By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Council gave first reading to the 2013 budget, a necessary step to open the door on a month-and-a-half of public consultation, tweaking and trimming. Council and Administration will hold two open houses, one Nov. 6 and another Nov. 8, to get community input on where resident and business tax dollars need to be spent next year. Additionally, a public forum is scheduled for Nov. 13 prior to a possible second reading of the budget that evening.
As laid down at first reading, Budget 2013 consists of an $11 million operating budget combined with a proposed $3.6 million in capital projects.
Morinville’s Chief Financial Officer, Andy Isbister, said the purpose of first reading is not to accept or endorse all spending contained in the budget as first presented but to open the budget process for some thorough examination.
While that examination will see items removed and others added, Isbister is certain ratepayers will be looking at no more than a 2 per cent increase in 2013 even if Council were to pass the budget exactly as presented Tuesday night.
“As it sits right now we are proposing a 2 per cent tax increase for the municipal portion,” Isbister said. “So if you are paying $1,800, it would be [another] $36 per year.”
Isbister said if Council were to endorse the budget untrimmed, operational reserves would have to be used to some degree to maintain the 2 per cent increase. “We would hate to do that, but it is one way we are going to have to tighten our belts,” he said, adding Morinville is in pretty good shape fiscally. “We hear residents say they can only afford to pay so much in taxes. We want to start to bring our taxes back into line with everybody that’s in the Capital Region. It’s hard because we don’t have that industrial or commercial [tax base] other communities have, but we are working on it.”
Consultation and trimming notwithstanding, the first draft of the 2013 budget contains a number of initiatives that are on the wish list. Whether they survive public consultation and future readings remains to be seen.
Highlights of the initial draft include $120,000 for conceptual designs for a new arena for Morinville. The study would include community consultation and would work in conjunction with a Regional Recreation Master Plan already underway with neighbouring municipalities.
Another $80,000 is being proposed for site plans for a park in the Notre Dame neighbourhood and the Fish and Game Association pond area, including the skate park and ball diamonds.
Technology Plan implementation is budgeted at $75,000 and includes the launch of a modern website for the Town of Morinville as well as enhancing internal efficiencies and looking at alternative ways of doing Town business, including self-service, surveys and a virtual city hall.
The Budget also contains $30,000 for a Fire Succession Plan, which would take a planned approach in transitioning Morinville’s Fire Chief position from a volunteer position with an honorarium to a paid position within the Town’s administrative structure.
Total operational projects for 2013 prior to trimming consist of $430,000 in spending.
Capital projects to top $3.5 million
Big-ticket items in the first draft of the 2013 budget include a new fire and rescue truck for the Morinville Fire Department; an item budgeted at $850,000 and approved by Council earlier this year.
Another $750,000 has been earmarked for affordable housing, and $200,000 is to be spent on a plan for East Boundary Road, the alternate north-south arterial roadway in Morinville.
Roughly a half million could be spent on road rehabilitation, and an equal amount is targeted to be spent on replacing vehicles in the Town’s fleet.
Staffing still top budget item
As was the case in 2012, staff wages and benefits top the list of proposed spending again in 2013. Budget as presented at first reading shows $5.5 million in salaries and wages as well as $1.4 million in contracted services. Those numbers are up approximately $700,000 from 2012 numbers.
Isbister said the biggest increase in staffing costs in 2013 is on the benefit side. “We’re projecting probably about a 5 per cent increase in benefits and the Local Authorities Pension Plan has seen an increase of about 8 to 8.5 per cent. Those two are really driving what the staff increase is.” Collective agreement for unionized employees is set to be a 3 per cent increase next year. Non-union employees are likely to receive the same increase.
The CFO defended accusations of administrative bloat; an argument that contends Morinville has more employees per capita than other municipalities.
“You have to be careful when you are looking at number of residents per employee or number of employees per resident,” he said. “We did a study last year of about 20 municipalities, all similar size, and we are right in the middle. We are very aware of what our costs are here in Morinville and we are trying to make sure the staff we have is the appropriate number doing the appropriate things in the community. We’re not trying to add additional staff for the sake of adding additional staff. There’s got to be a real need for it.”
Whether or not Administration convinces staffing level critics Morinville has the right number of employees remains to be seen. What is certain is Council and Administration is looking for considerable input to make final decisions on where tax dollars will be spent in 2013.
Looking for full participation
This year’s Budget Open Houses will be different than in previous years. While last year’s open house had the highest attendance in the last half decade, Council is hoping for even greater participation this time around.
“We want to give them information on the budget, give them the opportunity to dialogue with councillors,” Isbister said. “This is a council budget not an administration budget. It’s an opportunity for residents to speak directly with councillors and the mayor.”
Isbister said Administration and Council want to show the numbers are not plucked out of the air but carefully researched. “We look at every single line item from an administrative point of view and make sure those are the numbers we need to bring forward to make sure we bring the services and programs to residents that they require,” Isbister said. “We’re looking forward to having that dialogue again with the public. Last year we had about 50. We’d like to see two, three, four times that number come out on either night.”
The open houses will have the same easel presentations as 2012, albeit with different projects and numbers attached, but the evenings will also be much more interactive, letting participants express their opinion with their dollars. After a formal presentation on the budget process, participants will be given play money to show they are not playing around with how they want Council to spend their tax dollars.
Morinville’s Chief Administrative Officer, Debbie Oyarzun, said each budget item would be presented to participants, who will then be asked to support or not support the item with the Morinville Bucks they have been given.
In addition to the two open houses, there will be an online component wherein residents will be able to express their views on spending from their living rooms. Council will also hold a public meeting on the budget during the Nov. 13 meeting of Council. Depending on public input prior to and on the evening of Nov. 13, Council may opt to give the budget second reading or defer the matter to Nov. 27.
For more information on next year’s proposed budget visit www.morinville.ca.