Apparently hearing the outcry in the community over the announced 5% tax increase along with a 15% water increase with an additional 6% increase for sewer rates, Moose Jaw City Council did not wrap up budget talks Monday night as planned. Had they, it would have been the earliest budget completion in about a decade but it was felt more work needed to be done, instead of just rubber stamping a budget that saw few, if any cuts and several additions to the payroll at City Hall.
In a story we brought you following the initial approval of the budget, Mayor Fraser Tolmie placed blame for the increases squarely at the feet of the provincial government. While Finance Director Brian Acker explained the utility rate increases were due to inactivity on the part of past councils. But when it came time for final approval of the budget Monday night, it appeared that enough councillors had a change of heart and were now willing to dive back into the books and make some cuts.
"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 taxpayer every time we're 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, another $53,000 for an employee active living program and a further $50,000 was axed for a growth and sustainability study. However, the decisions will only slightly improve the tax situation but ultimately won't make a significant dent in the needed 5% mill rate increase that's currently needed.
Most of the two hour discussion was centred on the initially approved 15% water rate increase, an increase that is part of a total of a 120% 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 that the infrastructure in our city 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 tax payers, 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. However, 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.