were created at City Hall since 2014, to go along with the filling of existing vacancies, a fairly energetic push to bring up staffing levels after many long years of holding the line on civic employment.

Though with few industrial streams delivering added financial revenues to the city at the moment and a number of our proposed major projects deferred, or cancelled outright, City Council may have been a little too quick at filling positions before the economic landscape had settled.

The spurt in employment growth and salary commitments for the year contributes towards the need for additional money from the taxpayer and may require a second look from the Council membership as to whether those staffing levels are sustainable.

Another area where a discussion might be held on salaries is the ongoing dedication towards a full time status for the Mayor's position.

In the face of recent setbacks when it comes to the development of some of our proposed major projects, if Council is indeed still of the opinion that the city is in need of a Full time Mayor, perhaps a discussion on the reduction of spots around the Council Chamber should be held, with the money saved from the elimination of two council positions shifted over to the Mayor's position.

With the most recent census indicating that the population of the region has continued to decline, the idea of reducing council membership might worth reviewing anyways, bringing Prince Rupert in line with those communities with a population that has settled at the 12,000 mark.

It's a theme that City Council may wish to consult with the people on, perhaps through one of their on line polls. Doing so would offer up a gesture that might provide for one small step towards reducing some costs for the short term, as we wait to see if the much anticipated days of growth do arrive.

As one reads through Ms. Bomben's report from last week, no doubt many other areas of interest could come up as potential discussion points for those attending tonight's Budget consultation.

Beyond the opportunity to ask questions or share some comments tonight, the City is also promising the chance to provide input through online or text polling, what topics we will be asked to weigh will be revealed as the evening moves forward.

Information on what's ahead for the consultation session can reviewed from the city's website.

The final opportunity for comment on the budget process will come next Monday, as part of the Monday, March 20th Regular City Council session.

More items of note on the City's Budget preparation process can be found here, while background on past City Council discussion topics can be found on our Council Discussion Archive page.

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