With the budget process underway, council is starting with a need for a 3.82% mill rate increase. However, city administration explained to councillors this week that the local economy has slowed to a near standstill with an expected assessment growth of less than half a per cent.
That's a problem when the expenses associated with running a city continue to grow. Mayor Fraser Tolmie says it's something they're trying to address.
"Those are things that you pay attention to," said Tolmie. "We're actively going out and trying to raise the flag for Moose Jaw and trying to attract investment and attract new industry to this community because that helps with this kind of shortfall that we have right now."
Salaries are also a growing concern, accounting for nearly 60% of the budget. With the way negotiated agreements are written and the fact that several contracts are coming up for re-negotiation, a 1% increase to salaries is almost equal to a 1% tax increase. Even with a status quo budget like the one planned for 2019, the financial needs continue to grow at City Hall.
"It's a two edge sword that we're living in right now because we want to attract good people, we already have good people within our workforce but you wanna attract people to this community, bright young sparks that can help move this city forward and so that is a challenge," said Tolmie.
"We know we're not the only community that dealing with that and we know we're not the only industry."
City Hall has a number of vacancies in key positions and over the last decade, have lost managers to other communities willing to pay more or offer something that Moose Jaw doesn't have. The change over has impacted projects from time to time as staff become familiar with the files that are already underway.
Capital spending has also put increasing pressure on taxpayers of the city with the Five Year Capital Budget growing from approximately $15 million being spent in 2009 to an estimated $50 million for 2019. A record number of water main breaks, the adventure that has been cast iron water main replacement, securing safe water from the treatment plant north of the city plus the planned upgrades to the treatment plant are just some of the high profile projects that are being worked on. Of course, there are hundreds more that don't get the widespread attention but are just as critical to the operation of the city.
"We've looked at the number of years of neglect that this community has ignored the infrastructure renewal that needs to be done and that creates a deficiency," said Tolmie. "What we want to do really, with this priority based budget, is to have a plan."
Council and administration are taking the new approach to the budget process with projects and services receiving a grade on their impact to the community, cost, potential return on investment and safety. If councillors want to cut something from the budget, the grading will allow them to easily compare items and make a decision on what to keep.
Finance Director Brian Acker described the process as moving from a 'what is needed' funding approach to a 'what can we accomplish' approach. Right now, the city has planned borrowing in the tens of millions of dollars in order to fund all of the work that needs to be done with Acker suggesting that councillors will need to explore new revenue sources as part of the budget process.