Council members raise budget process concerns

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Administration solicits feedback to establish 2018 plan

The next St. Albert city council may go through a very different process when addressing the 2018 budget.

Council members provided feedback at the Feb. 13 standing committee of the whole meeting on what went wrong with the process for the 2017 budget.

Councillors raised concerns about how capital projects and operating business cases are considered within the budget, how the budget package itself was presented, and how the public consultations were handled.

Coun. Wes Brodhead expressed frustration about the fact the 10-year $300-million capital budget shortfall featured so prominently in discussions, with a sense that “the sky is falling.” It’s far too premature to assume future councils would approve all of those projects on the wish list, he said.

“I think the rhetoric around the $300-million deficit captured the flavour of the debate this year, and I don’t think that was necessary,” he said. “We can’t stress about a decision that’s 10 years from now. Who knows, we may not fund half of it.”

Coun. Cathy Heron said she was concerned that the prioritizing administration did with respect to capital projects actually waded into political decision-making. Administration presented a ranked list of projects to be included in the budget before deliberations, and she said council should have been included in that ranking process rather than just being asked to approve the list.

“It does become a very political decision, and we weren’t part of that,” she said. “I agreed with the criteria, I didn’t agree with all the rankings.”

Coun. Tim Osborne said he was concerned with how the capital budget was presented, with items in the 10-year plan not necessarily included in the budget itself.

He acknowledged it would be difficult for administration to present a budget with everything included and begin with a “17-per-cent increase if you fund everything.” However, he said he felt the process was more confusing than it needed to be – resulting in an omnibus motion to include 35 projects administration had recommended.

Mayor Nolan Crouse said ultimately, he felt there was “too much tinkering” with the budget and the 10-year plan, like separating the Repair, Maintain, Replace (RMR) budget from the growth budget and motions dealing with individual components of that plan.

“Don’t decouple those things so much. Just make a motion,” he said. “We’ve got a 10-year plan; just change it.”

Coun. Sheena Hughes said she felt the level of detail in some of the operating business cases – recommendations for new spending – weren’t as detailed as she would have liked. For example, she described cases asking for $3.4 million in spending for road maintenance, without any specific details of which roads are being maintained and how.

Hughes said there was a lack of detail in the project charters to tell her what the money was being used for.

She also noted the entire budget package given to council and presented to the public was confusing. Some lacked page numbers and included some information, like the long-term business plan, that didn’t need to be there.

Hughes also raised concerns about the facilitators in the public consultations, including the open-house public meeting Nov. 3, 2016, and the invite-only World CafĂ© discussion Nov. 2. She said they didn’t appear to be at all knowledgeable about the budget and allowed some people to “go off on tangents.”

“You’re facilitating, you should at least know if what’s being said is remotely correct or not,” she said.

Corporate planning manager Paul Edginton provided council with a summary of feedback that four of the seven council members had already provided by email. Much of this was reiterated in discussion. He said the feedback is helpful in establishing how the budget process will work.

“Last year the comments council provided resulted in a number of improvements to our planning and budget cycle,” he said.

He said the review of the 2017 budgeting process would be completed in mid March.

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Doug Neuman