By COLLIN GALLANT on September 22, 2023.
Last year’s seemingly protracted process to pass the city budget could become the norm next year when the new two-year financial plan is presented, members of a council committee said Thursday.
City hall administrators told the corporate services committee on Sept. 14 that discussions during portions of five council meetings in late 2022 was a break with local practice, but isn’t unusually long compared to other municipalities in Alberta.
Going forward they suggest six meetings next year, dealing only on budget matters, spaced over nine months would streamline the process and focus discussions.
It could also add a level of transparency and public engagement, according to finance department officials, where previously the budgets were presented and passed at one or two meetings with relatively few amendments.
“In previous years, much of the discussion (among council) came beforehand in closed session,” said Lola Barta, the city’s director of finance, who stressed the budget is built over the course of the year, during which council is apprised of major trends, issues and themes along the way.
Council took up the 2023-24 budget initially at a council of the whole meeting on Nov. 7, 2022, then for potions of four subsequent regular meetings before eventually passing it in January this year.
Staff say that totalled about seven hours of discussion over five separate meetings, much less than in other Alberta centres.
“The criticism last year was that council took too long to decide on the budget, but looking at some of these other (municipalities) it doesn’t look that way,” said Coun. Shila Sharps, who chaired the committee meeting.
In Lethbridge, council members set aside one week for their own discussions as well as hold a week specific to hear presentations from community groups.
Councils in Red Deer and Edmonton both set aside six full days for budget deliberations.
Coun. Darren Hirsch told the News that budget discussions are complicated but important, and carefully considered already.
“I’d be open to having more open meetings, but if we’re going to schedule more meetings they need to be material and effective,” he told the News.
The new budget process will be debated by council Oct. 3.
It would see a total of six open committee of the whole meetings held before debate begins on the 2025-26 budget plan late in the year.
Two evening meetings, totalling no more than eight hours, would be held in early July to discuss capital priorities.
Four others meetings, also capped at four hours each, would follow over three weeks in late October and early November.
Staff believe that would give them greater time to consider council direction or respond to information requests and allow public groups to participate,
The city’s municipal and utility budgets, along with business plans and rate adjustments, are typically introduced in early December and passed at a subsequent meeting to be in place by Jan. 1.