Council is going to have to make some hard budget decisions this upcoming fall, and meetings have already started to figure out how to keep tax increase as low as possible, says St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron.
Last week, St. Albert City Council met in camera to begin discussions on how they can bring next year's proposed seven-per-cent tax increase — needed to maintain the current service levels — down to an only three to five per cent tax increase.
The meeting was to discuss with administration what possible service cuts could be looked at to stave off large tax increases in the upcoming year.
Heron said that every per-cent tax-increase or decrease shakes out to around $1.2 million dollars, so the cuts the city is exploring will range from $2.4 million to $4.8 million. The 2022 budget approved in the fall totalled $117 million, which included $23.4 million for 29 repair, maintain, and replace capital projects.
“It’s a lot of money,” Heron said.
“We are long past finding efficiencies.”
Coun. Natalie Joly said the budget cuts council is looking at are the financial equivalent of St. Albert's entire snow-clearing program or running Fountain Park Pool, but noted those two options aren’t currently being explored.
The budget cuts coming to the city will be big, Heron said, and it will mean jobs could be impacted. The meeting was in camera to allow for council to have conversations around jobs without causing panic and fear, Heron said.
“We don’t really need the 600 staff at the City of St. Albert to be panicking about their jobs at this time because we have no idea how we are going to cut this budget down. No decisions were made,” Heron said.
“We were just tossing ideas and seeing what sticks to the wall, and we just don’t want to cause unrest.”
Right now municipalities across the province are facing financial challenges, Heron said, with COVID, provincial downloading, and increased costs impacting the bottom line.
COVID has slowed down ridership on transit and user fees at recreation centres, and the city is now having to pay increased costs for the RCMP after their new contract negotiations were finished last year, Heron said. Additionally, while many households are battling inflation, so too is the city.
“There's just … a perfect storm of things that are coming down hard on municipalities,” Heron said.
Coun. Wes Brodhead said in years past, council has been able to put off tax increases by finding every efficiency they could in the budget.
“We’ve sort of scraped the bottom of the barrel there,” Brodhead said. “On the flip side of that is what sort of moves can counsel make that will work the other side of the budget, not just about reducing but actually bringing in additional revenue to provide the services that we still need to provide."
The upcoming debates and conversations around the budget will not be taken lightly, Heron said, nothing that conversations and debates in the past around reducing the budget by $5,000 or $6,000 have been extensive.
“This is big money and big decisions,” Heron said.
Typically, council waits until the fall to discuss budget decisions and Joly said the situation this year with discussing the budget in the summer is unique because of the big challenges the city is facing.
“This is going to be one of the most challenging budgets that I've certainly seen,” Joly said. “We're really looking to both maintain the character of the city that we love and also to protect residents that are really being hit hard by these same pressures.”
The public wants council to get the budget as tight as possible, said Coun. Shelley Beirmanski, and as soon as council can figure out how they can do that, the public will hear about it.
“There is really no point in hearing anything until we can make changes,” Biermanski said.
No motions were made during the in-camera meeting, Heron said, and there will be future meetings to continue the conversations around potential cuts to the budget.
In August the issue is slated to come back before council, although there is a possibility it will be in camera again, or part of it will be, Heron said. Any decisions or debate on the issue will happen publicly, she added.
Coun. Ken MacKay said he will push for that meeting to be in public so residents can see what pressures council is facing when it comes to the bottom line, and so they understand what challenges the city is facing.
Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette