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Council to see rest of major fiscal review next week

Deeper dive into city operations, longer-term strategies
stock-St. Albert Place DR020
FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

St. Albert council will see the rest of a $1-million fiscal and operational review spanning across all city operations next week. 

The city hired consulting firm Ernst & Young to examine current programs and service levels, while finding ways to cut back on spending and explore revenue opportunities. Council receives the second phase of the review on May 3. The report was first presented to the city's Internal Audit Steering Committee on April 9. 

The second phase takes a deeper dive into city operations, including planning and development, legal and legislative, utilities, financial services, engineering services, public works, emergency services, and human resources and safety departments. It will also explore new revenue opportunities for the city, including a feasibility study for a municipal energy corporation.

The first phase, released last winter, looked at community services, economic development, the chief administrative officer's office, recreational and parks, transit, strategic services, IT and environment, which equates to about 32 per cent of the city’s total operations and expenses.

It also detailed 20 high-level business cases across seven departments with a cost-benefit analysis over three years, of which many of the "easy-wins" were already in the works, according to city administration.   

The Gazette surveyed city council ahead of the review's presentation to get a sense of what they hope to see come out of the report. 

Coun. Ken MacKay said he's looking to see how St. Albert stacks up compared to other municipalities when it comes to efficient and effective service delivery, like snow removal or maintaining outdoor spaces. 

"Is there a better way to deliver services to residents? Whether it's taking some of our existing services and providing them through a third-person party, or whether some of them are just too important to us, those are some of the big questions," he said. For example, Active Communities Alberta's proposal involved having a non-profit organization operate a recreational facility instead of the city, a model that could save money in the long run.

With the first phase, the city took a look at some of the "low-hanging fruit" where the city could implement short-term efficiencies, MacKay explained. This second phase will be more about longer-term strategies. 

"I don't think we're going to get our million dollars back right away. But I'm sure that in the mid-term, even long-term, that we make that back and more in cost savings and efficiencies," he said. 

Coun. Sheena Hughes saw the report as a member of the audit steering committee, but said she wasn't sure how much specific information she was allowed to disclose before the rest of council sees it. However, she said it will be up this council and the next council to decide how to prioritize any recommendations coming forward. 

"The value of this will determined by what this council and administration choose to do for implementation," she said. The city could have a laundry list of possible options, but the real work will be deciding what opportunities the city wants to go after.

Coun. Jacquie Hansen said she hopes to see ways for the city to create efficiencies easily without too much investment. 

"What will the return on investment be? That's going to be what I'm looking for," she said. When the report is presented, Hansen said she will be making sure to consider the long-term impacts as the complete review presents a "road map" for councils going forward.

"This isn't about cutting and slashing. For me, this is about improving our workplace and getting things done efficiently and cutting out redundancies."

Coun. Wes Brodhead, who is also a member of the steering committee, said Ernst & Young presented a "compelling" body of work. 

"There are certainly opportunities to recover the dollar value of the contract for sure," Brodhead said. While the first phase identified some quick wins, the second phase will present deeper, analytical opportunities.

"These sorts of studies, from time to time, bear fruit," he said. "In order to stay effective and efficient, cities need to be aware of and confirm to the environment in which they work. These sorts of studies keep us relevant and current." 

In a written message to the Gazette, Coun. Natalie Joly said she looks forward to reading the report, and is "keeping an open mind, but would like to see some recommendations from (Ernst & Young) about how we can sustainably move forward."

City administration declined to answer whether the second phase will be presented in camera or not at the May 3 council meeting "until after the material is presented to council."

Mayor Cathy Heron declined an interview with the Gazette before the report was presented to council. Coun. Ray Watkins could not be reached before press time. 

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