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Budget unlikely to change says Mayor

Budget unlikely to change says Mayor
Mayor Greg Dionne takes notes during Monday’s council meeting at City Hall. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Prince Albert city council will have to meet one last time before Christmas to approve the 2019 General Fund Budget, however it’s unclear whether that meeting will actually result in any changes.

A tie vote at Monday’s council meeting means the 2019 budget is automatically defeated, and, according to Mayor Greg Dionne, means council will meet again on Dec. 20 to hammer out an acceptable proposal.

Despite the concerns raised during Monday’s meeting, however, some council members say they have no interest in voting for any changes at the next meeting.

“My plan would be to support the budget as it is, for sure, which was what I thought we were going to be doing (on Monday),” Ward 6 Coun. Blake Edwards said during an interview on Tuesday. “I don’t think I’ll be supporting any changes. I think we need to move forward.”

“We had two days and those were the two days to make changes,” Mayor Greg Dionne said shortly after Monday’s meeting. “(Monday) was supposed to be an approval day. You are going to listen to my colleges say, ‘well, you can change it.’ You can. Absolutely you can, but we don’t. You have the right to change it at any time, but we had two days of deliberations with all the departments there.”

Edwards, Dionne and councillors Dennis Ogrodnick and Don Cody all voted in favour of the proposed budget. Ogrodnick declined to be interviewed about Monday’s meeting, but made it clear during the debate that he wasn’t open to supporting changes either.

“This (budget) is a balance,” Ogrodnick told council. “We have to balance what’s good for our seniors, what’s good for our care homes, what’s good for youth in this community, and what’s good for other areas of the city. That’s what we have to do. Is it a perfect budget? Absolutely not. But it’s a good compromise. If we had an unlimited supply of money then we could do all of those things, but as it sits right now we don’t.”

It’s not clear what changes the four council members who voted against the budget will make. Ward 3 Coun Evert Botha said he wasn’t aware of any December meeting to revisit the issue, while Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp said she’d have to wait and “see how the meeting shapes up.” Botha, Lennox-Zepp, and councillors Charlene Miller and Dennis Nowoselsky all voted against passing the budget. Ward 8 Coun. Ted Zurakowski was absent from Monday’s meeting. Dionne has vowed that every council member would be present for the Dec. 20 meeting.

“It’s a great question,” Lennox-Zepp said when asked on Tuesday about potential changes. “I don’t know how things will shape up, but this is the work that the public expects us to do. They expect us to look seriously at budgetary decisions.”

Economic development, spending and taxation headline list of reasons budget shot down

Spending and reserves were the two major concerns for the four councillors who voted against the budget. In particular, Lennox-Zepp, Botha and Miller all rejected the decision to use funds from the Roadway Recapping Base Levy Tax Levy, which holds $4.2 million, and is being used to balance the city’s books.

Lennox-Zepp said that money should be going towards roads like it was intended, and not to balancing other parts of the budget.

“I think it’s a significant failure of this budget,” Lennox-Zepp said of the more than $300,000 that will be taken out of the levy. “Base taxes are not an appropriate way of taxing our people. If we need that income, we should be applying that to the mill rate, or for a fairer, progressive taxation tool.”

Lennox-Zepp added that using the levy this way amounted to a betrayal of public trust since council was not using the money in areas it was intended for.

She also disputed suggestions from the mayor that she was picking one budget item she didn’t like and using it as a reason to vote against the entire package.

“We’re dealing with public money and I take that responsibility extremely seriously,” she said. “It is important that we look at a budget line-by-line, and also important that we look at the budget as a broad overview, and speaking about the broad overview, I would say we have failed in terms of long-term planning.”

Botha also took aim at the decision to dip to heavily into various reserves, which he said amounts to “smoke and mirrors.” However, his major reason for opposing the budget was its lack of economic planning.

Botha said he was concerned council was unwilling to fill the Economic Development Officer position, which was been vacant since 2016.

“We need to cast the net winder,” Botha said on Tuesday. “We need to have somebody who can talk at the boardroom level and represent the city and find industry and companies that can come and set up shop in Prince Albert. We can’t just continue to try and slice and dice the budget on a diminishing market. We can’t continue to just rely on retail and services. We need new industry and we need new blood and we need decent paying jobs. We can’t continue the way we’ve been continuing for the last two years.”

Botha said newer developments like Cornerstone have been positive, but he worried they were short-term solutions. The only way to keep tax rates from steadily increasing, he argued, was to attract large-scale industries.

He also took aim at councillors who placed blame for the city’s dire financial straights at the feet of the federal or provincial governments.

“We can’t take from tomorrow to fund the projects of today,” he said. “We can’t make big investments in infrastructure without exploring every single option of federal and provincial funding. It’s very easy for other councillors to grandstand and criticize the provincial government or the federal government.”

Budget decision frustrating for supporters

Monday’s decision left many councillors frustrated, especially Mayor Greg Dionne.

Dionne took aim at all four councillors for voting against the budget because they didn’t like a line or two, but he reserved special condemnation for Ward 7 Coun. Dennis Nowoselsky, who did not attend any of the public budget meetings in October.

“I don’t know where he’s coming from,” Dionne said. “He wasn’t at any budget meetings for the general budget fund, so I don’t know why he’s voting against it. He might have read the report or something. We were expecting him but he wasn’t there, so that is frustrating when you don’t participate and then you vote against it. At least participate.”

Nowoselsky was unavailable for comment on Tuesday. The Daily Herald will run a response when we receive one.

Dionne also said too many councillors have an axe to grind, which he argued is caused by the city’s ward system.

“I thought we did a great job this year. It went along quite smoothly, and then we get these ‘personal ward attacks,’ as I call them, on the budget, and that’s why I don’t approve of the ward system,” he said.

Dionne added that councillors who voted against the budget should tell youth and seniors why they voted the way they did the next time they attend a public event.

Edwards was equally frustrated on Tuesday. Edwards said he understands that the budget isn’t perfect, but also thinks it provides the best balance possible for local residents.

“I think that the people who voted in favour of the budget, this time, the way it fits, were supporting citizens of all ages,” he said. “There’s something in the budget that supports the future, that supports the present, and we haven’t reduced services, which is a key factor for citizens.”