BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN
Brandon City Hall may be covered in a blanket of snow, but there's no freeze planned for next year's spending. The first draft of the 2014 budget calls for a 2.85 per cent increase in property taxes as the budget goes up to a total of $75.3 million next year.
Taxpayers have one last public forum to weigh in on the City of Brandon’s proposed 2014 budget.
City treasurer Dean Hammond will provide an overview of the $75.3-million proposed operating budget on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the main foyer of city hall.
BY THE NUMBERS
The city's proposed property tax hike is 2.85 per cent.That will bring in an additional $1.1 million.
The proposed total operating budget for 2014 is $75.3 million.
About 55.5 per cent of the city's revenues are planned to come from property taxes.
That's up from the 53 per cent that property taxes provided last year.
The biggest budget costs next year will be protective services (35.6 per cent of the budget) and infrastructure (23.4 per cent).
The average homeowner will spend about one cent per day on heritage support -- the same amount earmarked for the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium.
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Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, city councillors and members of senior administration will then host a question-and-answer session.
"I would encourage people to come out to the budget open house night," Hammond said. "I’d like to see the place full … It’s the public’s last opportunity to ask questions of administration or to give feedback that council could use as they go into deliberations."
The city is proposing a tax hike of 2.85 per cent over last year, which would bring in an additional $1.1 million.
"The important thing to highlight for citizens is … that’s an increase in the total levy spread across all properties," Hammond said.
Due to the fact that it is a provincial assessment year, individual properties are going to vary.
"Some may go up more than that, some may go up less than that, some properties may even see a decrease from last year," Hammond said.
If a property owner’s assessment went up equal to the average change in assessment that is due to market valuation change, then they can expect to see a 2.85 per cent increase.
The mill rate for 2014 based on this proposed tax increase will be 17.841, a decrease from last year’s 19.257. Hammond said the mill rate decreases to somewhat compensate for reassessments.
The 2014 budget process started in July, and Hammond said administration made extra effort to engage council early on in the process, "keeping them informed at all steps along the way."
There are several "hurts" that will impact the 2014 budget, such as the one per cent provincial sales tax increase.
Substantial increases in utilities coming up next year will also have an impact, as the city uses a lot of hydro and natural gas. For example, the cost of hydro for Brandon’s street lights is $800,000 per year.
"If you have a substantial increase on that … that’s a lot of money," Hammond said.
Inflationary pressures on labour, construction costs and heavy equipment are a few other "hurts" for the budget.
The economy is booming in southwestern Manitoba and the city is now competing with other industries that are wanting construction services as well.
Hammond said the city is also competing for skilled labourers.
"We have a shortage of quite a few engineering positions right now," he said. "To recruit engineers, that’s very skilled labour, so we’re competing with essentially across Canada for those positions."
As for budget "helps," there really is only one — the fact that there are approximately three per cent more properties paying taxes this year.
But Hammond admits, it is a catch-22.
"The city is growing, so there’s more properties on the roll this year ... but the flip side of that, too, is it costs more to service those properties," he said.
New additions to the 2014 budget include an affordable housing specialist. Last month, council was presented with the city’s affordable housing strategy, which includes 11 strategies and 81 action items to deal with the growing housing concern in Brandon.
Currently, the director of economic development, Sandy Trudel, covers the affordable housing file. Administration would like to see a new staff member focused solely on the housing strategy.
"The reality is, (Trudel) can’t do both," Hammond said. "And really, we want her chasing economic development … so administration is proposing that we have an affordable housing specialist that will essentially take the affordable housing strategy … and run with it."
With the arrival of WestJet and daily air service to the Brandon Municipal Airport, there are now increased operating expenses for McGill Field.
Another increase is for Sunday bus service. The four-month pilot project for seven-day transit service proved to be a success, and the recommendation from the director of transportation is to continue offering the service to Brandonites.
There is also money set aside in the budget for mosquito abatement and fogging.
This past summer, this was a contentious issue as there was no money in the budget for fogging. High trap counts and public outcry led to the city deciding to fog once.
At least one city councillor is hoping they will be able to pare down the budget even more.
"I hope to see the number go down and I’m certainly going to be looking for any efficiencies throughout the whole budget that I can find to make that happen," said Coun. Shawn Berry (Linden Lanes). "We certainly want to see the city grow, we certainly want to see things prosper … but we also have to keep an eye on what we’re spending."
Berry said it comes down to needs versus wants.
"Maybe some of the ‘like to haves’ have to go away, simple as that," he said.
Coun. Murray Blight (Victoria) said a two to three per cent tax increase is what he has considered acceptable for many years as a city councillor.
"If we’re going to allow growth, we’re going to need money to do so," he said. "People say, ‘well we’re paying more wages,’ but I’ve always argued if you’re going to get quality people, you’ve got to pay the price to be able to keep and retain."
Coun. Stephen Montague (Richmond) said the 2.85 per cent increase is simply not acceptable.
"At the end of the day, there’s one taxpayer, whether it’s provincial, municipal or federal taxes, one person’s paying it, and it’s our citizens," he said. "We’ve heard very loud and clear over the last few years that they’re simply tapped out."
Montague said staffing levels need to be looked at, as salaries make up a large percentage of the budget.
"Within the budget, there’s proposals for new staff positions. I think that’s something that clearly needs to be justified," he said.
He also wants to look at city vehicles and equipment, to make sure the city is spending efficiently.
"The biggest thing that we need to be looking at is within existing resources," he said. "Are we maximizing every efficiency that we have to provide a good quality of service… to be able to stop from consistently going to the taxpayers for more than inflationary increases?"
While Wednesday’s event is the last public forum, Montague said taxpayers can still contact their councillor via phone or email over the next month to voice their concerns or opinions.
Hammond said department heads were challenged to reduce expenses or generate new revenues, and it was a struggle to make 2.85 per cent work.
To make that happen, they had to cut from the city’s reserve appropriations. Fortunately, there have been significant surpluses over the past few years to put back into the reserve, but Hammond said you can’t always bank on that.
"If I have any concerns about this budget it’s … are we putting enough money away for future projects?"
And as for a zero per cent increase, Hammond says that just would put the city "behind the eight ball."
"We talked about other centres that have mandated zero per cent increases over the years, the reality is … it’s just not prudent to do that," he said. "As cities are growing and you’re trying to maintain or fix huge infrastructure deficits, plus manage growth, plus manage ongoing expenses which always increase every year … zero puts us absolutely behind."
Brandon City Council will deliberate the budget on Jan. 10-11.
Complete budget documents can be downloaded from the city website, brandon.ca.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 7, 2013