Council makes 2020 budget official after voting down paratransit service amendment

Prince Albert City Hall -- Herald File Photo.

It took nearly one hour of debate on Monday, but Prince Albert City Council has officially approved the 2020 General Fund Budget.

The city’s elected officials spent most of that time discussing two late amendments. The first would have given an additional $75,450 to the Community Service Centre to help expand their paratransit service. The second would have removed a $25,000 item to create floral displays at entrances north and south of the city.

Both amendments were voted down by a 7-2 margin before the original budget passed in a slim 5-4 vote.

Mayor Greg Dionne said it wasn’t a perfect budget, but it spent taxpayer money wisely and moved the city forward. He also criticized the four councillors who voted against it for failing to look at the big picture.

“There are 10 things in the budget that I wanted and I didn’t get those 10 things, but we approved 180,” Dionne said. “Out of 180 things, I’m going to say no because I didn’t get my 10 things? That’s a sad, sad day for politicians, when your personal agenda outweighs your overall goal.”

Couns. Charlene Miller, Terra Lennox-Zepp, Evert Botha and Dennis Nowoselsky all voted against the budget.

Lennox-Zepp was the most vocal about her concerns. She agreed the budget contained plenty of positives but said there were too many instances where council ignored recommendations made by city administration. She argued that following those recommendations, like one from the financial department to hire additional staff to help apply for outside grants, would lead to cost savings in the future.

“When people ask me ‘why did you not vote for this budget’ I very easily tell them there are positive things in this budget, but there are items that we failed to make a mark on,” she said during Monday’s meeting. “I would like to see future cost savings (that last) further than just this term of council.”

She also wasn’t happy big-ticket items like the Central Avenue –River Street Revitalization Project were being ignored. The first phase of the project would cost more than $1 million. Lennox-Zepp made an amendment to include the item in the 2020 budget back in November, but it failed by an 8-1 margin.

Couns. Don Cody, Blake Edwards, Dennis Ogrodnick and Ted Zurakowski joined Dionne in voting in favour of the budget. Like Dionne, they admitted it wasn’t a perfect budget, but were confident it moved the city forward.

“The residents need to know that we pay taxes too,” Ogrodnick said during the meeting. “On social media you hear, ‘oh, if (council) only knew. It’s not coming out of their pocket.’ Well no, it is coming out of my pocket as well. I do pay taxes as well in this city, and always have paid my taxes and I believe the money is being well spent.”

“I didn’t get everything that I wanted, that some of the residents that I’ve talked to wanted, but overall it’s a good budget,” Edwards added. “It’s a fair budget, and that’s the reason I’m supporting it.”

Edwards added that more than half of the 2.9 per cent mill rate increase was due to police salary increases, which he said left the city with little to spend in other areas without taking out loans or increasing taxes.

Botha defends process that led to $75,000 amendment

Coun. Evert Botha says he was perfectly within his rights to introduce a last-second amendment to increase funding to the Community Service Centre, although the majority of council members weren’t happy with how he did it.

Botha made a motion to accept the 2020 budget at the beginning of Monday’s meeting, and announced that he was adding additional resolutions to increase CSC funding by reducing transfers to the Future Infrastructure Reserve.

“From a process point of view, I believe I was very clear during the motion that I was adding to the amendment, and I am perfectly within my rights to do that as a member of this body,” he said.

Mayor Greg Dionne admitted Botha was clear about his intentions and had followed proper protocol. City Clerk Sherry Person also told council Botha made it clear he was adding three new resolutions. Regardless, the move did not sit well with a number of councillors, who refused to support the motion on principal.

“I never believed that I’d see something like this happen here tonight before my eyes and I didn’t know the first thing about it,” said Coun. Don Cody, who originally seconded Botha’s motion, but withdrew his support after learning about the changes. “I think that was wrong. That’s the wrong way to do business. This council has to do business on an open basis, not on a closed basis, not behind anybody’s back.”

“I feel a little blindsided, quite frankly,” Coun. Blake Edwards added. “I didn’t even really see or hear this get slipped in.”

The Community Service Centre is struggling to maintain their Access Transit Service at its current level. The service provided roughly 30,500 trips in 2018, but turned away more than 3,000 requests for service, according to budget documents.

The CSC requires a $37,409 funding increase just to keep services at their current level. Expanding the service to eliminate turnaways would require $75,425 in total.

Botha said dipping into reserve funds would fund the program without increasing taxes, and argued that failing to do so would see a drop in paratransit services.

“I think this is a perfectly legal amendment,” he told council. “It makes sense. It’s reduction of a transfer to a reserve. We’re not taking from a reserve. It doesn’t affect the tax rate whatsoever, and it ensures that we can continue to provide this service to the most vulnerable.”

Council members who opposed the motion, like Cody, argued that the CSC’s transportation service was an important one. However, they also said council had to make tough decisions about where to spend its money, and this was one of them.

Council has already asked for a report from administration. The goal is to find savings in the transportation budget, which could then be given to the CSC.

“I just don’t want anybody in this assembly, or anywhere else, to think that this body of people here, these councillors, haven’t got the heart to give $75,000, because they have,” Cody said. “We all believe that that’s a good idea, but sometimes we have to put priorities on things, regardless of whether or not it’s our most vulnerable people.”

“We are all supportive of transportation for folks who need it,” Coun. Ted Zurakowski said. “We’re all supportive of that. What I object to is this process thrust upon us today after it was debated. I would have liked to have a more holistic conversation with the board of Community Services, with its director, taking a look at the books and saying ‘where can we find the money?’ This motion makes that decision for me.”