This week St. Albert city council unanimously approved a 2.4 per cent tax increase for a $154.1 million operating budget and a $29.9 million capital budget that provides few new projects.
Yet the city dipped into funds usually reserved for the following year to lower taxes by 0.5 per cent. But is this prudent action? Mayor Cathy Heron said she is worried about the impact on the 2019 budget.
Also consider that the 2018 budget is against the backdrop of hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded capital projects over the next 10 years. Earlier this year city staff recommended delaying or unfunding 25 to 42 capital projects to defer money for repair, maintenance and replacement section of its 2019 municipal capital budget. That means city council has borrowed from the 2018 budget to make sure they can do the maintenance necessary in 2019.
City manager Kevin Scoble said the projected funding will fall drastically short of required funding between 2019 and 2024 for all the projects in the city’s capital plan.
Something has to give. The city of St. Albert will have to create more revenue, rein in its spending, increase taxes, and/or set its sights on having fewer amenities. Likely the city will have to do all of these things in some measure.
Another factor to examine is city staffing. The newly approved budget adds the equivalent of 11.9 new staff. Can the city afford to continue adding staff at that rate, when a huge chunk of the city’s costs relate to wages? In the past the city has kept tax increases low, but that will be extremely difficult if they grow staff and wages.
In the meantime city councillors have some hard decisions to make, some of them left over from the last city council. At strategic planning sessions in January councillors need to set some hard priorities. They have to wade through the giant list of projects and choose only the ones that will advance the city’s most urgent goals and needs.
Mayor Cathy Heron has acknowledged that the current unfunded capital projects list is a mixed bag of nice-to-haves along with must haves. The first step is to sort the wheat from the chaff and then stick to funding only what is necessary.
City councillors did not have much to say in the current budgeting process. Four councillors are new to the process. However, it is time for them to all weigh in. Pet projects like cat surveys, and aquatic climbing walls – both projects were approved last-minute during the current budgeting process – will have to be punted to the side as council takes a hard look at city priorities. Councillors will have to hold each other and city staff to account.
City council has a difficult job to get its fiscal house in order. They have to set the priorities to keep the city an attractive and affordable place for residents to live and do business, but they need to also be realistic when it comes to spending. Councillors face some tough decisions regarding new facilities, services and city staff.