Overall, the City of Brandon 2013 Budget was a definite improvement over 2012. There was a noticeable effort to keep the tax increase more affordable and that can be a good starting point for budgets going forward.
Inflation is a reality of life, but we have to keep in mind that after a heavy tax hit last year, even small increases from year to year compound and there is no turning back from them. The city should continue to look at every budget as closely as they did this one and should continue to keep looking for the kind of consultative feedback that they did with the community stakeholders and public at large.
There are always tough choices when spending taxpayer money, and those tough decisions on budget ins and outs need to be made with the end in mind. A 0.97 per cent mill rate increase will be more palatable to the average person this year as the Manitoba Consumer Price Index hovers around one per cent.
Some of the positives we noted were an increase to the Economic Development Strategy Fund. We were encouraged that the mayor mentioned she would like to work with the chamber on this. There are some excellent business minds in this city and a partnership opportunity to lean on successful businesspersons with the staff expertise at the city is a positive move for growing our city.
Another $500,000 increase to infrastructure is a step forward in chipping away at our infrastructure deficit and should provide some opportunities for the private sector. Good roads, clean water, sewer, and sidewalks are all core requirements that most taxpayers would find acceptable and where most would like to see their hard earned dollars spent. This is the No. 1 hurt for the city right now and we need to be creative and also very efficient in spending those dollars.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t note some things to watch for in the budget. The potential $1.2-million increase to the Convergys building for inclusion of a youth centre is a significant increase and will take the total capital expenditure for renovations to $3 million.
The city planning and engineering departments are already spending $1.8 million to upgrade the facility to house their departments. It does appear to be in the consultative stage and no dollars are allocated for 2013.
We were encouraged by the passion and effort put forward by the group advocating for the youth centre, but still feel it’s important for council to see a comprehensive operational plan before capital upgrades are spent. We also want to make sure our existing facilities and opportunities are being fully utilized as well.
The biggest reduction noted was the $600,000 being cut to reduce salaries. We didn’t view this as a cut, but getting back to reality as the entire salary line for the city is way up. This doesn’t come off as a popular cut at first glance and we don’t advocate for cuts to services.
We feel there is room throughout the city to achieve this goal, if not more. The average increase in some departments is well above inflation.
Protective Services alone are up around 11.15 per cent or about $2.4 million from last year — and that’s just the salary line under the entire costing centre. That alone would have created a six per cent mill rate increase if everything else remained status quo. It has been noted that salaries comparatively are in the middle of the pack in similar sized jurisdictions, but therein lies the problem. Nobody wants to be at the bottom, so the middle keeps rapidly changing upward as employees in every city argue that they should not be at the bottom. Someone has to be, so when will this self-fulfilling trend end.
We were also alarmed by the average overtime and sick time used. If numbers of 80 to 100 hours in some departments are true, we find that extremely discouraging. When large percentages of salary lines are related to sick and overtime there is room for a major improvement.
We will be combing through other reductions and additions in the weeks ahead such as cuts to Renaissance Brandon and how this now affects them and the increase to affordable housing as we still have not seen a solid plan put forward. We look to shed further light in March at the public consultation.
The City of Brandon has some tremendous challenges going forward so we encourage everyone to do their part in helping grow this city in a responsible manner.
Nate Andrews, president
Brandon Chamber of Commerce