Incumbent council weighs in on utility policy decision delays
| Posted: Saturday, Oct 05, 2013 06:00 am
Explanations of delays in deciding the fate of utility rates and funding for utility capital projects varied when the current council was surveyed.
During the April 8 meeting of St. Albert’s standing committee on finance, a series of motions resulted in councillors delaying consideration of the 2014 utility rate increase and how future utility capital projects should be funded – by debt or by user fees padding reserves. The utility rate increase, if any, for 2014 will be considered during budget deliberations that start in November by the newly elected council. Other scenarios and reports are to come back to council in February 2014. Several of the funding scenarios outlined by staff show 2014 utility rate increases ranging from 12.8 per cent all the way to 39.7 per cent.
Asked whether or not the move to delay decisions was politically motivated, some incumbent council members said it was more about letting the next council make a decisions they’re going to have to live with, while others are disappointed a decision wasn’t made.
“Because it was going to affect the next council more than this council, I thought it was the next council’s decision … so I guess I’d call that political because there’s no administrative reason necessarily to not have proceeded,” said Mayor Nolan Crouse.
Crouse pointed out that the decision facing council is a philosophical one – stick with the 100 year model currently used, where reserves are built up ahead of time so big projects can be paid for without debt, or switching to a “pay as you benefit” method which could result in having to borrow the money.
“I’ve taken a personal position that you put money away for the future,” Crouse said.
Coun. Roger Lemieux also felt the decision should be the new council’s.
“When it comes time to increases in budgetary items, when you’re close to a new council … I feel it’s important that the new council are really well informed … and once they’re informed then they can in fact vote and feel confident on their decision-making,” Lemieux said.
The 100-year policy is one Lemieux had to “dig deep” to understand but now he thinks it makes “total sense.”
“I believe that it is our duty to not just take care of ourselves but also to take care of our future,” Lemieux said.
Coun. Malcolm Parker said he supported delays in the decision-making because he wanted to more fully understand the difference between what the consultants were recommending and the current model.
“For me it wasn’t a political thing because quite frankly I don’t make my decisions politically,” Parker said. “Before you make a decision you really want to understand what’s the right decision.”
Coun. Wes Brodhead said since it wasn’t time sensitive, the decision should be made by the new council.
“I wouldn’t say that was the sole motivation but when you’re, at that time, four months away from ending your term, big decisions like that you don’t want to avoid them unnecessarily but if time is not of the essence and you have an opportunity to allow a new council to weigh in on that, that’s not such a bad plan either,” Brodhead said.
He said consideration of various scenarios, including ones without municipal sustainability initiative funding, is prudent planning and one of the reasons he wanted to delay a decision.
Coun. Cam MacKay thinks the delay might have been in part a political one, and in part to give members more time to understand a complex matter.
MacKay noted there are good and bad sides to the 100 year model, but with some big capital expenditures necessary in the next decade not taking on debt could mean having to jack fees up significantly.
“We’ve got a problem and our problem is we have to build a really expensive pump house in a short period of time,” MacKay said. “I think it’s a good opportunity for us to move away from this pay now model.”
Coun. Cathy Heron was disappointed a decision wasn’t made that day.
“I was … extremely disappointed that we did not move forward on it. I don’t know if it was a political move by some to postpone it so it didn’t become an election issue, but the day that we talked about it I was ready to have a good debate and discussion and make some decisions,” she said.
She said she’d support some of the recommendations in the consultant’s report, including using debt to finance large projects and reserves for smaller ones, a hybrid of the 100-year utility model and the pay-as-you-benefit approach.
“I think that makes a lot of sense,” she said. Heron would like to see St. Albert’s rates stay on par with the region.
Coun. Len Bracko would also liked to have made a decision.
“I still support the 100-year utility plan,” he said. “I believe a decision could have been made.”
The 100-year utility model helps keep fees from skyrocketing every time a new project is approved, Bracko said. He noted the new offsite levy policy will have to be accounted for in utility capital planning now.
“I still support the longer-term plan,” he said.