Municipal taxes are now projected to be practically zero for 2021, while increases for 2022 and 2023 have dropped drastically following two days of deliberation by town council.

Net of growth, taxes are forecasted to increase by 0.03 per cent in 2021, 1.55 per cent in 2022, and 2.78 per cent in 2023.

The numbers are only estimates at this time.

The draft budget had proposed increases of 1.27 in 2021, 4.29 per cent in 2022, and 5.71 per cent in 2023.

Council thoroughly reviewed the numbers and with the assistance of administration made changes that would reduce the budget. Closely examined were capital projects, operating costs, and staffing needs. Some were eliminated while others were set aside for future consideration. 

The budget discussion also served as a reality check for council on the town's extensive list of capital projects, and their impact upon capital reserves.

"We were cognizant that 2021 was not a year to be increasing reserve contributions, and we actually decreased it, and we actually took more out of reserves than we have historically," said corporate services general manager Katherine Van Keimpema.

She told council over the next 10 years there are $205 million in capital projects planned by the town, $85 million alone in the next three years. At the current rate, capital reserves would be in the negative by 2029 and be $7 million in the red by 2030.

She says currently not enough is being contributed to reserves to cover all the projects in the town's 10-year plan, and adjustments will be required, whether it's in the way they are funded or the number of projects completed.

Mayor Jeff Genung called the financial needs of the Spray Lake Sawmill Recreation Parks Society to operate both the SLS Family Sports Centre and Cochrane Arena a lightning rod issue in the community.

It did prove to dominate the clock with repeated attacks by both Councillor Tara McFadden and Marni Fedeyko over the course of the two-day debate. In the end, all seven councillors voted in favour of an amended financial package.

The society will receive $1.7 million per year for three years towards operations. In addition, $300,000 per year will be provided for capital projects in each of those years.

The draft budget originally called for the town's contribution to increase to $1.9 million in 2022 and $2.12 million in 2023 for operations and $300,000 per year for capital.

McFadden and Fedeyko both expressed concern over the rising operating costs.

"I think what we need to really focus on is what are the service levels that we want in our community, what does recreation mean to us, and what's the best way to deliver it," said McFadden. "I'm not really stuck on a model but I really want us to start having these conversations because $2 million is a lot of money without taxpayers or users being able to weigh in on it."

"It's not to say I don't find it valuable in our community," said Fedeyko. "I just question in those operating costs if they're doing things effectively and efficiently."

Alex Reed, who represents town council on the society board, expressed confidence in both the board and management of the facility. He said some members of town council and administration have identified the facility as being chronically underfunded for years.

He says if ever there was a time for a need for recreation in a facility, this is it.

"It's ironic that we're having this discussion when other communities are pouring more money into their recreation facilities at this time than cutting back. While I do respect that we are in COVID times, that these are tough times, I don't appreciate the opinion that the Spray Lakes board is not being respectful of taxpayers' dollars. That's just not true."

Both McFadden and Fedeyko took aim at the cost being borne by some who don't even use the facility. Reed pointed out not all services we support with tax dollars are used by all residents, using the on-demand transit system as his primary example.

"There will also be those people in our community who are naysayers about having to pay for a facility they don't use, but those are the same people who complain about school taxes... and even COLT. There was some discussion initially that COLT was going to be able to pay for itself and we're now recognizing that that's never going to be the case, and it's going to be a $700,000-plus draw on the community. So there will be services we will provide for members of our community at some cost that need to be subsidized."

Other councillors expressed confidence in the centre's management.

"I think from what I see, they're doing the best that they can," said Councillor Susan Flowers. "Cutting the staff back from 197 to 126 and getting as many grants as possible. I don't believe if the Town of Cochrane was running it that we could have done as good a job as the nonprofit is doing." 

She says the reality is pools are expensive to operate and there's no way around it.

"The benchmarking shows that they're doing well in comparison to other groups," she continued. "So, I'd really like us to fund them for this next year and help them get over this hump and then see where it goes."

Morgan Nagel believes the centre provides a healthy release in these mentally trying times but was the first to express concern in increasing contributions over the entire three-year budget when usage should begin to increase as the COVID-19 threat descends.  

"This rec centre is a space for people to go, get some fresh air, get some exercise, do something fun, and I think especially with the cold weather during the winter definitely is a need for our community to get everybody through this tough time."

The revised budget will be reviewed by council on Dec. 14.