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Council passes 2019 budget after intense Thursday debate

Council passes 2019 budget after intense Thursday debate
Mayor Greg Dionne listens to a speaker during Thursday's budget debate at City Hall.

[Editor’s Note: the opening paragraph of this story has been changed to clarify that one final vote is needed before the budget becomes official. We apologize for any confusion.]

It took almost one hour of intense debate, but city council has once again passed the 2019 municipal budget.

Council voted down all four amendments presented during Thursday’s deliberations, then passed the original budget by a 5-4 margin. As with the most recent vote on Dec. 10, councillors Charlene Miller, Terra Lennox-Zepp, Evert Botha and Dennis Nowoselsky all voted against the final budget.

Afterwards, Mayor Greg Dionne downplayed the disagreements in the chamber, saying he wanted to focus on the good aspects going forward.

“That’s the sad part about council today,” he said. “I want to keep things positive, so I’m not going to dwell on the negative. I think what we did today is very positive for our residents.”

However, not all council members see it that way. Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp, who presented three of the four motions that were voted down, reiterated her concerns that the budget did not focus on long-term planning. She took specific aim at council’s decision to balance the budget using funds from the base tax levied on all property owners to pay for the Roadway Recapping Program.

The program reserve currently holds roughly $4.2 million. City council plans to use $300,000 from that account to balance the books.

“This budget is billing citizens on their property tax bill for a Roadways Recapping Base Tax Levy and then turning around and not spending the entirety of that sum on roadways recapping,” Lennox-Zepp said. “It’s a betrayal to our citizens of Prince Albert. We simply should not be billing people for something that we don’t intend to spend (money) on.”

Lennox-Zepp also argued that there was a $27 million backlog of roadwork that needed to done, and members of the public were anxious to see that work completed. She also disliked the method of taxation, and called for the city to stop relying on base taxes and instead focus on the mill rate to generate revenue.

“A base tax is a regressive form of taxation, and this is a perfect example of a misuse of a regressive form of taxation,” she said. “We should be rethinking the base tax. If we need the funds, it should be through the mill rate.”

The use of Roadway Recapping Program funds was one of the most divisive items during Thursday’s discussion.

Several councillors, most notably Ward 4 Coun. Don Cody, took exception to the suggestion that city council was hiding its decision to use the funds to balance the budget.

Following budget deliberations in November, Dionne was quoted in Nov. 11 issue of the Daily Herald saying he didn’t think residents would mind council dipping into the fund because it would prevent more tax increases. He stood by that opinion on Thursday, saying at most, the city would pave one or two fewer blocks next year.

“There is no secret here,” he said. “It’s been in the paper…. These people that say we’re hiding it or secretive. That’s totally false. We’ve told the people.”

Dionne was even more passionate during the council meeting, calling on his critics to openly debate him on the issue.

“We’re not hiding anything, and anyone who says that, I challenge them to debate me live,” he said. “Quit hiding under Facebook and other things. Come forward and challenge us.”

The wisdom of dipping into recapping program funds wasn’t the only issue at play either. Ward 3 Coun. Evert Botha said during the debate he wanted a legal opinion on whether city council could even make such a decision.

“I just want to make sure from a legal point of view that we can move the money across,” he told council. “If that bylaw was written somewhere or that policy is written somewhere, I need the absolute clarity that yes, this is okay to due.”

Botha said he respects that council members are trying to keep tax increases at a minimum, but wants council to increase the number of streets the city paves, rather than use any excess money on other projects.

Thursday’s debate was briefly derailed after Ward 1 Coun. Charlene Miller began referring to a private email that was sent to all city councillors. Miller said the email showed city councillors were giving inaccurate information about using roadway budget money when asked by residents while attending community events.

The comment caused Ward 5 Coun Dennis Ogrodnick to interrupt the proceedings on a point of privilege to demand an apology. Ogrodnick said he was one of the councillors referenced in the letter, and vehemently disputed Miller’s interpretation of events. Ward 4 Coun. Don Cody also strongly disagreed with Miller’s words during a brief by heated reply. Like Ogrodnick, Cody also asked for an apology. Miller did not provide one.

The Daily Herald was unable to acquire a copy of the email in question by press time.

LED lighting, Municipal Service Centre upgrades and funding for Economic Development Manager all voted down

None of the four amendments proposed on Thursday received more than three votes from council.

The closest vote was Botha’s proposal to spend $105,000 on a vacant Economic Development Manager position. Botha argued that the position was necessary to improve the city’s long-term business prospects. The position has been vacant for more than two years.

The amendment was voted down by a 6-3 margin after some councillors expressed concerns about how the position would be funded. Others, like Ward 6 Coun. Blake Edwards, argued the city was already attracting new businesses without someone filling the position, and said the city should wait to see what effect the new Prince Albert Regional Economic Development Alliance has before spending any more money.

Other proposals that were voted down include a $168,000 Municipal Service Centre Salt and Sand Storage Building capital project, a $157,000 Municipal Service Centre Fuel Tanks and Pumps capital project, and a $60,000 plan to put LED lighting in Kinsmen Arena. Both the LED lighting proposal and salt and sand storage project were voted down by 7-2 margins. The tanks and pumps proposal was defeated by an 8-1 margin.