February 28th, 2024

Council debates but postpones budget vote

By COLLIN GALLANT on December 6, 2022.

Council postponed voting on the city budget after two hours of debate on Monday.--NEWS FILE PHOTO

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

City council debated and then postponed passage of the new two-year budget, less 10 proposed positions – for the time being – after a near-two hour debate on Monday night.

Debate will continue at the Dec. 19 meeting.

For the fourth straight meeting, council heard top staff answer questions on the 2023 and 2024 budget plans, which in their entirety call for tax increases to meet expected inflation as well as pay for 27 new positions added to the current 1,033-person civic workforce.

Council members had signalled the new positions were their concern, and Coun. Shila Sharps spurred more debate with a successful motion to put a hold on new non-emergency and non-utility positions until council hires a new permanent city manager.

Council members voted 5-3 to give that person authority on new positions in human resources and parks staff.

“We’re so close to finishing hiring a (permanent) city manager, and I don’t think we should circumvent that individual,” said Sharps.

“Let’s get the positions off the table, then we can resolve the budget (numbers).”

The budget proposed adding eight firefighters, five police staffers (including two uniformed officers) and four utility operators for the city’s new water treatment plant. An unfriendly amendment by infrastructure committee chair, Coun. Alison Van Dyke, led to adding a safety codes officer to deal with permitting, to the list.

New human resources staffers, which administrators say were crucial to curbing high turnover, and parks staff to implement new cost cutting, would be paused.

Combined, all the proposed positions would add $2.5 million to the payroll, while expected collective agreement settlements could add another $2.5 million. The city predicts general inflation to be four per cent in both years, while more investment income and reserve funds would also be needed to balance the budget.

Mayor Linnsie Clark, who complained early that administrators hadn’t met her request to link programs spending to current council priority, voted against the amendment.

“I understand there’s a wish for a new city manager to do a complete organizational review, but it’s now going to happen in the first two months. I agree that we haven’t heard enough (about rationale), but I think (a complete freeze) is the opposite.”

Couns. Ramona Robins and Alison Van Dyke also voted against the change.

Coun. Darren Hirsch said that, in effect, the motion is likely only temporary, staff can contract the work out in the meantime, but additions of staff should be well examined.

“Anytime we add staff, the argument is that it’s permanent and forever,” he said. “Having a little sober second thought is an idea I like.”

Coun. Cassi Hider said presentations on new positions for police, fire and utility “made a good case.”

Couns. Andy McGrogan and Allison Knodel were also in favour.

Clark said the process was supposed to draw direct lines to council’s strategic priorities.

“I still don’t have comfort about that,” said Clark early in Monday’s deliberations. “It has been clearly stated by council that we wanted that.”

Last year, a largely new council bounced an annual update and amendment package back to staff several times before approval in January.

Shortly thereafter, city manager Bob Nicolay resigned and Glenn Feltham was eventually hired as a interim manager.

On the overall budget, Feltham said it was drawn up while balancing the revenue generation, financial sustainability and the end goals of the organization.

“It reflects a desire for the city to maintain its already high level of services,” he said. “When (taxes) don’t rise with inflationary pressure, the municipality may be at risk, especially if revenue is met through non-sustainable means.”

Corporate services managing director Dennis Egert said all questions posed to budgeters during the council process are now available on the city’s website for residents to read.

“It’s all about balancing the needs of our community, defined by city council, and the level of revenue and fiscal sustainability,” he said. “We’ve largely reduced our losses on oil and natural gas, our investment income will grow markedly.

“The budget includes a strategic investment in our assets, our tangible assets … and our human capital, restoring staffing levels to a sustainable level after 2021.”

Considering a two-year tax freeze in 2020 and 2021, the average annual tax increase to 2024 will be 2.5 per cent over that time.

The four per cent increase would result in the tax bill of the median residence in Medicine Hat paying an additional $110 per year.

The mill rate will be approved in the spring and charged against the new assessment. Taxes will be due June 30.

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