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City forecasting $304,000 surplus for 2022

St. Albert is forecasting a surplus of $304,000 by year's end.

St. Albert is forecasting a surplus of $304,000 by year's end, according to the city's quarter three financial report. 

The report, released publicly on Dec. 2, says the city's positive financial position is due in large part to the closure of Fountain Park Pool for repairs, and a substantial increase in ambulance billing revenue. 

According to the report, the city is expecting to save $767,000 on operating costs with Fountain Park being closed, however, the closure also means St. Albert will miss out on the $690,000 in revenue the pool was expected to generate. 

Despite an estimated $780,000 lower than expected revenue from tickets and fines handed out by RCMP and peace officers, the city's emergency services department is anticipated to generate $649,000 more in revenue than originally thought. According to the report, $442,000 of that additional revenue is from increased ambulance billing and capacity requests for ambulances from other municipalities. 

At the beginning of 2022, city spokesperson Danelle Boivin said in an email the city expected to earn $900,000 in revenue from ambulance billing, so the anticipated $442,000 in additional revenue represents a nearly 50 per cent increase.

"The pandemic is one element adding variability to call volumes; however, in July of last year calls provincially and locally increased by 30 (per cent) and have been fluctuating since that time," Boivin said.

"The reasons for the spike are multifaceted and complex, including environmental factors, availability of primary care, social factors, and those related to the pandemic and community disease burden."

Boivin explained that throughout the first nine months of the year, Alberta Health Services (AHS) has requested surge capacity from St. Albert's ambulances and paramedic crews when the call volume in other municipalities is higher than manageable for local crews. 

"St. Albert responds to these requests by staffing paramedic firefighters on overtime with backup ambulances, when staff and equipment are available," she said. "These shifts are billed to AHS at an hourly rate and St. Albert also collects the fees associated with responding to these emergency calls."

Ambulance fees, Boivin explained, refer to the costs payable by patients when transported in an ambulance, or even not transported but attended to by an ambulance.

"St. Albert collects 100 (per cent) of the fees directly from the patient, or in some cases their supplemental health insurance provider, such as Blue Cross," Boivin said.

The report does not explain how much of the increase in revenue from billing is due to increased calls for service locally, or due to the surge capacity request from AHS.

Coun. Sheena Hughes said her impression is that the increase is due primarily to the surge capacity requests, and not local service calls. 

"I don't believe it would just be for recuperation from within the city," Hughes said. "They might be partially from that, but it's also for services outside of the city, which is the different billing. It's not just the $300 for the patient."

According to the AHS website, uninsured Albertans face a $385 bill if transported in an ambulance, and $250 if not transported but attended to. Non-residents are charged an additional $200 in each circumstance, AHS states online. 

In an interview, Coun. Ken MacKay said he thinks the drop in revenue from tickets and fines administered by police, including photo radar tickets, is a result of the changes implemented by the provincial government earlier this year. 

As of this past April, use of photo radar was prohibited on residential streets with a speed limit at or below 50 kilometres per hour. In 2021, city council amended the Traffic Bylaw to reduce the speed limit on all residential roads to 40 kilometres per hour. 

"It's around the fact that I just don't think there's a lot of enforcement being done," MacKay said about the drop in revenue from tickets.

"I mean, you would like to think that, 'Oh, jeepers, you know what, it's a safety first program so maybe we're having an impact and changing drivers driving habits', but I'm not naive enough to believe that," MacKay said.

Problem avoided

According to the financial report, nearly every city department is forecasted to finish the year below their operating budget, which Hughes said she was glad to see as it means the city's beginning of the year projections had high accuracy levels.

"At least we know we're not going in the hole," Hughes said.

"Books were balanced and the surplus is not extraordinarily large as we've had in for some years and it's good to know that we will have some money to put into ... the stabilization fund which is used for one time emergency expenses, and it's often drawn down," Hughes said.

Despite being forecasted to run $643,000 over their operating budget, the city's corporate finance department, according to the report is another factor in the anticipated surplus as the department is expected to generation $1.33 million more in revenue than previously thought. 

The report says that $800,000 of that additional revenue is due to higher short term rates and investment income, while $519,000 of the additional revenue is a result of increases in electric and natural gas franchise fees.

“The city has $263.8 million in cash and investments and earned $3.5 million in investment income to date," the report says.

Under general government (like business licences and taxes), the report says the city is forecasting $342,000 more in revenue than expected, while also saving $336,000 on operating costs.

Most ($288,000) of the higher than expected revenue is a result of tax penalties and purchases of web certificates, the report says. 

Just one city department is expecting to run substantially over their operating budget: public operations. 

The report says public operations may finish the year nearly $2 million over budget, with $1.3 million of that total due to increased costs associated with snow and ice maintenance. 

“[It’s] a result of the extreme weather conditions in the first quarter of the year and a projection of snow clearing costs in the fourth quarter based on current service levels,” Boivin explained in an email.

Coun. Shelley Biermanski said she was expecting the report to provide more details, and will be looking to submit a few information requests to administration based on the "lack of information."

"A question I do have is— we have savings, so why do we talk about borrowing when we have savings?" she said, referencing the $263.8 million in cash and investments. 

"[We] have to be really, really conscious of borrowing at this particular time just because of interest rates and other things we have coming due," Biermanski said. "So when we have means without borrowing that would be that would be the direction, borrowing should always be a last resort."

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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