On Dec. 3, administration was seeking input from council on various proposed budget items included in the 2014 operating and capital budgets, with an eye towards refining the documents in preparation for a final stamp of approval from town council.
“We need to know what you’re shooting for,” said CAO Greg Birch, prior to the discussion. “If you wanted it cut to zero — which some of you might have said in your election platforms — you’re actually asking us to find efficiencies that we may or may not be able to. If you really want us to be zero, we will do that for you, but you should be aware we probably could not provide the same level of service.”
Historically, property taxes were increased four per cent in 2009, two per cent in 2010, 4.5 per cent in 2011, 2.5 per cent in 2012, and 1.5 per cent in 2013.
“I’m pretty happy with the 2.5 per cent increase,” said Coun. Rick Popadynetz. “It’s a low increase, yet we still have a lot of burdens that we have to bear, and I can live with 2.5 per cent.”
Coun. Joe Strojwas was looking for a lower per cent of increase.
“I would like to see that stay as minimal as possible. I would be a little more ambitious in keeping it to one per cent or a little less. One thing I am on side with administration is with utility fees, the wastewater adjustment there.”
Advocating for wholesale cuts to a number of capital budget projects and purchases, Coun. Jack Brewin suggested keeping tax increases as minimal as possible.
“Closer to zero would be better. While we’ve gone through our list of things on the budget — the bulb-out program, that’s $550,000, sidewalk, that’s $75,000, hydrovac truck, $350,000, renovations to the old courthouse, $150,000 — that comes to $1.4 million we can cut from this budget that’s not really affecting anything that’s going on right now. I don’t know what number we need to see, what value has to drop on per cent rate increase, what do we need to cut to get it down. I’ve just seen some cuts here we can make, keeping our taxes really low, without cutting the main programs.”
Coun. Laura Ross-Giroux commented a slash-and-burn approach to the proposed 2014 capital budget might be premature, at least with regard to some considerations.
“I can’t agree that we’re going to have all of those cuts. How can we base our decision on that? I’d go for a little higher, rather than a little less. I’m in the two per cent range, personally.”
Admitting attempting to please all taxpayers is difficult, nevertheless Coun. Andrew Prokop was also in favour of re-visiting a number of capital budget projects with an eye towards fiscal cost-cutting.
“I think all taxpayers would like to see zero across the board every year, but that’s not practical, for the most part. But I don’t see that the average inflation rate is an unreasonable amount, right around 1.5 per cent, somewhere in that range.”
“Particularly the high-end numbers it’s been suggested can be cut, and/or possibly disappear completely. Those are some big numbers, and I think there’s some room for some serious reduction, or cutting out.”
Coun. Randy Sparks touched on at least one elephant in the room, the question of school requisition increases and their potential impact on taxpayers in the community.
“There’s one thing that we haven’t even discussed yet that impacts taxes, and that’s school requisition. We haven’t even approached that yet, and that’s an unknown that gets heaped upon the town after the town decides what your tax rate is going to be.”
We’ve been hit hard in the past trying to hold the line at a low tax increase, and the school requisition has hit us hard. So that’s something we don’t even know about yet, which could impact taxes. I believe that taxes should never exceed the inflation rate. So I would go for a 1.5 per cent increase.”
An overall focus on the core services provided by the town needs to be expedited before the Town of Taber can look to funding new community projects, according to Coun. Sparks.
“As a town, we really need to start concentrating on the core services. We have a lot of wish lists, and a lot of fantasy things that come before council that people want, that takes away from our core services, and making sure that our core services are looked after, and looked after good for the future. We really need to concentrate on roads, water, sewer, walks, and things like this, and make sure that our infrastructure, our buildings, roofs are looked after first, before all these other wish lists are even though of. That’s really where we need to concentrate on, our money needs to go there. Our reserves, we hit them too hard, we need to really make sure our reserves are getting greater, and whatever that takes. I can live with 1.5 per cent, and I know that our financial people, and administration, wish it was higher than that, but that’s where I’m coming from at this point.”
For information purposes, Coun. Popadynetz commented the rate of inflation is estimated to top two per cent by the end of the year.
“Just some clarity, the inflation rate was 1.44 per cent in the first three quarters of the year, but it is projected to increase 0.7 per cent. So the inflation rate will be 2.14 per cent by the end of 2013.”
Coun. Sparks was nonplussed.
“I appreciate those numbers, but there are people that live in the town of Taber that haven’t had a 2.1 per cent increase in their wages in five years.”
Weighing in last during the debate, Mayor Henk De Vlieger pointed to a one per cent increase as more comfortable from his perspective.
“I would like to see zero, but I know that’s not quite viable. I would like to see one per cent. It’s kind of tough, speaking for myself and council being here for just over a month, to fully study the whole budget. It’s almost impossible to understand it all. I hope that in the future, that’s one thing I envision, is that we can become more innovative in the way we’re going to do things, and do things different. An hopefully by doing things differently, we can do even more, or do more with less. I feel like one per cent is the farthest I would like to go.”