June 26th, 2019

Needs, not wants, for the next four years in city

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on January 10, 2019.

The City of Medicine Hat’s budget arrived in mid-December and somewhere between fruitcake and the glasses of champagne on New Year’s Eve, it fell off the radar.

Perhaps lost in the Christmas rush, it will crop up again in the spring and summer. At those times, tax rates are set and then become due, but there’s a distinct lack of bells or whistles that hold in the public’s imagination.

That’s especially so when it comes to new construction projects.

The document will guide city spending over the next four years, and unless you consider replacing sewer lines and storm drains marquee items, there are few goodies within it.

Many will say ‘good’ and it’s the kind of budget that some people have been calling for for some time

That call started well before the now-ever-present “Financially Fit” budget process was launched several years ago to tackle massive revenue shortfall.

The flip side, though, is that four years is also a long time to spend without goodies, such as new pools, major revisions to the city’s transportation system, or expanded public services.

Budget authors pose the plan, covering budget years from 2019 to 2022, as a critical time to wrestle the deficit left by fallen gas profits into a manageable position.

By the end of it — year No. 6 of the financially fit plan — the once $23 million annual shortfall will have shrunk to $7 million, but with higher taxes, higher fees, stringent spending controls and cost containment as the price Hatters will pay.

Within that is a vein of using provincially allocated infrastructure grants for infrastructure replacement, not larger or more obvious building projects, thereby reducing the need to borrow.

Mayor Ted Clugston has often repeated that after a major capital construction program over four years — think berms, the Canalta Centre, two firehalls, an airport terminal, Veiner Centre, Family Leisure Centre and other projects — it’s time to step back and build up reserves.

Building up the bank account comes with a separate set of challenges, but the city has definitely stepped back.

The 2019-2022 capital asset plan lays out spending of about $25 million each year — hardly paltry — but about 90 per cent of those dollars are targeted at “infrastructure renewal.” That’s code for replacing aging pipes and storm drains, and for buildings repairing what’s in place.

About half the cost will be paid for by grants from other governments.

No new rinks or civic buildings of any kind. No new major road projects. Nothing unexpected.

There is money for parks, mostly aimed at reducing annual watering and lawncare expense.

On a ranked list of capital projects the top four are general infrastructure rehab projects. No. 5 is the fire department’s acquisition of the “jaws of life.”

On the list of 123 prioritized capital projects, 65 won’t see any money in the next 96 months. Another 24 items come with project specific costs of less than $250,000.

In transportation spending, the previous policy was to tackle one major connector route in each budget cycle.

South Railway Street reconstruction spanned the last budget cycle, along with myriad changes to roads around the Box Springs Business Park. In the new plan, aside from work downtown, a planned $7.5 million rebuilding of Industrial Avenue has been pushed off until at least 2023.

Overall, the budget might receive a “B” for boring, which many accountants will consider a compliment.

As written, the budget plan accomplishes a lot, but as we all know sticking to a budget is tougher task that drawing one up.

Being pleased with it is another matter entirely, and that falls to residents, whose taxes are rising while progress in the city will be made out of sight, either underground or on accounting ledgers.

Many residents called for tough budget stances to contain costs and put needs above wants.

Four years is very long time, however.

(Collin Gallant is a News reporter. To comment on this and other editorials, go to https://www.medicinehatnews.com/opinions.)

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