Budget shows lack of long-term planning, councillors say

Coun. Dennis Nowoselsky (left) and Coun Terra Lennox-Zepp (right) were the only two councillors to vote against the 2020 city budget on Thursday. – Herald file photos.

Couns. Terra Lennox-Zepp and Dennis Nowoselsky gave a variety of different reasons for voting against the 2020 municipal budget, but on at least one point they agree: council should not dip into reserves to lower the tax increase.

Neither city councillor was happy the city emptied out the $247,390 Emergency Savings Reserve to help limit the 2020 tax increase to 2.9 per cent. Both said it shows a lack of long-term planning, which will negatively affect the city’s future.

“It was a make-do budget,” Nowoselsky said when contacted on Friday. “We pulled money out of reserves to keep it reasonably low, but those reserves are going to get depleted. How many more years are we going to do this? There’s not a good long-range plan.”

“I don’t think the public wants to see us balancing our budget out of an emergency savings reserve that we may need,” Lennox-Zepp said. “As a city, we’ve had emergencies erupt and you just never know when you may need to use it. That’s just poor planning.”

“Taking funds out of reserves to balance the budget, that only delays those costs to the city,” she added. “It just punts them down the line to the next year.

Dipping into reserves was a big issue for both councillors, but not the biggest.

Funding cuts from the provincial government, like their 2017 decision to eliminate $36 million in funding for Saskatchewan municipalities, were one of the main reasons Lennox-Zepp wouldn’t approve next year’s budget. She said this budget makes the City take on burdens the provincial government can’t or won’t carry, something she refused to support.

“The provincial government has had substantial cuts to municipal funding, and for the City of Prince Albert, it’s been a huge hit—to the tune of a $3.5 million reduction in our budget,” she said. “That’s enormous for a city of our size, and it’s unacceptable. I am concerned about seeking that balance, and trying to make up the shortfalls of this provincial government and their mismanagement of funds, that has now affected the people of Prince Albert.”

Lennox-Zepp also wanted to see more support for phase one of the Central Avenue – River Street Revitalization project, which would have cost more than $1 million. Council voted 8-1 against funding the project, but Lennox-Zepp said it’s vital work that needs to be done sooner rather than later.

“City administration have been telling us for many years that the infrastructure located in the downtown core of Prince Albert, specifically under Central Avenue, is over 110 years old,” she said. “We have the data to know that that infrastructure is deteriorating and it’s been recommended to us by the experts that it will be more cost effective to do the work pro-actively, instead of waiting for a major break in 110 year old infrastructure, sewer lines, water lines … and suddenly you have a large amount of small businesses and other folks who are now not able to operate.”

The city wouldn’t have been able to complete the project without a loan, but Lennox-Zepp said it would be an appropriate use of those funds.

“I would say that it’s a high-cost item, however we need to at least start on that project, because the public expects us to be planning ahead and not just be looking one-year down the line,” she said.

Nowoselsky’s biggest concern was the size of the police budget. Prior to the start of budget debates, he said he wouldn’t support any budget that didn’t cut salaries or positions. He stuck to his word on Wednesday, when he voted against the proposed police budget brought forward by Chief Jon Bergen, and again when he voted against the entire budget on Thursday.

“I hate repeating myself, but it’s just totally out of whack,” he said. “If it was managed better, or more efficiently, people wouldn’t have infrastructure costs on their water bills, or we’d have money to do other infrastructure work. We’ve got so much infrastructure work to do in the future and we’re going to have to borrow. There’s no money.”

Nowoselsky said Prince Albert needs to take a “more progressive step” and follow the lead of the City of North Battleford, which cut four full-time firefighter positions earlier this year.

“North Battleford had to make some big, tough decisions,” he said. “They started cutting some positions. It’s like if you or I had our own business, and over and over again, the business isn’t bringing in enough money. Are we going to keep borrowing from the bank? Are we going to go to our friends and say, ‘just keep giving us more?’”

Nowoselsky also disagreed with the 2.9 per cent tax increase, saying it was to high for seniors and low-income Prince Albert residents.

“Any business person who looks at that budget says, ‘that can’t go on.’ Every year we just say, ‘what’s two per cent?’ Well, to the people working making $13-14 an hour and senior citizens—unless there’s two who have a good pension, that’s the exception—they’re hurting,” he said. “You can say, ‘well, what’s $60 or $80 more this year, and what’s $60 or $80 more next year.’ That’s a lot more than many people, the majority, are getting.”

Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne defended the city’s use of reserves following Thursday’s budget vote. Dionne said the reserve was built on taxpayer money, so residents wouldn’t object if council used it to lower taxes.

The Prince Albert Daily Herald will have a response to the 2020 budget from Prince Albert Carlton MLA and Saskatchewan Party cabinet minister Joe Hargrave in Tuesday’s paper.