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City council begins budget deliberations

Mayor Cathy Heron proposes less frequent censuses; assigning funding to homelessness task force
St. Albert Place

City council began deliberating its proposed 2020 budget Thursday evening, taking a close look at everything from emergency services to city-run social services.

On the operating side, the budget calls for a $109.7-million tax requirement achieved through a 2.4-per-cent property tax increase, up from last year’s $104.8-million approved operating budget.

Chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble is quoted in the budget document saying he is proud of continued work by administration to find cost efficiencies, resulting in a 0.9-per-cent tax requirement. That is just to maintain service levels; city council has also approved a 1.5-per-cent tax increase for three years – beginning in 2020 – to help pay for repair and maintenance of infrastructure.

Scoble said the city’s tax increase is lower than estimated inflation, which is 3.1 per cent.

City documents say the property tax increase would result in a $84 increase on an average $450,000 home, with a total $3,695 property tax bill.

Above and beyond maintaining service levels, council will consider approving or axing seven business cases administration is proposing for the operating side of the budget.

Those projects total $1.53 million and range from expanding fire services personnel to new software and topping up social services funding.

Coming with the highest price tag at $1.28 million, the budget calls for hiring 10 new firefighters for when Firehall #4 opens in 2023, along with an assistant chief medical liaison. Due to corporate restructuring in 2018, $300,000 from a vacant staff pool would offset costs for emergency personnel in 2020.

Council is also looking at topping up the city’s Rental Assistance Program (RAP) and Crisis Fund with $60,000 – and combining them into one pot to address poverty – although administration noted St. Albert is spending closer to $120,000 per year on those funds combined. The RAP program was originally funded by provincial dollars, but the city is now solely funding it.

St. Albert will also look to begin the next major revision of its Smart City master plan, a need which is driven by technological changes, administration said. Scoble described it as “almost like an iPhone upgrade.”

In 2020, the city is proposing $50,000 to conduct public engagement for that revision.

Other business cases include purchasing new software to assist drafting tender documents for $99,000 and improving technical support in council meetings for $40,000.

St. Albert RCMP Insp. Pamela Robinson told council she would like them to consider hiring two additional RCMP officers, in an effort to work toward a ratio of one officer per 1,000 people, at a cost of $224,000 in 2020. Currently, the ratio is 1:1,026; hiring two additional members would bring the ratio to 1:1,003.

That item is currently unfunded and would require a motion of council to proceed.

Next year, St. Albert is scheduled to conduct its biennial census at a cost of $154,000, and Mayor Cathy Heron posed a question about conducting census less frequently. Heron wondered if the city could allocate those dollars to other projects instead.

Financial director Diane McMordie said the dollars for censuses come from St. Albert’s reserves and allocating that funding elsewhere would require a change of policy.

Heron said that could be a conversation for a council committee meeting down the line.

The operating budget also lays out projects that currently have zero dollars assigned to them in 2020, and Heron was concerned the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness and enhancing housing options is on the unfunded list.

“Without mentioning names, the support we have in that task force is phenomenal, and we need to somehow find a way to keep that person until we’re done, which is sometime next year,” Heron said.

Any additions to the proposed budget will require a motion of council. City council’s next budget deliberations are scheduled to take place Nov. 14.

Hannah Lawson

About the Author: Hannah Lawson

Hannah Lawson joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2019 after working as editor of the Athabasca Advocate. She writes about city hall.
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