The City of Fort St. John could have to tighten its belt if Fair Share funding is no longer on the table, said Mayor Lori Ackerman during the committee of the whole meeting on Monday, November 5 to discuss the operating budget for 2013.
“Very much a work in progress,” said city manager Diane Hunter, introducing a proposed budget indicating the City is facing a shortfall of $1,631,945 for the coming year, a number that reflects a zero per cent contribution from Fair Share.
Hunter presented a series of proposed reductions – including $4,500 less for Council meals – that would save $412,813, but that only amounts to about a quarter of the budget shortfall.
A few of the most significant possible savings include $75,000 that would no longer be transferred to a reserve fund for purchasing new equipment, another $50,000 taken from the seldom used Green Rebate program and $45,397 by reducing the number of walking track attendants at the Pomeroy Sports Centre to just one full-time employee, as recommended by independent consultants.
“Little bit nervous,” Hunter said of the plan to cut the walking track staff in half, noting the popularity of the facility.
Much of the debate around the possible reductions concerned eliminating the $5,000 sponsorship of the annual Spirit of the Peace Powwow.
“I don’t believe that that’s fair,” said Councilor Larry Evans, suggesting the City should only gradually phase out their support.
“We should give them some sort of warning,” he added.
Hunter said that the City simply cannot justify continuing to sponsor the Powwow when the event has a bank account of $30,000, while Councilor Trevor Bolin argued against supporting the Powwow by stating that the City can’t be a charity that raises taxes simply to give that money away.
“[We need to take] a business view when it comes to the revenue and expense side,” said Bolin.
“If we could cut some more, I’d be even more thrilled,” he added, noting that he was generally pleased with the proposed reductions.
A contentious issue was the proposed $5,000 reduction in funding to replace equipment at the RCMP building. It is presently $17,000.
The issue is that the City has been waiting since 2003 to sign a lease agreement with the RCMP for that building.
“I’m just really tired of this dragging out for close to a decade,” said Ackerman.
The significance of Fair Share came to the forefront when discussing the proposed additions of a grounds superintendent at an estimated annual salary of $117,408 and an equipment operator at an estimated annual salary of $79,887.
It was proposed that both positions be tied to Fair Share.
“This will start us on our parks department,” Hunter said of the additions.
“Very happy to see a parks program is in the works,” said Councilor Byron Stewart.
However, he questioned the logic of hiring a new equipment operator, suggesting that an existing equipment operator could move back and forth between Public Works and the new parks department.
Hunter said that the point of the plan was to decrease the workload for Public Works without changing its staff.
“They’ll gain some capacity,” she said, noting that would allow the department to perform summer road and street maintenance work that has customarily been contracted out and tackle other projects that have been neglected due to time and labour constraints.
A parks department would require an equipment operator because it would be responsible for the cemeteries.
Hunter said that the plan to develop a parks department is in response to public feedback requesting a greater level of service. She also remarked that Fair Share should fund the salaries of any new employees that improve the level of service.
“A new philosophy,” she said.
Considering the budget shortfall and the uncertainty around Fair Share, a tax hike could be in the cards for Fort St. John residents.
“It scares me when we hold our tax rate,” said Councilor Dan Davies.
Davies suggested that the City is causing troubles for itself by pushing back projects when the money isn’t presently available.
“We can’t keep bumping these things,” he said.
A tax revenue increase of 4.63 per cent combined with a hiring freeze and all the proposed reductions would result in a zero balance for 2013.
“Holding our breath through 2013, aren’t we?” said Ackerman. “With these reductions.”
“If everything goes according to plan in 2013,” said Hunter, “we’ll be just fine.”