Each year, Whitecourt Town Council, guided by Administration, looks at money-saving options to help stretch tax dollars as far as possible. The ultimate decision on how to do it comes down to the elected officials. Still, Administration is instrumental in bringing ideas forward and putting in the work directed by Council.
One of the essential documents guiding Council is the 20-Year Capital and Major Maintenance Expenditure Plan. Think of it as a savings account on a massive scale, but rather than just saving spare change, it lists future projects and allows Council to set aside money for specific things well in advance.
Director of Corporate Services Judy Barney is the go-to for numbers. She has been in her role for the last ten years. As a senior management team member, Barney is responsible for and provides leadership for managing, directing, and supervising the municipal treasury and finance functions. She said that the long-term planning of a 20-year Capital Plan delivers huge benefits for the community.
"It means we have done our homework and have either engaged the public or had studies done to identify the need and are aware of what's required to maintain service levels. It is vital to be able to provide the information so Council can make informed decisions for the projects that are being proposed and will require funding in the future."
The plan also promotes sustainability, helps maintain the community's service levels, and provides quality services and facilities to residents. "It's always evolving because we always have new opportunities and challenges. It helps us when we apply for grants because we have the plan in process, and we can show that we are prepared and able to undertake a project. It has helped us to take advantage of those types of opportunities," explained Barney. Typically, to access a grant, a community or organization needs to prove that they have done their due diligence and show how they will use it and benefit them. Preplanning 20 years out means Council can plan for something and be ready if and when a grant pops up that suits the project.
Town Administration is diligent on grants and puts in thousands of hours each year in applications. "In our 2021 Capital Plan, which totals 13.3 million, 61.4 percent is funded from grants, 22.7 percent is funded from reserves that do not come from taxation, and the balance, 11.7 percent, comes from annual contributions to reserves that come from taxation." Of the entire 13.3 million planned for 2021, only 1.2 percent, $166,000, comes directly from taxation. "We take a team approach in preparing grant applications, and we consider that an important part of our strategy."
Barney said they inspect their fleet and plan retirement based on their usage when planning for future vehicle and equipment purchases. They then save accordingly so that when it comes time to purchase a new grader or a new truck, the money is already sitting there to cover the bill. "We work within our financial restraints to prioritize what replacements will occur, and we do that for 20 years. It is a great planning tool, and it makes sure we are doing our preventative maintenance and are looking at things on a timely basis. It's all about planning," explained Barney.
For unforeseen things, Barney said they have a reserve in place for that too. However, accessing these funds requires approval by Council. "We don't have the authority to do anything with reserves without Council's approval, whether it be a contribution to the reserve or a withdrawal." She said that if Council and Administration didn't have reserves in place, any purchase or replacement would likely impact taxation, meaning taxes would go up and down each year depending on the community's needs.
"Forecasting helps keep things stable in terms of taxation. Good financial planning helps you maintain service levels and minimizes the impact on tax rates because you're planning and have the same amount going in every year. You don't see the large ups and downs, and that's a critical thing," she explained. For example, if a homeowner needed to replace their shingles, it would be wise to save for that expense over the fall and winter so that in the spring or summer, they would have saved enough to cover it. "But, if all of a sudden your furnace breaks, you're going to have to delay the shingling, and hopefully, it works for you. And there might even be something else you have to give up too. We live within our means and try to minimize the impact on ratepayers," said Barney.
On a homeowner's scale, the Town's 20-Year Capital Plan would be like placing ten bottles on your counter with a project designated for nine of them, and the final one marked as a "just in case" bottle. Each payday, you put a little bit of money in each bottle and over time, you collect portions of each project so that when the time comes to do the work, you have money already set aside for it.
Barney said that 20 years is a bit more than the government requires timeline-wise for planning but that it's been that way ever since she joined the Town's crew, and she likes it. Though predicting is easier in the shorter term, the longer duration helps gauge impact and gives an idea of how things will go. "It's time well spent. I really believe in this long-term financial planning, and I'm very passionate about it," said Barney. Residents with questions on the process are encouraged to reach out.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press