Morinville's town council has tabled a deficit budget, and wants town residents to tell them how to balance it.
Morinville's 2012 budget sailed past first reading with little debate at this week's town council meeting. It featured a four per cent tax increase and, surprisingly, a $50,700 operating deficit.
Council is taking a new approach to its budget this year, explained Mayor Lloyd Bertschi, one that will see residents choose how to eliminate that deficit.
Usually council would figure out a balanced budget and present it at an open house for comment, Bertschi said. Attendance at those events is often dismal — just eight people showed up last year.
The problem, Bertschi said, was that council had already made all the major decisions about the budget at that point.
"Is it any wonder that people haven't been showing up at our budget open houses? We weren't asking people what they wanted us to do. We were telling them what we were doing," he said.
This year council is asking residents to look at the business cases for a list of projects that could be added to the budget. Those cases will be available online and at two open houses next week. Residents will then tell council which projects to prioritize and where to cut, with their comments being used by council to revise the budget. They could also suggest additions to the list, tweaks to the amount of cash going to each item, or changes to the tax hike.
"Right now it's presented as a four per cent tax increase," Bertschi said. "If you want to see a three per cent tax increase, well, you tell us where the other $75,000 is going to come from."
(Every one per cent of taxation adds about $67,000 to the town's coffers, according to administration.)
"This is a fundamental shift in our thinking," Bertschi said, adding that many communities are curious to see how this process works out. He urged residents to come out to the open houses and have their say on the budget.
Budget in brief
The draft budget proposes a four per cent residential and non-residential tax increase, which, if approved would add $73 to the average homeowner's tax bill. Most of this is due to wage increases caused by new staff members hired last year, Bertschi said. Wages are the biggest expenditure in the budget at $5.2 million.
The town would have about $11 million in revenue and $10.7 million in expenses under the proposed budget, according to council reports. Assuming council did nothing new, it would have to take about $485,600 from its operating reserves to break even. This is because the town has loan repayments to make.
The budget lists 17 projects that council could add to its operating budget. If all of them were funded, the town would have a deficit of about $50,700 even after it tapped its operating reserves.
Some projects, such as a proposed tree program, relate to the town's new parks and open spaces master plan. Others, such as the $125,000 technology plan, are more administrative (that one relates to upgrading administration's computer systems).
The Coeur de Morinville area structure plan (budgeted at $75,000) relates to downtown Morinville, Bertschi said. If implemented, it would create architectural guidelines that would let developers rebuild or renovate old buildings downtown without disrupting the region's historic character.
The budget also lists 13 capital projects and six utility projects the town could fund through grants, reserves and loans. These include $3.2 million to finish renovating St. Germain Plaza, $1 million to renovate the south pumphouse and $300,000 to bury power lines.
Funding all these projects would reduce the town's capital reserves to about $547,900 from $3.3 million. About $2.1 million of that reduction would be eventually recovered through utility rates.
It's a big dip, Bertschi said, but this is how you use reserves.
"Growth should pay for growth," he said.
The town could fund these projects through loans instead, he noted, if it wanted to take advantage of low interest rates.
A second open house on the budget will be held this Nov. 16 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Community Cultural Centre. Buses and babysitters will be available. The budget and business cases, as well as an online comment form, have been posted to the town's website.
The budget comes back to council for second reading on Nov. 22. Any questions should go to 780-939-4361.