by Tristan Turner
Council unanimously approved First Reading of the 2016 Operating Budget Nov. 10. The budget sees a $968,350 deficit and predicts two more deficits for 2017 and 2018. At the same time, ratepayers could see a 3 per cent tax hike next spring.
The budget reality is far from the numbers with the town, however. In almost all of the budgets in recent years, the Town has seen a massive difference between their budget and what their actual expenditures at the end of the year. The previous budget (2015) saw a small deficit of $6,887, but the town is now forecasting a surplus of $1,870,181.
This budget sees expenditure increases in almost every category. Notably a nearly one million dollar increase in the Town’s salaries, wages, and benefits, with the potential hiring of four new employees and other increases.
Other increases include $160,000 into a new fund to put aside money for the maintenance of Town buildings and to build up a contingency fund in the event of a natural disaster or another emergency. Others include a proposed costly new road crack sealing program ($140,000) and roof repairs for the Morinville Fire Hall ($120,000), among others.
The Nov. 10 Council meeting was held at the cultural centre to accommodate more members of the public who wished to speak to the budget. However, Council heard but two presentations, one from Morinville Library Manager Isabelle Cramp, and another from resident Paul O’Dea. Cramp’s presentation was brief, simply stating that the library will be receiving approximately $10,000 more in funding from the Northern Lights Library System that will allow them to reduce their request for funding from the Town by the same amount.
Paul O’Dea gave a longer presentation where he expressed some frustration with the budget, thinking that the Town should work to make funding changes in the new budget clearer by expressing changes in percentages and everyday language.
“Heaps and heaps of numbers are good, but they can lead to drowsiness, confusion and they muddle sense of direction,” O’Dea said, adding he was disappointed the town did not make the budget more accessible, especially requesting that they include percentage increases on each major category with an accompanying explanation. “Happily, a remedy is available.”
O’Dea believes that remedy is for the Town to consider putting caps on increases to spending across the board, to reduce a deficit he sees as too high.
“[There is] an increase of 25.6 per cent of expenditures from the 2015 forecast to the proposed 2016 budget,” he said. “We’re going from $11.2 Million to $14.1 Million. That’s a number that got my attention.”
O’Dea went on to suggest the Town should rein in spending a bit and put caps on spending increases, pointing to the recent provincial budget as an example.
With a hearty laugh from Council, O’Dea assured them he would “see them again next year” to return with his thoughts on the next budget.
Council discusses process, offers cuts
When it came to Council’s concerns, Councillor Bary Turner thought the Town may need to look at doing budgeting differently.
Turner cited the $1 million deficit between the $13 million in revenue and proposed $14 million in expenditures and said historically proposed deficits turn into surpluses by year’s end because of found efficiencies.
“The issue is that we put this forward as a plan and here we are suggesting that we are going to have a million dollar deficit that is then covered by operating reserves,” Turner said. “I don’t think this is something that we are going to solve here this evening, but at the same time we’ve got essentially … a budget that is funded with reserves, and I have a very fundamental issue with that.”
Council typically alters the budget at second and third reading; however, the Nov. 10 meeting saw a couple cuts out of the gate.
The first was from Councillor Stephen Dafoe who moved to remove all new hirings from the Town out of the budget. The budget accounts for four new employees in its first draft, including a new assistant in the office of the CAO, a new RCMP clerk, a Financial Services employee and a maintenance worker for the cultural centre.
Dafoe said he understood the need for the accounting position and the RCMP clerk but felt each should be evaluated and added on their own merits rather than simply being lumped in the budget as a matter of course. Specifically, he mentioned the Financial Services employee is necessary as it was identified in the organizational review.
Mayor Holmes was concerned that passing the motion may put the Town in an awkward position when advocating for the RCMP clerk position with the County, as they may be providing some of the funding for that new position.
Dafoe’s motion narrowly passed, being opposed by Mayor Lisa Holmes, Councillor Barry Turner and Deputy Mayor Rob Ladouceur.
Deputy Mayor Ladouceur brought forward a cut to one of the items that he originally brought forward as a project. The Town of Morinville app was cut from $25,000 to $6,000 after administration came forward with an option to release an app with, as CAO Debbie Oyarzun puts it, “more limited scope.” The new app would allow members of the public to contact various parts of the town to report information like potholes, as well as potentially filling some documents on their phone. At the higher price point, the town was supposed to get an app that allowed “two-way communication” where town staff could respond to questions received in the mobile app, but that faced the chopping block.
Ladouceur’s motion passed with Councillors Nicole Boutestein and Brennan Fitzgerald opposing.
Council will also consider a significant potential cost savings in the budget due to a proposed $140,000 expenditure for crack sealing that would see all roads done annually. The Town currently tries to do crack sealing on a four- to five-year rotation. The increase in roads has dropped that to roughly every six years. Valcourt believes the roads can be sealed ever four to five years for a $6,000 expenditure.
Councillor Stephen Dafoe requested Valcourt to come back with costs to have roads sealed on a three-year rotation.
The 2016 Operating Budget will return for second (and potentially third) reading at Council’s Nov. 24. All residents can read the draft budget in full from the Town website (Morinville.ca) within Nov. 10 Agenda Package.
Council can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.