COLIN CORNEAU/BRANDON SUN
Mayor Shari Decter Hirst listens to Coun. Jeff Fawcett (Assiniboine) speak during budget deliberations last weekend at city hall.
Say what you will about this council and its time in office. There have been more than a few ups and downs, a council that had one of its own members leave in the twilight of their mandate, and a council that saw what could happen when a community faces a double-digit property tax increase.
The council, like the community itself, has gone through some growing pains during its four years in office and has had more than its fair share of naysayers.
I for one was an ardent supporter of many of the initiatives this council took to better this community early in its mandate, and I continue to be a strong supporter of some of the work this council has done.
It is in our nature to question — and without a doubt many of us have questioned at great length some of the motivation behind the decisions. But at the end of the day, I think their purpose was good.
With that said, I took to following this round of budget deliberations with great interest and awaited the outcome like so many others in this community.
Most of us were aware a tax increase was coming, and to be fair no one really enjoys paying taxes. The old phrase applies that taxes are one of two things guaranteed in life — the other being a much more grim outcome.
This budget had its share of highs and lows, addressing some needs in this community while leaving what some believe are the pressing issues for another day.
One of those most pressing issues was the need to address some of the salaried costs within the city, especially when it pertains to our emergency services. Some overtime costs were addressed through reductions, but overall the elephant in the room was and will continue to be city salaries.
I have always been a supporter of emergency services and believe both the police and fire departments do an exemplary job in this community. But until some of the bigger issues like salaried costs are addressed, unfortunately, they may end up being called to defend themselves year in and year out for some time to come.
Budgets often can be the correction point for issues, but as one councillor noted, they might have lost control of elements they could truly change in this budget and moving forward.
Wage cuts undoubtedly hamper some of the possibility on the staffing side of things, as noted by city manager Scott Hildebrand in a media release. But he, along well as other city officials, felt they were committed to coming in line to the wishes of council, which shows good alignment of needs from both sides of the equation.
On the positive side of things, some real building blocks came out of the budget deliberations.
There was money for roof repairs to the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium, extra funds to look at building code alternatives within the city, forgiving a loan to the Brandon Riverbank Inc. so it can repurpose the funds elsewhere to build the community, further commitment to downtown redevelopment, and most of all, an additional $500,000 toward upgrading core infrastructures. This brings council’s total overall spending on this core infrastructure to $1.5 million annually, something the city needs as we continue to have roads and bridges in desperate need of repair.
Budgets should be about building a community, something I believe has taken place in the 2014 budget. Keeping the tax increase to a reasonable amount — a proposed 1.42 per cent — while focusing on core needs makes sense for both residents and council.
The increase is surely higher than some wanted and may be a plank for future political possibilities, but the number seems manageable and there are hopes the budget will address some realistic demands in the community, salary contentions aside.
There was no end to the real needs in Brandon, especially when it pertains to infrastructure; elements of this budget address that.
An election-year budget is the tricky one and reflects the last taste Brandonites have of council prior to heading to the polls in October.
This should not be the case when considering the needs of residents, as members of council are elected to serve regardless of personal goals, but without a doubt it weighs on the minds of those seeking re-election.
Whether there is enough sugar to sweeten the opportunity for re-election is still up for speculation. A few council seats could change hands regardless, as it appears a couple of wards may be in play through retirement or council members seeking out other political opportunities within this community.
I guess the true test of whether this council got it right in 2014 will be looking at who cozies up to the table following the municipal election later this year.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 18, 2014