While the draft budget called for increases over the next three years amount to over 11 per cent, town council went into budget deliberations with a zero increase in mind for 2021, says Mayor Jeff Genung
After two days of intense discussions, they succeeded in that goal for 2021 municipal taxes, and drastically lowered anticipated increases for 2022 and 2023 in the three-year budget.
They have now been projected to be practically zero for 2021, 1.55 per cent in 2022, and 2.78 per cent in 2023.
With the sagging economy and devastation caused by COVID-19, Genung says right out of the gate council was determined to get to a zero increase.
"It was really the budget that council dug in and came to the conclusion that we needed to not do more with less, but do less with less."
The budget did pull back on timelines surrounding planning and infrastructure projects that became less important because of the slow down in growth. It did hold the course, though, on projects aimed at reducing traffic congestion, particularly through the downtown core and along the Hwy. 1A corridor.
Genung says the aim now is to get three major projects completed starting in the spring. Besides the Hwy. 1A corridor improvements, they also include the development of the transit hub and pedestrian CP track crossing into the Historic Downtown and building the new enforcement building in the Heartland neighbourhood.
Others like the wastewater line twinning and reservoirs that are growth driven will be set aside for now.
"There was a lot of discussion about the 10-year capital plan and what projects we were able to push off. Because growth has slowed, we were able to delay some until future years."
He says in the spring they'll be taking a good hard look at future priorities.
"I think that we're going to have to be very mindful as to what we identify as a priority and allow staff to get that done, and then move to the next item."
He says the announced transit hub project is already having the impact they were seeking.
"I know Springwood is looking to move forward with a proposal on a residential building downtown, which is good to see in this economy. That's exactly what we were hoping to see, to disperse some interest in that corridor along Railway."
Dropping projected property tax increase included measures to reduce costs both in 2021 and 2022.
Town council remuneration was scheduled to increase in October but has been frozen at the current rate at a savings of about $27,000 savings. Council also agreed to delay the hiring of another RCMP until 2023 from 2022 so to coincide with the opening of the new protective services centre in the Heartland community.
Council directed administration to pursue a letter of understanding with the IAFF Local 4819 and Teamsters Local 987 to discuss a potential reduction to the 2 per cent increases bargained for 2021.
They also changed the method of how benefits are calculated based on a more accurate percentage of single and family actuals.
"It essentially doesn't change the benefits that anyone would see but changes how we calculate them and took a significant amount out of the budget."
"We sent the administration team back with fewer funds to operate with, so we're waiting for them to come back with their recommendations on exactly how they will implement that."
Avoiding the cut was a 5th Ave. utility servicing study to provide some of the groundwork for when development is ready to proceed on the town's 15.3-acre property on 5th Ave. It's one of the three properties included in the town's tri-site plan.The study is being funded through the town's operating reserve and will have no tax implications for 2021.
Councillor Susan Flowers, in particular, pushed for its inclusion in the 2021 budget to help the town prepare for the potential relocation of the Big Hill Lodge to the property. The town has been lobbying extensively with government officials for the existing lodge to be replaced.
The budget is set to come back to town council on Dec. 14 to be finalized.