Town council approved the 2023 municipal budget by a 4-2 vote last night, which will increase property taxes by 3.75 per cent.

That might almost double in impact if the proposed utility rates for storm sewer, water, and wastewater are approved in the New Year.

Councillors Marni Fedeyko and Tara McFadden remain strongly opposed to the operational budget, condemning the budget process and the way in which the tax increase was reduced.

McFadden sought and got a separate vote on the capital budget, which received unanimous support.

But when discussing the operational budget, Fedeyko and McFadden both said the way the budget was reduced will come back to haunt us.

"When we talk about intergenerational equity, we clearly state we don’t wish to handcuff future generations, with our decision-making of today," Fedeyko stated. "I see using our current surplus and anticipated permit revenue to lower the tax rate as being just that."

McFadden believed the town needs to be 'fiscal hawks' in managing operational costs.

"I find myself sadly out of alignment with the majority of my colleagues and their approach to this year's budget."

Her concerns included lack of transparency, limited public engagement, increased hiring without direct council approval, the water and wastewater utility decisions not being included in the process, and pulling funds out of surplus that could be used for future town projects.

She said she would rather the funds be set aside for future projects like desperately needed playing fields for soccer, rugby, and baseball, and a new library or theatre.

"Each of these projects has significant price tags that we need to save for, and our public engagement shows that 60 per cent of respondents want to use tax dollars to build financial reserves for future infrastructure."

She implied the budget puts Cochrane at great financial risk. She says it currently places the town at 135 per cent of its council-approved tax-supported debt limit in 10 years, recognizing it has been identified that long-term strategies can be adjusted to address this concern.

Fedeyko spoke strongly against the premature growth in the size of upper management. She agreed it may be required over the 15 years, but questioned why all the positions need to be filled in two years. 

Throughout the budget process, Fedeyko has strongly opposed the idea of adding yet another layer of management to oversee fire services and the police when both already have leadership in place. She believes there are adequate steps and checks along the existing chain of command.

She says that's a $180,000 position the town doesn't require.

Fedeyko says the growing bureaucracy is an overcorrection to events in their first term.

"This council, in our previous term, was led to believe we were over managed, and, in my opinion, forced to make decisions that cost us financially and trustworthiness. Now, less than two years later, we have not only rehired some of those ‘cut’ positions, but increased our management portfolio three-fold or more."

She also addressed the personal attack made on her during budget deliberations by Councillor Morgan Nagel. He accused her of grandstanding and finding any excuse to vote against the budget.

Fedeyko says councillors have a right to express their opinions and none of her attacks were personal in nature against administration or other town councillors.

"Do I feel it is right for any member of council to call another council member out by name, basically shaming them or demeaning them for their yay or nay vote? No, not ever."

Councillor Nagel put the operating budget on the floor.

He was satisfied with how the reduction was achieved and viewed it as a cutback when taking into account inflation. He says the Consumer Price Index across Canada is close to seven per and, and this increase is far less.

"In real economic terms, it is a budget cut which I think is the right decision. It's not a zero per cent budget but we're holding back, and that's why I'll be supporting it."

In the end, council all but left the draft budget unscathed and instead chose to pull money out of reserve and surplus to reduce the percentage increase.

Recognizing public pushback on councillors receiving a 3.5 per cent cost of living allowance, Nagel says he will donate those extra dollars to some local cause but did not specify what, saying it's to be announced.

Councillor Susan Flowers agreed with the budget, believing the town fell behind the last few years.

"We had bad advice, we didn't raise taxes when we should have, and I still feel like we're playing catchup," says Flowers. "I know that some people are unhappy with the process this year, and we're going to improve it, but I felt that we worked hard at getting the number down, I'm happy with where we are and I will be supporting it."

The budget calls for a $74.3 million operating budget up from $68.2 million last year, a $6 million increase, or nine per cent net growth. Of that, $32.2 million will come from taxes, breaking out to $999.81 per capita, up from $984.61 last year.

The town is required to prepare three-year budgets, though, between now and next year, it is subject to change. Based on those projections, we're looking at almost $5 million more in operating costs in 2024. and about $3.5 million more in 2025.

There is $27 million in the 2023 capital budget and a further $51 million in 2024-25.

The budget also calls for some increases in town fees. Town administration attributed these to rising costs.

Town CAO Mike Derricott told council the budget aligns with the town's strategic plan.