by Tristan Turner
Morinville ratepayers will be seeing a smaller increase to their property tax rate than expected at first reading of Morinville’s budget after more than a quarter million dollars was slashed from the budget during second reading, dropping a proposed tax increase from 6 per cent to 4.9 per cent with one last opportunity to make reductions later this month. Council’s nearly four-hour long meeting dealt almost entirely with budget and saw the elimination of events like Oktoberfest and slashes to administrative budgets and programming, along with the deferral of infrastructure projects.
One of the major cuts come to the development of a fire services master plan, an initiative that would have cost the town $50,000. Councillor Richardson made the motion, which received comments of support from much of council. CAO Andrew Isbister responded to the proposal saying “I don’t believe [cutting] this poses any risk,” saying that differing for one year should not have any significant effects. Director of Corporate Operations David Schaefer concurred, but noted that he felt the initiative is not something the town would want to put off for many more years, citing the town’s rapid growth as an important factor in this review. Mayor Turner agreed with Schaefer that the deferral should not become permanent, adding that conducting this review could allow the town to maintain a volunteer fire service for longer, leading to greater long-term savings for Morinville. The motion passed unanimously with limited debate.
Council also slashed an initiative to hire an outside contractor to review service levels offered by the town, with only Mayor Turner opposing the cutback. Deputy Mayor Dafoe proposed the $30,000 reduction, citing that he did not see the value in “another contractor report costing $30,000 or $50,000”. Mayor Turner felt that the town has not had an opportunity to thoroughly review service levels, and that this review would be an asset for the town moving forward. The motion passed with only Mayor Turner opposing.
Dafoe passed a unanimous motion to cut $10,000 for Oktoberfest, an annual event held at the Community Cultural Centre celebrating German culture and heritage. While Dafoe mentioned liking the event, saying “while we are in these budget deliberations… we have to look at the must haves and the nice to haves… I think culture and heritage are must haves.” Going on to say that while these events are important, the town has around 23 annual events and festivals and there may be more events than is needed. Councillor Boutestein agreed, mentioning that it is often difficult for Morinville residents to get access to the event because the tickets sell out very quickly, often to people from out of town. Both Mayor Turner and Dafoe noted that Oktoberfest could be an opportunity for another community group to organize the event themselves as a fundraiser.
Graphic Design services for the CAO were cut out of the budget by Councillor Hall to the tune of $16,656. This cut was made due to the acquisition of a new Part Time employee to assist the town in graphic design and communications that could fulfil some of these contracted services. The motion passed with only Councillor Boutestein opposing.
Councillor Boutestein made a motion to cut out a new initiative for a payroll service for the town at $60,000. Chief Financial Officer, Shawna Jason, noted that making this cut could mean that staff may use their time less efficiently, continuing to manually input a lot of employee payroll information. The motion failed with Councillor Boutestein and Mayor Turner supporting the motion.
The first on the chopping block for capital projects was a park concept for developing Perras Place Park, a new site next to town hall that was created after demolishing the historical Perras Place building last year. The motion (totalling $45,000) was moved by Councillor Boutestein and passed unanimously after a brief discussion where administration noted that they believed the site would be maintained up to a minimum standard for the time being until the park is developed later.
A salt shed for $150,000 was removed from the budget after a motion from Councillor Hall. Director of Public Works Claude Valcourt said that the shed was only in the budget in case it was needed after the possibility that town contractors will not renew their contracted services with the town on road maintenance. Following questions from council, CAO Isbister confirmed that council could remove the shed from the budget and pass a motion at a later date to commence the project again if a need was determined later. The motion passed with only Councillor Boutestein opposing.
Returning items for third reading
While council made many cuts that evening, they also differed many items for further discussion after more information comes forward ahead of third reading on Feb. 27. Most notably, Deputy Mayor Dafoe passed a unanimous motion to differ any discussion on potential cuts (or any additions) in funding for the library or the festival society. Speaking to this motion, he felt it was important for council to consider the results of the citizen budget surveys before making any cuts to these groups, and to allow them to come forward with any additional information to support their requests.
Dafoe had also moved a motion to differ the purchase of a new Peace Office vehicle, carrying a price tag of $80,000. Dafoe had initially made a motion to remove the vehicle from the budget, noting that the Town’s current vehicle had less then 90,000 kilometres on it, and would likely still be usable for another year. However, Director of Corporate Operations, David Schaefer, responded to Dafoe’s proposal by citing concerns about how a lack of a new vehicle could impact the fire department negatively, limiting the fire chief’s access to a vehicle for meetings or other events if one CPO vehicle goes down and the vehicle needs to be used for CPO duties. Dafoe responded saying “any information about the fire hall was not in the original business case that I saw,” and asked that administration bring this additional information forward before third reading, withdrawing his original motion.
The one item that council was considering adding to the budget that evening was $195,850 to construct new walking paths to connect the town to the upcoming rec centre along Highway 642. A motion to this effect was put forward by Councillor Boutestein, but was ultimately withdrawn after some discussion from council, including Dafoe saying, “It is nearly 11 o’clock, I am not comfortable making a $200,000 decision… so late,” saying that he would prefer that council wait until third reading in order to have some time to review the proposal. This initiative came forward after a report for information to council earlier that evening around the possibility of installing a path system to the new centre, something initiated because of an information request from Boutestein made at an earlier council meeting.
$125,000 worth of sign acquisitions has been differed to be discussed during third reading, including two portable work signs for $60,000 and for one additional sign for corporate operations at $65,000. While councillor Richardson made a motion to remove the portable work signs, they were eventually differed along with the additional sign after motions from Councillor Dafoe and Boutestein so that administration could come forward with more information and updated estimates on costs for third reading.
Third reading on Feb 27 following public COW on Feb 20
After this slew of amendments and discussion items, council voted unanimously to approve second reading of Morinville’s 2018 Budget.
All of these cuts until now mean an operational cut of $106,656 and a capital cut of $195,000. This totals $301,656 in cutbacks, meaning that Morinville residents will see an approximate $22.76 of savings on their 2018 tax bills, with a tax increase of 4.9 per cent. This means the average resident (with an assessed property value of $300,000) should expect a property tax increase of approximately $101.38 in 2018.
Morinville residents have shared their opinions with council on budget issues at public open houses and through an online citizen budget survey. The final results from this public survey will be presented to council at their public Committee of the Whole meeting on Feb. 20, where they will also receive information updates from administration for some information they requested back. After this, council will return to make their final changes to the budget (provided council does not vote to differ a final decision) on Feb. 26.