July 17th, 2024

Council eyes $9.5 million composting facility as top 25/26 budget item

By COLLIN GALLANT on July 10, 2024.

City Councillors worked through a four-hour capital budget question and answer session with city hall staff on Tuesday night regarding 55 projects that are recommended be worked into the 2025-26 city budget. -- News Photo Collin Gallant, July 9, 2024. Editor's Note: An unrelated photo appeared in Wednesday's print edition due to an error. The News regrets any confusion.

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

The largest ticket item in the proposed city budget — a $9.5-million facility to boast composting capacity — would likely be needed soon, even without a new pilot project to Hatter to collect food scraps, staffers told council on Tuesday.

That’s because new regulations will require a $2 million water line — included in the item — to the site on the city’s east end. As it is it’s operating already at its limit, and it is stockpiling more compost than is currently allowed.

Councillors took part in a lengthy question and answer session on Tuesday as part of budget deliberations.

Members telegraphed in late June they would look to cut out projects in the interest of reducing costs, and this week, the early focus on of a four-hour meeting keyed on the composting facility.

Staff said the operation earns revenue, extends the life of the main landfill, and is less expensive than otherwise handling the refuse.

Mayor Linnsie Clark went so far as to ask whether the city could just give away the organic waste to livestock operators rather that pay upgrade costs to continue processing it.

“I don’t want this to start sounding silly… I am a proponent of (allowing) backyard chickens, but ranchers and farmers are always looking to cut their costs,” she said. “I just want to make sure we’ve explored that option.”

While theoretically possible, said solid waste superintendent Shane Briggs, but not viable, or practical in a city this size, said large off take contracts aren’t available, though it has been explored.

The volume would require 1 million chickens to fully consume, and operation is valuable to keep costs down

“Right now we’re at 20,000 tonnes per year, which isn’t going into the landfill,” said Briggs, who said a replacement landfill could cost $60 million to $90 million. The city also earns about $400,000 per year on carbon credits earned from the province, which will require renewal in 2025,

“I just don’t see how this isn’t an option to go regional? And sitting on the inter-municipal collaboration committee, with the mayor, it hasn’t come up,” said Council Shila Sharps.

Briggs said discussions on a regional waste strategy ended without identifying “a win-win-win” agreement.

In 2016, Medicine Hat entered into general talks with Redcliff and Cypress County, which jointly operated a landfill and composting pad, about potential collaboration, but the effort was quietly ended seven years ago.

The upgrade would allow the facility to be licensed to handle between 25,000 to 50,000 tonnes per year, though that much volume is not immediately expected, he said.

Councillors took aim at whittling down a list of 55 projects that could cost $36 million in new capital spending over the next two years. That, plus $13 million in mostly one-time operating costs could add 2.2 percentage points to property taxes next year, plus higher utility fees.

Councillors heard an overview of the list in Late June, and will proposed formal amendments to the list at the July 15 regular council meeting next week.

“It’ll start sounding repetitive from me, but what happens if we differ,” said Coun. Darren Hirsch. “Could it be brought on in phases? If we brought in the water line, then the building when it’s needed?”

Yard and food waste — collected together in green carts — accounts for only 3 per cent of the organics delivery to the site. The majority is biosolids filtered from the water and sewer treatment plants. Since there is no market for that material, as opposed to garden compost, it is being stockpiled to eventually provide a cap when the main garbage cell is decommissioned.

Currently the department is trucking in water collected during fire hydrant flushing to wet the piles.

Proposed tax hike broken down

Councillors questioned staffers on how the cost of projects as presented affect the potential property tax bills over the next two years.

In a breakdown of the proposed 5.6 per cent tax increase, about 2.3 percentage points account for inflation, 0.6 points would partly address a budget gap now filled by reserve cash, and 2.2 points to the new items discussed Tuesday.

Since the finance department assumes 0.5 points would come from new tax revenue from new construction, the existing tax base would face a 5.1 per cent increase, though 5.6 per cent more revenue would be raised.

That would add $133 per year to the median residential tax bill for a home valued at $315,000.

For 2025 and 2026, that percentage increase would be less than expected increased in all cities expect St. Albert, Lethbridge and Calgary. That’s after a two year property tax freeze in 2020 and 2021, and the lowest percentage increase of major Alberta cities in 2024.

“We’ve established fiscal guidelines to ensure the city is financially sustainable,” said corporate services head Dennis Egert. “We’re introducing today, under that constraint, what we believe will meet (council’s) goals.”

Four more committee of the whole meetings will be held in the fall before the final draft budget is presented in December. A new municipal budget for 2025-26 must be in place by year end.

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