Prior to the start of the 2013 budgeting process last October, we suggested that our city council should be wary of introducing yet another large property tax increase upon Brandon residents.
And for the most part, we’re glad to see our mayor and councillors have followed that advice. But we’re a little concerned over a few of their choices.
Following 13 hours of deliberations on Saturday, city council hammered out a $71.9 million operating budget, representing a mill rate increase of 0.98 per cent.
As per the Sun story in Monday’s paper, the 2013 budget increase will cost a homeowner with a property assessed at $200,000 an extra $17 over last year.
While it’s not the “hold the line” budget as some folks have called for, it does show that our municipal leaders have made a commitment to be better stewards of the public’s purse. Of course, following the circus that was last year’s budgeting process, they didn’t really have much choice.
There were a few particularly interesting items in this budget that should be noted.
In an apparent attempt to address the rising costs of salaries within government departments, council approved a $600,000 reduction in labour costs across the organization. And much of council’s focus for these cost reductions were to protective services including police and fire and paramedics, which make up roughly 36 per cent of the budget.
Coun. Len Isleifson (Riverview) suggested that sick pay and over time in particular were “out of control” and that he thought it was time council put its feet down. Though police Chief Keith Atkinson warned that taking $600,000 out of salaries would mean layoffs and reduced services, the councillors are apparently confident that job losses would not be required.
That assertion remains to be seen of course, as council was a little short on details on how they plan to accomplish these cuts. As such we will reserve judgement — though we note that their attempt to rein in salary costs will likely win approval from folks in Brandon who think city salaries have gone far too high.
Council must have been paying attention when we suggested that the city needed to do more to address Brandon’s crumbling roadways and put more of a priority on completing its building equivalency code plans for downtown.
Both of these were given new prominence within the 2013 budget, with an extra $500,000 funding increase for sidewalks, street resurfacing and drainage and $25,000 in additional funding for the planning department, with a focus on the building code equivalencies.
We also note that council voted a reduction of $20,000 to the Council Expenses budget and put an extra $25,000 to begin implementing the city’s economic development strategy — good choices to our minds.
But a few of council’s decisions left us scratching our heads, most notably a $50,000 reduction to the Urban Renewal budget, specifically funding provided to Renaissance Brandon, which is matched by the Manitoba government.
We’re not sure what our councillors were attempting to accomplish by making this reduction, but by including this budget change, they have succeeded in reducing money for downtown revitalization by $100,000. It takes a lot of work to get a provincial government to loosen its purse strings for community projects — particularly when you’re not the City of Winnipeg. These are 50-cent dollars. You don’t just cut cash in hand like that on a whim.
In our opinion, this was a shortsighted move. Once it’s gone, trying to get that cash back into the Ren Brandon budget in the future will be a tough sell to an already cash-strapped province. If downtown renewal is one of the city’s main pillars of growth, then Brandon should be asking for more dollar-for-dollar cash from the province, not less.
And to be honest, the city probably could have saved itself half the cost of creating its building code equivalency plan by farming out the work to Ren Brandon.
Council also decided to put an additional $75,000 into the Affordable Housing reserve fund, even though we have yet to see any concrete plans or direction for such developments from this government.
And we have to question the notion of putting $90,000 into funding a museum, while chopping $75,000 from the city’s snow clearing and sanding budget. Even if the streets and roads department could find a way to be more “strategic” in its handling of winter snowfalls, as city manager Scott Hildebrand suggests, we’re not really impressed with these priorities.
Council might want to do a little rethinking.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 15, 2013