Councillors pledge vigilance during 2013 budget process

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Tax increase could range from 2.32 to 5.14 per cent

St. Albert city councillors are pledging to keep a collective close eye on the 2013 budget as changes in how the draft plan is presented make the proposed property tax increase a moving target.

Presented Monday afternoon by city manager Patrick Draper, the operating budget for St. Albert ranges anywhere from $81 million to $83 million, depending on how many of 38 proposed business cases are approved by council.

Draper and the rest of the city’s administration have broken the proposed operating budget into two components. The first is the base budget, which will maintain existing service levels. To do so would require a tax increase of 2.32 per cent and a 6.5 per cent increase to utility rates.

The second part involves business cases for new spending. If all 38 were approved, taxes would rise another 2.82 per cent for a total of 5.14 per cent, a number some councillors find too high.

“There’s a lot that’s a little much,” Coun. Cathy Heron said, adding her preference was for a total tax increase of 2.5 per cent.

“I think we could probably work with the base budget as well.”

Instead of recommending which cases will be funded and unfunded, as has been the practice in the past, Draper has recommended all 38 proposed cases while listing six as “critical” in the minds of administration.

Those include the hiring of a small business specialist for economic development, six new police officers over the next three years, conducting an assessment of the city’s natural areas, implementing the recommendations of the handibus review, hiring a web co-ordinator for the city’s communications department and taking on funding for a neighbourhood development co-ordinator for FCSS, as well as starting a summer youth music festival.

But many of those business cases are already being approached with skepticism, especially the hiring of six new police officers for a total of more than $125,000 in 2013 alone. The RCMP traditionally ask for more officers than they can staff because leaves and transfers mean the detachment is never fully staffed. Last year’s policing request met with sharp criticism from council because of the practice, especially with Coun. Brodhead.

“I’m going to be looking just as hard this year,” Brodhead said. “One of the things I find difficult is to fund additional officers when they haven’t been able to fund the current establishment.”

The economic development department is also asking for three new staff members, which would cost a total of $330,000.

In all, the 38 business cases propose more than 20 full-time equivalent staff members, a number Mayor Nolan Crouse can’t yet justify.

“Thirty business cases and 22 FTEs aren’t going to get council’s full endorsement,” Crouse said. “We will hear it out and that’s the process.”

Increasing residential taxes 2.14 per cent, according to the city, means homeowners will pay an extra $65.21 per $400,000 of assessed value. A non-residential property tax rate increase of 2.35 per cent as proposed means a warehouse would pay $251.62 more per $900,000 of assessment.

The capital budget has a proposed cost of $15.2 million and includes such projects as upgrades to Veness Road and preliminary planning for a community support centre to house the 50+ Club and other non-profit groups.

This year’s budget process will see council hold fewer and shorter deliberation sessions. There will be presentations for parts of the budget that seldom change. The public will be able to make presentations to council at the beginning of every meeting.

Council will not officially start budget deliberations as committee of the whole until Nov. 20, with the goal of passing the budget on Monday Dec. 17. Following Monday’s presentation, there are three planned open houses, each of which will be hosted by different community groups.

The first, on Monday, Nov. 5, will be hosted by the community services advisory board at Sir George Simpson School. The second town hall will be Tuesday Nov. 6 at St. Albert Catholic High School and will be hosted by the St. Albert Kinsmen, Youth Community Centre, VASA, Community Information and Volunteer Centre and public library.

The third open house will follow Thursday, Nov. 8 at the Youth Community Centre. It will be co-hosted by the chamber of commerce, NABI, St. Albert Taxpayers Association and St. Albert Housing Society. All three run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

All of council’s budget deliberations will also be webstreamed at www.stalbert.ca. Only meetings of council will be aired on Shaw cable.

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