Council budget committee puts meetings on hold

Herald file photo

Prince Albert city council voted to cut $1.8 million in spending as the third day of budget committee meetings ended on Saturday, but Mayor Greg Dionne said they still need to cut more before giving final approval.

Dionne began Saturday’s budget meeting by telling council “everybody has to share the grief” during a debate over funding a program and outreach coordinator position for the Prince Albert Historical Society. Council voted against funding the program, and cut or reduced several other items, including a $400,000 reduction in proposed funding for the Fire Station Reserve.

Those cuts and reductions dropped the City’s potential property tax increase from 14.5 per cent down to eight per cent. On Saturday, Dionne said they plan to meet in a week to get that number even lower.

“Normally we would continue to approve the budget today, but we still have some challenges so we’ll recess for one week,” Dionne told reporters on Saturday. “That gives the opportunity for administration to go back and look again to see where we can get savings, and also for council to rethink.”

Dionne said the City is getting hammered with expenses due to inflation, rising interest rates, and the carbon tax. The city owns more than 70 buildings that use natural gas, and Dionne said not having to pay the tax would give the City more flexibility.

However, he also said on Saturday he wasn’t willing to wade into the argument.

“That would be a big savings, but that’s a federal and provincial dispute, and that’s why I don’t want to get into that,” he said.

Dionne said city administrators don’t know exactly how much they expect to pay in Carbon Taxes in 2024. That number will be one of several they’ll bring to the next budget meeting.

Dionne added that the City still plans on collecting the Carbon Tax and putting it in a fund in case the federal government taxes them to court and makes them pay it. If they don’t have to pay, those funds will go towards covering expenses.

Dionne credited “nearly all” city councillors for looking hard at ways to cut spending.

“My eyes are just burning from pages and pages of numbers, but I’m really pleased (with) the majority of councillors who came with cuts,” he said. “I appreciate that. Unfortunately, we weren’t unanimous in that category. One councillor wanted to increase the budget, and I was very pleased that it was defeated, but I want to give credit to the other councillors because they really looked hard.”

Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp was the only councillor to vote against Saturday’s budget changes. Lennox-Zepp said council has misplaced spending priorities, voting to provide funding for the architectural design of a new events centre even though the City is handcuffed by long-term debt payments.

Instead, Lennox-Zepp said council spend the money on revitalizing its downtown.

“The sidewalks are crumbling,” she said. “Large pieces of sidewalk are missing. There are tripping hazards. It was confirmed that the roadway down Central Avenue has not been repaved in 30 years, and we keep putting this item off when it is obvious we need to perform the work.”

Lennox-Zepp said failing to fix these problems could result in an even bigger bill down the road.

“I’m hearing from our citizens that they prefer if we as a council plan things proactively to perform this work and plan ahead so we aren’t bearing the higher costs of failing 110 year old infrastructure,” she said.

When asked about increasing spending, Dionne said he would prefer to fund more projects instead of cut spending, but the City simply can’t afford it right now without putting a bigger burden on the taxpayer.

“The expense side it just keeps piling up,” he said. “On the revenue sharing side, it doesn’t grow as much as our expenses do, so that’s an issue. We’re going to go back to the government, with all the other cities, saying that we need more transfers from them in our operating budget reserve from the province.”

“We’re on muscle and bone now,” he added. “I wish there was fat. That would help us.”

Budget meetings will resume later this week. See Wednesday’s Daily Herald for more budget coverage.