Cochrane town council is starting to get down to the nitty-gritty on the 2023 budget today on the third day of its debate.
All councillors have indicated they want to see it reduced from the 7.55 per cent proposed in the initial draft, individually favouring an increase between 3 1/2 and 5 per cent.
Ideas on possible ways to reduce the budget and what impact it will have on town operations should become clearer today when town administration provides responses and options for the several queries made by councillors.
The bulk of the proposed 7.55 per cent increase is attributed to inflationary pressures, complemented by the strategic direction of the town, and the needs of a growing community. Yet the impact of the increase isn't lost on town administration, CAO Mike Derricott told council, and there at options to address it through cost reductions and the use of reserves and the 2022 surplus.
Mayor Jeff Genung asked the administration to come back with options to produce a budget with both a three and five per cent increase and what it would take to achieve.
Councillor Morgan Nagel said he felt last year's increase of almost 10 per cent was designed to get ahead of past and future pressures, and that he had anticipated inflationary conditions this year.
"Last year, I felt it would be prudent to get ahead of that when the economy was feeling well instead of waiting to respond to it when everybody else's purses were already hurting. I feel there's a big mismatch between where I am at and where this current budget is at."
He says he understands this won't be easy and cause some pain and discomfort, but that's no different than what's already being felt by residents and the private sector.
"I think that it's important that we recognize that it is going to be difficult to respond to this inflationary environment, just as it is for households and businesses. If we just go through and increase our tax revenue by 7.5 per cent on the average tax bill, it's like, we're just not bearing any of the brunts of the inflationary challenges our society is facing. It's like the government is getting a free pass."
Councillors like Tara McFadden came with very specific ideas of how to lower the budget. She suggested a hiring freeze, no Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) increase for council or town executive staff, and limiting training to what's required for certification.
"I do have some ideas about how we can half that (increase), but I think it needs to be an edifying process on how we get there. Overall we need to face the realities of a really tough economic time for our municipality, and more importantly for our residents."
Councillor Marni Fedeyko expressed alarm over some of the items in town council's budget and believed she could easily reduce it by $100,000.
She says the feeling of the community is they can't handle more increases. She says council claims to be fiscal stewards of the community and needs to set an example.
"I think we need to find a way to show our community that we feel the same pressures and I don't think this is a time to overspend, overstaff, and I do understand that we're planning for things as we go ahead into the future, but maybe this is not the year to do that. I think we need to be respectful of people's situations. I personally know single parents out there that have had to go to the food bank this year because they can't afford it when they're working two jobs."
Discussions could wrap up as early as today, but if not, council has one more session scheduled for Nov. 24.