Town council has approved the 2018 municipal budget and the residential property tax increase is now projected to be 3.06 per cent, down from earlier estimates of up to 4.45 per cent.

The town’s total expenditures for 2018 are $53 million, with $27.2 million in offsetting revenues, resulting in $25.8 million in municipal property taxes. For the average house assessed at $481,410 taxes will increase $64.98 to $2,190.98 for the year. Prior to further budget adjustments by council, earlier estimates had it increasing as much as $20 more per year.

We'll also be paying more for water, sewer and recycling. Sewer and water charges are both increasing $1.20 per year and recycling charges are increasing $21.50 per year to continue to offer weekly black bin collection. That means the average household will now be paying a total of $1,367.12 per year for these services.

It's now $3 a bag for those utilizing the "Pay-as-you-Throw" service at the eco-centre, up from $2.

At it's Dec. 11 meeting, town council debated further cuts that would have seen a lower tax increase. Close 4-3 votes determined they will go ahead with hiring four full-time firefighters, as opposed to doing it in stages, and a new full-time communications advisor position, as opposed to part-time original included in the budget. That same vote split saw council agree to increasing this year's library grant to $598,416. Councillors Morgan Nagel, Alex Reed and Patrick Wilson all voted against these expenditures.

Alex Reed stood alone in opposition to hiring a development enforcement officer and Cochrane RancheHouse manager.

With all these positions approved, the budget calls for the hiring of an additional 12.57 full-time equivalent employees.

There was a consensus to defer the management advances at a savings of $50,000 after a lengthy 45-minute session behind closed doors.

The $50,000 savings will be realized through a combination of reduced market adjustments for management staff and senior staff deferring their reduced adjustments until July, explains Paige Milner, senior manager of Corporate Services.

There will, however, be a cost of living increase of 1.3 per cent paid to all town employees.

Council also eliminated $125,000 in capital spending for a pickleball court and some councillors question how that rose to the top of the pecking order for recreational development. Councillor Tara McFadden pushed for the town to establish a clearer process in establishing its recreational priorities.

The court's development hinged upon the recreational group receiving an equal amount of provincial community facility enhancement funding to cover the cost of the $250,000 project. Either way, the project would have been funded out from developers' fees and not have a direct impact on the 2018 tax rate.

Largely, the budget remains unscathed from the last revision and the real change was in the amount forecasted to be derived from building permits, or growth. The budget had been prepared on a conservative estimate of four per cent growth and updated projections show otherwise. They now estimate building permit revenue will reach $1.01 million, up from the $795,000 in revenue used to create the original budget. What that largely may impact is the size of the town's surplus, which has been considerable in recent years due to rapid growth and conservative growth estimates.

There was a slight drop in the budget projected for firefighters by recruiting entry-level employees but continues to amount to an additional $415,000. $40,000 less than originally budgeted. Still, the collective agreement with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4819 expires at the end of December and the impact of a new agreement won't be known until negotiations are completed, nor is there any provision of additional funds in the budget.

Participating in the meeting via telecommunications, Reed was adamant the town was being forced to increase fire services manpower because of inadequate personnel being provided by the provincial EMS service and believes they should instead fight the province for them to carry their own weight.

While he did receive some support for his stand, the majority were concerned that delaying the hiring would potentially put residents in harm's way.  

Council Nagel had requested the library budget be set at $559,000 instead of the $598,416 but the majority of council disagreed after an administrative review indicated the decrease would significantly impact their services.

Chief Administrative officer Dave Devana cautioned council against some of the cuts debated. He believed it would only compound problems, create a false economy and force higher, less pallatable tax hikes in the future as opposed to a steady increases.

Other significant factors of the budget not mentioned above include:

• $21.8 in capital projects, the largest being $15.8 million for the Bow River bridge crossing and connectors;
• Three more RCMP officers;
• $40,000 for live streaming council meetings and to upgrade the council chamber's dismal sound system;
• $190,000 for concept design of community cultural hub and an update to the Cochrane Sustainability Plan;
• $189,504 grant to Rockyview Regional Handibus Society, up from $168,317 in 2017;
• Increase in Seniors Property Tax rebate to $500 from $300 for eligible people;
• $310,154 for community groups and supported programs;
• $2,237,028 in tax-supported capital funding;
• A total of $4.6 million contributed to capital reserves; and
• Additional $7,000 in budget for council conference fees and general purchases.
The cost of transit was largely eliminated from the budget as council continues to explore what form it will take. The $7 million in capital funding was eliminated (but would have no impact on taxes either way) and the operating budget was stripped down to $85,814 from $327,000, largely to continue to explore options and consult with the public.
The impact of nonresidential properties upon the tax rate will be better known in a few months. The town will be examining the nonresidential assessment split when the numbers come in January to evaluate potential tax impacts, explains Milner.