COLIN CORNEAU /BRANDON SUN
Brandon Fire and Emergency Services Chief Brent Dane speaks to city councillors during budget deliberations on Saturday.
After a long, fierce and exhausting debate over the 2014 city budget, council approved a proposed 1.42 per cent tax increase on Sunday.
The number was finally pushed through after council failed to pass the budget document late Saturday night and was forced yesterday to revisit two contentious budget changes: across-the-board staffing cuts and a reduction to the city’s reserve contributions.
With their pencils still sharp, Stephen Montague (Richmond), Shawn Berry (Linden Lanes), Jeff Fawcett (Assiniboine), Len Isleifson (Riverview) and John LoRegio (Meadows) all shot down the initial 2.85 per cent increase presented to them on Saturday evening, forcing the third meeting.
The now-approved operating budget means a residential property assessed at $200,000 will see an increase in municipal taxes of $24.65 compared to 2013, however a public hearing on the budget will be held on March 17. The adoption of the city’s financial plan is scheduled for April 7.
After 14 hours of formal debate gave way to the approval, Mayor Shari Decter Hirst said there was a "different tone" during the election-year budget talks.
"It may be people seeing this as perhaps their last kick at the cat to impact the direction of the city and the priorities of the city," she said.
Council approved a $500,000 increase to core infrastructure projects such as roads, sidewalks and drainage bringing the city’s annual commitment to $1.5 million — a drop in the bucket, many suggested, to address the city’s multimillion-dollar infrastructure deficit.
Council spent hours debating small budget lines, such as getting rid of $8,000 for statutory holiday bus service, a reduction in luncheon expenses, reducing Christmas light expenses and contemplated various singular jobs in a number of departments.
Berry, who proposed nearly 20 changes to the city’s financial plans, was unapologetically micro-managing administration representatives and questioning their respective budgets.
"I think when we come to the budget and we talk about micro-managing and being the purveyors of the budget as we are elected officials, we have a responsibility," he said.
"If they want to call it micro-managing, guess what, I’m the biggest micro-manager there is," he continued. "Yes, I went after a lot of small things."
Montague put forward a dozen proposed changes to the document — of which most were cuts — including the $200,000 slash to city staff.
With this latest proposed cut, the city will have chopped $800,000 from its overall staffing budget in two years on budget days and both times the move has been criticized by some as a "shotgun" or "knee-jerk" approach.
Montague, who at the outset of this weekend’s debate was pushing for a zero per cent increase and was the sole councillor to vote against the budget, said he was still not satisfied with the budget pare-back.
"My issue is, spending is still increasing by almost $2.5 million, there’s still a 3.5 per cent growth dividend in this budget and we’re still taxing 1.42 per cent," he said.
Before the budget failed on Saturday night and some councillors were fighting to make staffing cuts, city manager Scott Hildebrand argued the cuts may "rip this whole organization apart."
However on Sunday after council agreed on the budget, he said he is "extremely happy" with the budget and agreed with council that the city has a staffing issue.
"I can’t do it all at once," he said. "You can’t make significant change all at once, it has to be strategically planned ... and this year will be more of a focus on those areas."
The bulk of the city’s expenses comes from protective services salaries which have been on a steady incline over the last decade and a continued financial thorn in council’s side.
Council managed to squeeze $100,000 out of the fire and emergency services budget specifically relating to overtime, but a proposal to cut the same amount from policing died on the floor.
The added level of bureaucracy brought by the Brandon Police Board — which oversees the operational budget of the Brandon Police Service — has added a challenge to culling police costs, however, Hildebrand is a board member and said the conversation to cut into police salaries has already started with board chair Mark Frison.
The union representing firefighters heads into arbitration in the spring demanding a 25 per cent increase over three years while the E-911 workers have already been to arbitration with a 34 per cent demand, but the final number has not yet been given to the city.
"Arbitration is going to be a struggle," Hildebrand said.
"Given the fact that you have the ability to raise taxes to your residents, the excuse that it’s not affordable is not there," he said. "To me, that’s a scary proposition because that absolutely ties our hands."
Again this year, Montague tried to slash funding to Renaissance Brandon — this time by $100,000 — and said he "is not happy with the board," however the cut was not passed and most councillors opted to keep the organization under a microscope since the province matches all municipal funds.
Over the next four years, the city will forgive a 20-year-old loan to the Riverbank Discovery Centre now worth $200,000 with the caveat that the freed-up funds will be used to redevelop the flood-ravaged river corridor.
In the newly drafted budget, the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium will get $200,000 for roof repairs, the struggling Safe and Warm program will get $10,000 in funding and the City of Brandon’s Affordable Housing Strategy will get additional manpower with a newly approved specialist position worth just under $50,000.
Further cuts to the 2014 budget include a $40,000 hit to the city’s legal fees associated with the human resources department to deal with union negotiations bringing that line to $60,000; a new $20,000 heritage reserve fund was eliminated; a $20,000 slash to the city’s "arts in the community" program was approved; and council cut $30,000 from the city’s downtown Christmas lighting.
The Wheat City Golf Course budgeted $200,000 for new golf carts this year, which was shot down by council in favour of $40,000 for new cart batteries instead.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 13, 2014