The City of St. Albert is looking to overhaul its budget process and changes could be coming as early as 2020 to give council a clearer picture of what projects and services cost.
Councillors will decide by March 31 whether to order changes to St. Albert's budget methods but some efforts are already underway to move to a priority-based model instead of the one the city currently uses. City manager Kevin Scoble said staff are holding off on starting the annual budgeting cycle for 2019 until council members give them direction on how to proceed.
At Monday's meeting of the governance, priorities and finance committee, council members heard St. Albert currently uses a hybrid budget system – essentially a cross between incremental budgeting and service-based budgeting, with some aspects of priority-based budgeting included.
Switching over completely to priority-based budgeting would take time and could be phased in department-by-department beginning in 2020.
Financial services director Diane McMordie told council members priority-based budgeting would help the city understand the true cost of projects and services. It also doesn't use the previous year's spending as a basis for the next year's budget, and takes into consideration the relative value of different programs.
Additionally, it provides a stronger link to council's strategic plan than other forms of budgeting.
Mayor Cathy Heron and Coun. Jacquie Hansen voiced their support for the move, and following discussion council members voted unanimously in favour of having city staff take their feedback into account when they start on next year's business plan.
Hansen said she was pleased to see the city move toward priority-based budgeting because of the strong link to the strategic plan.
"Anybody that I have talked to that is using this process with other municipalities has said that it's saved them money in areas," she said.
"I'm not sure how that looks and what that looks like but the process is great for the public, the process is great for council and the municipality."
Heron said she is "completely on board" with priority-based budgeting. Following Monday's meeting, she told the Gazette she likes the model because of its sustainability.
"It's more work up front but then it carries on once it's done," she said.
She added she still needs to learn a bit more about the budgeting method before council members decide what to do.
"I need to know how much work this is going to be for staff, and if they're recommending it," she said.
"They seem to be excited about it, even though it is a little more work for them."
One key thing the city still needs to do to bring in priority-based budgeting is a cost analysis of St. Albert's current service levels to understand what individual programs cost.
"It is quite an involved process, and I think it's one of those things where if you're going to go through the motions of it you need to do it right," McMordie said.
As an example, Scoble pointed to capital projects such as a potential new pool. Priority-based budgeting would allow city staff to look at the holistic costs of a new pool – such as cost of electricity, how many lifeguards the city would need and the cost of chemicals – instead of just the capital costs.
"It is a lot of work, but I think certainly within the term of this council you can get that done," he said.
The governance, priorities and finance committee will receive another presentation on budget models from administration in March.