Council votes to reduce mill rate increase to 0 per cent for 2021

Prince Albert City Hall -- Herald File Photo.

There will be no increase to the mill rate this year after Prince Albert city council voted to cut funding in multiple departments and cover other commitments using portions of the 2020 surplus.

Councillors were prepared to vote on a budget that would have increased taxes by 1.1. per cent. While that was a far cry from the 6.6 per cent increase proposed in December, Mayor Greg Dionne said council heard loud and clear from residents who were hurting financially.

“They made it quite clear that they (are) strained,” Dionne said during the meeting. “They appreciated what we did (in reducing the increase to 1.1 per cent), but they wanted us to see if we could go further because of the job situation, the frustration in the workforce and the lack of funding.”

Some of the cuts will come from the City’s travel budget. The mayor’s office and every city department will each lose $1,000 in funding. City councillors will lose a combined $8,000 in travel funding.

Dionne said most major conferences and meetings, like those hosted by SUMA or the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), have already been cancelled. Public health restrictions have also made it even unlikely city staff or elected officials will have to travel.

The two other cuts were made in the police budget and the general budget fund. Council voted to make a $60,000 reduction in police funding, something Dionne said he discussed with Chief Jon Bergen. Dionne told council he’s confident police can still deliver the same level of service despite the reduction.

Council also voted to cut the general budget fund by $50,000. That money would have gone towards staff salaries. Council has instructed City Manager Jiim Toye to hold off on hiring two or three positions for a few months to save some extra cash.

Dionne said the City already plans to leave a number of positions unfilled, which means the $50,000 deduction may not even be necessary when the budget goes to another vote in March.

The rest of the $231,000 needed to bring the mill rate down came from the 2020 budget surplus, which includes provincial and federal COVID-19 funding grants.

Critics argued that the City was sacrificing long-term benefits for short-term gains with this budget. Dionne and other supporters argued that residents were hurting due to COVID restrictions, and the city needed to ease that burden as much as possible.

“It’s always tough to get to zero, because you’ve always got to plan for the future,” Dionne said after the meeting. “Unfortunately, this time we’ve got to plan for this year.”

Ward 1 Coun. Charlene Miller said she came to Monday’s budget meeting intent of voting against it. However, she changed her mind after seeing Dionne’s motion to reduce the mill rate increase to zero.

Like Dionne, Miller said she’s heard from many residents who couldn’t afford even a small mill rate increase, especially with the province reassessing property values this year.

“I’m sure that the residents are going to be very pleased about this situation,” she said during the meeting.

“I’m happy to vote in favour of the motion.”

Ward 5 Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick seconded Dionne’s motion. He told council residents in his wards were also struggling, and had made it known that reducing the mill rate increase as low as possible was their top priority.

“I think in a COVID year, this is a responsible thing for council to do,” he said during the meeting.

Only one councillor voted against the motion. Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp said she understood residents were struggling during a difficult time. However, she worried that city council was creating more problems down the road with their solution.

Lennox-Zepp was particularly worried about the police budget. She said the department is already strapped for resources, and this $60,000 cut would only make things more challenging.

“At budget committee, I did ask several questions of the Chief of Police, asking him, ‘are there any areas that could be cut here? Are there any areas of the budget that you’re presenting that you would be able to say you could see a reduction?’ He very strongly answered no, that they had already gone through their budget with a fine-tooth comb,” she explained.

Lennox-Zepp added that she couldn’t vote in favour of the proposal without more information about how the general fund spending cuts would affect city operations.

“I can respect that it is definitely a difficult year for citizens,” she said. “Nobody could say otherwise. It’s a COVID year. It’s very difficult financially and in all manners, on our citizens…. However, I believe it is important to consider small increases slowly instead of pushing these needs into the future.”