By Chris Rasmussen for www.discovermoosejaw.com
Moose Jaw city council is holding off on passing a budget and taking another look at the books in response to a public outcry in the community over major proposed hikes to taxes and utility rates.
The city initially proposed a five per cent tax increase along with a 15 per cent hike to water rates and a six per cent increase to sewer rates.
When it came time for final approval of the budget Monday night, it appeared that enough councillors had a change of heart and were willing to dive back into the books and make some cuts. Instead of rubber-stamping a budget that saw few, if any cuts and several additions to the payroll at city hall, it was felt more work needed to be done.
Following the initial approval of the budget, Mayor Fraser Tolmie placed blame for the increases squarely at the feet of the provincial government.
Moose Jaw City Finance Director Brian Acker explained the utility rate increases were due to inactivity on the part of past councils.
“You tack it on year after year after year and there’s a breaking point,” argued Councillor Dawn Luhning. “We have to look ourselves and start to find ways to cut back, cut costs and cut expenses.”
Councillor Brian Swanson also said some major changes were needed at city hall because going back to the taxpayers every time the city is short on cash is going to end up hurting the community.
“There is not enough money out there. We have to show some leadership and reallocate existing spending on higher priority items,” suggested Swanson. “I have no illusion that you can do that and no one would notice, but to go back to the tax base and say ‘more, more, more’ is not going to work.”
In discussing the budget, some last minute cuts were made Monday night included $50,000 for the development of a new job evaluation plan along with another $53,000 for an employee active living program. A further $50,000 was axed for a growth and sustainability study.
Those decisions will only slightly improve the tax situation, but ultimately won’t make a significant dent in the overall need for a five per cent mill rate increase.
Most of the two-hour discussion at the council meeting was centred on the initially approved 15 per cent water rate increase. This would represent a total 120 per cent increase in water and sewer rates over the last 16 years.
Councillors questioned where the money was going and how sustainable these large increases are, with city administration replying the infrastructure needs drastic improvements following years of neglect.
“As part of these options to fund these waterworks we’ve got a lot of capital funding allocated to these programs and are they required or necessary, no question about it, but can we actually deliver on these,” asked Councillor Chris Warren, who spoke against the planned utility rate increase.
Council learned during the budget process that in recent years, projects have been pushed back due to an inability to get construction work done and yet the money has still been collected from taxpayers, then sits there waiting for the work to get done.
Warren asked if they could simply wipe the project from this year’s budget and then work it back in for an upcoming year without a need to increase fees.
In the end, council rejected the planned increase to utility rates and in doing so, created a $1.5 million shortfall in the budget.
Recognizing that they can’t go any further in the process right now, council has requested a list of options to deal with the funding needs without simply sending utility rates through the roof.
The city administration was quick to point out that the utility rates were based on needed improvements to infrastructure and without the funding or a major project being cancelled, a subsequent tax increase would likely be needed to accomplish the work.