A majority of councillors are pledging to keep a close eye on any proposed tax increase in the 2013 budget but some see the necessity in preparing the city for the challenges associated with future growth.
The draft 2013 budget, which proposes a property tax increase ranging anywhere from 2.32 per cent to 5.14 per cent, was presented to council Monday night by city manager Patrick Draper. Administration is recommending 38 business cases, which would add 22 full-time equivalent staff to the city payroll.
For many councillors the idea of adding so many new staff is a non-starter.
“There are some that popped out at me,” said Coun. Cathy Heron.
Coun. Cam MacKay believes some changes in how the budget has been presented will compel the city to spend more. Instead of presenting council with a list of funded and unfunded business cases, administration is recommending all of the 38 business cases, while deeming six as critical.
“I can’t think of a single more costly procedure change than what (Draper) has done,” MacKay said. “Instead of having business cases that councillors propose, when you leave them all in the budget, you’re just on track to lose control of this budget.
“The city doesn’t need help growing its budget.”
Coun. Malcolm Parker acknowledged the city needs to start planning for growth and should give some of the business cases a hard look, such as the three staff the new economic development division wants to hire, but he feels a 2.5 per cent tax increase is optimal.
“If you went with all 38 business cases, that, to me, would be too high,” Parker said. “The business cases will determine the final increase.”
“There’s some growth opportunity you need to focus on and that gets back to the economic development question.”
Coun. Wes Brodhead said he doesn’t think his colleagues will go for “the whole meal deal,” but said economic development has to be a priority.
“The priority for me is to ensure our economic endeavours and the plan that we had for pursuing economic diversity, that will be a priority for me for funding, and the others will have to fall into place,” Brodhead said.
Both Couns. Len Bracko and Roger Lemieux are trying not to get hung up on the totality of the tax increase and instead examine just what the city needs moving forward. Lemieux, who admitted in the past his judgment has been clouded by the need to keep tax increases to a minimum, said he plans to take a different approach this year.
“I’m taking a really, really different look at the new hires this year with a view that the staff has really prepared the business cases and have real reasons, and when I say real, I mean justified reasons, to hire people,” Lemieux said. “There are reasons that the City of St. Albert and people within will benefit from it.”
Bracko pointed to the zero-based budgeting approach of the 1990s in which taxes were frozen in some years, and the debt that resulted in later years as a result, as proof the city needs to plan accordingly.
“The percentage is difficult. We want to make sure that we address the needs and not take more debt on in the future,” Bracko said.
Mayor Nolan Crouse admitted that it would be difficult to sell council on the hiring of 22 new staff but said he was willing to wait and listen.
“I wouldn’t call this surprising at all because nothing surprises me about a tax increase of two per cent, three per cent, four per cent because that is very traditional in what municipalities are doing across Alberta,” Crouse said. “It’s up to council to trim where council wants to trim.”