Red Deer City council spent days deliberating over the operating budget for the year but found very little room to bring down the tax rate.
The final numbers for the tax rate is 4.32% with the budget totalling $272.6 million.
Many council members tried to whittle down the budget by suggesting reductions and additional cost savings, but Mayor Morris Flewwelling said there wasn’t much wiggle room as it was a well-recommended budget overall.
On Monday, the final day of deliberations, council addressed issues such as utilities and recommended cost savings.
One issue that raised questions was that of the City’s land bank. Councillor Chris Stephan was opposed to the funds dictated as surplus as well as expenditures on the list.
“I don’t think that government should be in the business of land as a profitable market. We shouldn’t be involved unless there is no one else willing to do it,” said Stephan.
He opposed a large amount of items on both the budget and cost savings list the safety charter which includes money for policing and crime prevention.
The biggest debate from the final day was over some of the cost savings that were put forward. Departments were challenged by council to find ways in which they could save dollars without cutting service levels.
One item that saw Councillors Dianne Wyntjes, Paul Harris, Lynne Mulder, Cindy Jefferies and Flewwelling oppose was the elimination of an out of town retreat location.
“This would take us in the wrong direction to eliminate it. When you’re in town all of your baggage comes with you,” said Harris.
Wyntjes said she has attended a number of out of town retreats and said that the different space allows for different thoughts and ideas to come out in a creative way.
The cost savings would have been $7,500 if council had gone with the City manager recommendation, but the motion failed and saw the $7,500 stay in place for the out of town retreat.
Subject to lengthy debate was the recommendation to reduce the hours at recreation facilities on statutory holidays.
“I won’t be supporting this because it would be a reduction in service levels. This impacts kids and families and stat holidays are when they have the extra day or long weekend that you want to spend with family,” said Wyntjes.
Harris said he wasn’t opposed to the reduction because it still left the centres open during peak hours and simply eliminated some of the early morning and later evening hours.
“It might make it fun because then you have more people there in a shorter time frame,” said Harris.
Stephan said simply that there are other areas where dollars could be saved and spending could be reduced but that, “This isn’t the area to do it. This simply isn’t what our taxpayers want.”
In the end the item passed with Wyntjes, Councillor Frank Wong, and Stephan opposed for a savings of $20,622.
Other items that were on the list of cost savings included reducing rough cut mowing by 50%. This means areas near roadways, parkways and some public utility lots would be mowed one or two less times in a summer. This item was a savings of $20,000.
Transit was also subject to a cost savings on two counts. By reducing conventional transit service to one-hour frequencies after 9:45 p.m. council sees a potential cost savings of $220,000.
“This seems like such an oxymoron that we want to encourage people to use more transit and then we look at reducing it,” said Wyntjes.
A suggestion to eliminate free firewood provided to park nodes that contain barbeque pits and shelters was not recommended by the City mananger. Much of council supported the City manager’s recommendation for different reasons.
Flewwelling said the problem with eliminating or even reducing the dollars allocated to the free firewood is that the trees in the surrounding areas tend to take the damage if there is no wood provided.
“This is one of those small things that we do that makes Red Deer unique. It’s as simple as the trail clearing too, it creates value for the tax dollars,” said Stephan.
Some of the wrap-up items for the budget were passed unanimously, one of which allocates $260,000 to public works for preventative maintenance on the roads.
“This is a good move I think. This will allow public works to address some concerns because as we all know pothole season is approaching,” said Wyntjes.
There will be a mid-year review of the budget and some items will come forward again at that time. This is to happen no later than the end of August.