January 22nd, 2021

$6M shifted to help with relief projects

By COLLIN GALLANT on January 9, 2021.

Major upgrades at the Moose Recreation Centre that were to proceed in 2018 have been removed from the city capital budget to make financial room for other projects that are part of a federal stimulus grant program.--NEWS PHOTO COLLIN GALLANT

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

The city has re-allocated more than $6 million in previously budgeted capital spending to accommodate a host of new projects outlined last fall to take advantage of federal grant changes to spur the economy over the next year.

Cancelling or delaying the municipal items, or using the unspent portions of budgets that came in less than expected, keeps the city’s capital spending at par, administrators told the News on Friday.

Meanwhile, they said, the federal grants originally part of a longer-term transit upgrade fund will give “bigger leverage, and spending sooner” to stimulate economic activity coming out of the COVID pandemic in 2021.

“Part of the (internal city hall budget) exercise was to look at the capital budget and challenge why we’re holding cash or debt capacity back, if (the projects) are not being done,” said Dennis Egert, the city’s corporate service director on Friday.

The city expects to hear from Ottawa this month on the final go-ahead on the projects, including a $3-million improvement to Athletic Park, a $2-million expansion to city offices, along with a dozen other projects.

On Monday, council approved the changes that finalize its funding share of the projects that must be completed by the end of 2021, according to grant stipulations.

They also gave chief administrator Bob Nicolay the authority to spend up to $1 million immediately to advance design and engineering under the tight timeline.

The move also keeps the city’s share of its total overall capital budget from expanding just a month after major budget changes signalled greater focus on debt levels and the health of cash reserves.

A larger review of capital project budget is underway and a broader reset could take place in early 2021, said Egert.

Some cash comes from under-expended funds from completed projects that came in under budget, while other items are suspensions of ongoing work or cancellation of projects that were paused.

The major cancellation is a $1.2-million project to replace the ice slab at the Moose Recreation Centre. That project, listed in the 2018 capital budget has been paused.

The facility won’t open in 2021, according to the most recent operating budget update last month, and the city will determine its future recreation spending priorities following the creation of a new masterplan this year.

Finance officials stressed that projects caught up in this week’s changes are being re-evaluated and may return.

“When we have more clarity, we’ll come back with a new (capital program) budget,” said Egert.

The city’s next four-year budget will be introduced in late 2022 for the 2023-2027 timeframe, including a capital plan.

Changes this week also mean using an allocation of transit grants from Ottawa to the new 2021 projects,

The city had the option to use the cash to pay 40 per cent of those upgrades by 2027, or 80 per cent of the new projects by the end of next year.

Similar to rec projects, the transit budget is also being re-examined, said Egert.

Most of the city’s reallocation comes from money saved when the 2016 upgrade of S. Railway Street cost $1.65 million less than budgeted.

As well, a total of $1 million meant for streetscape improvements downtown in 2020 didn’t move ahead as transportation planners study the area.

The smaller savings on other completed projects, like $91,000 saved on Kinplex renovations among others, will also be pooled.

A variety of other inter-year maintenance projects that typically carry over will be reduced, such as a 2017 item for general intersection improvements.

Deleted completely are the $250,000 project to replace shrub beds in parks with lower maintenance grass landscaping in 2020.

Previous city bridge maintenance projects totalling about $1 million for 2021 and 2022 have been reduced, but some of the federal grant applications are direct to similar bridge related work.

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