Council approves 1.6 per cent tax hike
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The owner of an average single-family residential home in Brandon will see a $30 increase in their property taxes after city council approved a budget with a 1.6 per cent property tax raise late Saturday afternoon.
It took councillors nine hours on Saturday to propose and debate amendments to the initially proposed budget, which included a tax increase of 6.7 per cent.
The 2023 budget included $125.4 million in operating costs and $138.7 million for capital projects.
The single biggest contributor to lowering the tax rate was using $1.3 million in surplus funds received by the city last year to cover transit operating losses during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those funds were used to help pay for the operating budget.
Another $500,000 in anticipated surplus funds from 2022 were allocated equally to five different reserves.
Director of finance Tara Pearce said the city should have an idea of exactly how big last year’s operating surplus was by March.
The most heated debates of the day surrounded the Eighth Street Bridge reserve, originally created in the aftermath of the demolition of that bridge to save up funds for a replacement pedestrian bridge crossing the Assiniboine River.
In pre-budget meetings, there had been some discussion surrounding the future of the reserve, with some councillors stating that with no replacement plan on the horizon, the funds should be used for other purposes like bolstering a new active transportation reserve instead of lingering unused.
Coun. Kris Desjarlais (Ward 2) said at the time that he wanted the funds in that reserve to be used in a way that would benefit residents in his ward, since that’s what they were originally intended to do.
On Saturday, Desjarlais tried to head off proposals to remove funding from that reserve by imploring his colleagues not to give up on some kind of projects benefiting the Flats, the area situated north of the CP Rail tracks but south of the Assiniboine River.
But more than a million dollars was transferred out of the approximately $1.57 million remaining in the bridge reserve to other projects.
A motion from Coun. Jason Splett (Ward 8) saw $570,445 from that reserve get moved over to the active transportation reserve. In an earlier meeting, it had been stated that funds in that reserve could be spent for projects in any part of the city, including downtown.
Another motion from Coun. Glen Parker (Ward 9) saw $500,000 be transferred from the bridge reserve to the equipment and machinery reserve while eliminating the budget’s appropriation to the latter reserve by the same amount.
When the second motion was passed, Desjarlais called the decision “embarrassing.”
He was later the only councillor to vote against the overall budget, leaving the chamber as soon as the final motion was carried.
Council also used up the last $717,971 remaining from COVID-19 restart funds provided to it by the federal government during the pandemic.
Coun. Heather Karrouze (Ward 1) successfully passed motions calling for the city to install an ice-skating surface — a $125,000 estimated cost — and eight raised community gardening beds in her ward.
Currently, the North Hill has neither a skating surface nor community gardens within its boundaries.
In Ward 3, formerly Victoria Ward, Coun. Barry Cullen tried to get $150,000 approved to recommission the old paddling pool at Riverheights Park into a new spray park, saying his ward is the only one without a water feature.
While there was some support around the council table, it was ultimately defeated after Coun. Bruce Luebke (Ward 6) said it was the wrong year to do the project and Coun. Glen Parker (Ward 9) expressed concern about circumventing the city’s existing recreation master plan.
New Coun. Greg Hildebrand (Ward 5) pushed for improvements to the crosswalk between the McDonald’s restaurant and the Sobeys at Shoppers Mall after a pedestrian was killed there last October.
That motion ended up being amended so that the city’s crosswalk budget is raised in general, with city staff identifying which ones need attention.
On the policing front, Coun. Shawn Berry (Ward 7) successfully passed a motion adding $178,000 to the Brandon Police Service budget so that four community safety officers can be hired.
Legally, council can only add funding to the police budget with the Brandon Police Board having final say over how that money is spent.
After adding four new paramedic positions to the Brandon Fire and Emergency Services budget last year in an attempt to improve ambulance service in the city, council added $300,000 in funds for four more positions on Saturday.
Though the southwest lift station project has yet to receive a final vote, the budget was written as if it will be taking place. Should it be rejected, the city’s final financial plan for the year could look a little different.
Not included in this year’s budget is the $15 million the province announced on Friday that Brandon will receive for continuing upgrades to the water treatment plant.
Other highlights include:
• $72,000 for a temporary housing and wellness position;
• A $171,000 contribution to structural repairs at the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum;
• $31,000 to waive the fees for criminal record checks;
• $8,000 for truth and reconciliation training for staff members and councillors;
• $80,000 for the Brandon General Museum and Archives and;
• $40,000 to hire a new bylaw officer
Speaking to the Sun after his first budget since his election last fall, Mayor Jeff Fawcett said he never feels comfortable after deliberations because something always gets left off the table.
“I think we got a lot in there as well as keep it to a reasonable [tax] number,” Fawcett said of this year. “We did a get a lot of additional work and money for our work in the downtown, which has been a focus of this council and previous [councils].”
He pointed to the addition of policing and emergency personnel as a win, saying more positions were added than he’d originally thought.
“These are areas in this day and age that need to be enhanced because they matter to everybody in the city,” he said. “That said, we’ve got very difficult discussions coming up with the province because the province does play a very big role, for example, in ambulance services. We’re carrying a little bit of that weight right now.”
The mayor acknowledged that discussions surrounding the Eighth Street Bridge were harder than he’d anticipated. He said the city has work to do on its implementation of active transportation projects and said there are likely “sour feelings” lingering after Saturday.
Fawcett said he understood Desjarlais’ frustrations and that he was surprised at how the decisions on the Eighth Street Bridge reserve went.
Going forward, he said the city will need to find funding partners to develop active transportation projects anywhere in the city.
Now that the budget has been passed, city staff will assemble the final budget document within the next few months. Once complete, council will vote on the final financial plan and submit it to the provincial government.
At some point, the finalized budget will be subject to a public hearing, during which residents can contribute their thoughts.
» Twitter: @ColinSlark