Revelstoke city council plans to finalize their 2011 budget draft at their Feb. 22 regular meeting, zeroing in on a budget cut of just over two per cent compared to 2010.
Its Feb. 15 committee of the whole meeting was a nearly three-hour marathon that raked over the budget draft department-by-department in its current form, which outlines a 2.28 per cent reduction in 2011 compared with 2010.
In the end, there were few new changes made to the existing draft. The discussion, however, was an illuminating peek into some of the debates that have developed the budget into its existing form.
One change was a decision to reinstate roughly $15,000 in repair and maintenance budget to the public works budget. Councillors felt the cuts were a false economy of short-term savings that would cost more down the road.
Another change was a tweak that will allow the budget for the social development coordinator to be funded through the end of 2011. Finance director and acting CAO Graham Inglis said there was leftover gas tax money that could be directed to pay for the position. “It seems to me that position will be fully funded in 2011,” he said.
At the Feb. 8 regular council meeting, social services sector advocates asked council not to cut funding to the position – something that had been on the table during previous discussions.
Council reviewed budgets department by department:
Parks, Recreation and Culture
The committee opened by responding to a petition presented at the meeting. Resident Sonia Cinelli presented an online petition signed by 109 people that opposed cuts to the parks and recreation budget. They have also created a Facebook page, Take A Stand! Say NO to this plan, which had 269 members as of Wednesday morning.
In a letter, she asked council to give consideration to their input before making cuts.
The drive to oppose cuts to parks and recreation services touched on a Jan. 11, 2011 memo to council. The memo was prepared by city department heads in response to a request by council to outline what the impacts five and 10 per cent budget cuts would have on their departments. The idea was to get a better, more tangible idea of what the numbers would translate to in real terms.
The scenarios presented by the various departments were not a proposal, although if the budget is trimmed accordingly, it seems likely that some of the proposed cuts will become a reality. Some would argue that improved efficiency is a synonym for ‘cut,’ while others wouldn’t.
Coun. Chris Johnston addressed the “outcry” by emphasizing the budget process was ongoing. “The cuts are absolutely not written in stone” he said.
Parks director Kerry Dawson said she was pleased to hear the feedback. “I consider that as a support for the Parks, Recreation and Culture department,” she said.
However, Dawson said some online comments lacked understanding of the process to date. “I question the comments without actually finding out the facts,” she said, adding she was willing to speak with anyone interested in discussing the budget. To date she said she’s fielded only one phone call on the budget issue.
Dawson said she was trying to run programs “more efficiently, more effectively” and find ways to save money.
She gave the example of cutting pool hours during times when there was usually one or no people in the pool. Another example would be to ask the schools to schedule their swim times on one day, not several, so savings could be made in staffing.
“My goal is to keep the services as much as possible in place” she said.
Coun. Tony Scarcella, who oversees the parks and recreation portfolio, said the department was trying to be more efficient. “Cutting services is not my way of doing business,” he said.
Council mulled over further possible cuts to the department to add to the existing reductions, which include a 4.91 per cent reduction in the administration budget and cuts to fire hydrant maintenance, the equipment budget and fire hall maintenance.
Coun. Antoinette Halberstadt asked about creating a first responder society to reduce costs. Fire Chief Rob Girard said a similar arrangement with the highway rescue society was already heading in the opposite direction. “They want to go out on the calls, but they don’t want to run a society,” he said, saying the society could one day be folded into the fire department.
By operating as independent societies, the groups are better able to get funding from other levels of government.
Councillors targeted overtime budgets for the fire department, but Chief Girard said there was little room to move. Dispatchers fielding late-night calls, for example, don’t know what firefighters will deal with when they arrive, so they need to err on the side of caution.
Planning director John Guenther told the committee his department could deal with the proposed 26.82 per cent reduction to his budget. He said there would be some consequences, such as staffing issues during the busy summer construction months, but they could be accommodated. “We don’t think they’ll be serious,” he said. The cuts to the planning department are less severe than the numbers represent, since much of the change is due to new accounting procedures.
Police and Court House services
“What is there we can do about it?” asked Coun. Chris Johnston, noting that the RCMP contract with the city is long-term and fixed, leaving for no wiggle room on the $1,372,500 budget for 2011.
“There’s not much we can do about it,” replied finance director Inglis.
The current RCMP contract in B.C. runs out in the spring of 2012 and is being negotiated by the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) on behalf of municipalities that utilize the RCMP in B.C., like Revelstoke.
“I doubt we’ll see any reduction in costs,” Inglis said.
Mayor David Raven said the upside of the fixed contract was insurance in the event of a major police incident or investigation. Other levels of government would cover the costs of a major investigation, he heard at UBCM discussions in 2010.
The reversal of cuts to Public Works’ maintenance budget was one of the tangible changes made on Feb. 15.
The other focus of the discussion was whether existing budgets were sufficient to sustain existing infrastructure.
Engineering director Brian Mallett said they weren’t. “We aren’t really sustaining our infrastructure today,” he said, providing the example of sidewalks.
He said a commonly used formula means Revelstoke should spend $80,000 annually on sidewalk maintenance. “We spend $44,000.”
Mallett was asked about the sustainability of the status quo. “Is this a sustainable budget? It’s the best we can do given that we aren’t sustainable in the first place,” Mallett said of the recent cuts, getting some nervous-sounding laughs from the committee.
No new cuts to the department were discussed. The plan is to end $30,000 in annual funding for the tourism development coordinator, a position funded by the city and administered by the Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce.
Inglis explained the original agreement was to fund the position for 10 years, and that agreement concluded in 2010, so it wasn’t technically a cut. He said since it was a chamber position he couldn’t comment on the effect of eliminating it.
There was also concern expressed about the lack of a work plan coming from the chamber to the city. The work plan outlines where city contributions to the chamber will be spent. “They have been asked and for whatever reason they have not come forward,” said Coun. Peter Frew.
Economic development director Alan Mason echoed the statement, saying one hasn’t been presented in two years. “We have yet to be contacted by the chamber,” said Mason.
Two resolutions by Coun. Tony Scarcella were voted down by all other councillors. During each of the last three budget processes, Scarcella has advocated for far deep budget cuts. The first failed resolution basically called for a 5 per cent reduction in the budget over 2010.
The second failed proposal was a two-per-cent annual reduction in business tax rates for five years, coupled with no change in the residential rate over the same period.
In the end, the committee did adopt a resolution targeting the Feb. 22 regular meeting of council as the date to finalize the draft budget and set tax rates for the year.
Once council approves the draft, the document will be prepared for public review, including a 30-day public comment period. In recent years the draft budget has received next to no official public comment. Last year, only one official submission was received.
This year, the budget has generated much more interest, including from business groups who have lobbied for lower taxes, and also from interest groups – such as recreation facility users – reacting to possible cut scenarios that would affect them.
It is likely the draft will generate more comment this year.
Budget focus group unhappy?
The six-person budget focus group consisting of three business representatives and three residential reps was apparently unhappy they didn’t get a chance to present a three-page report they had on hand at the Feb. 15 committee meeting.
Coun. Halberstadt reported this after the group left during a break in the Feb. 15 meeting. She had talked to them outside of the meeting, which was dragging on past the dinner hour.
Council did invite the group to present first at the Feb. 22 council meeting where the draft budget will be set.
The budget focus group report contains many suggestions. The Times Review will follow up on the report with the group.