Public discussions regarding Battleford’s 2019 budget carry on, with some disagreement on capital projects.
Chief Administrative Officer of the Town of Battleford John Enns-Wind began the public meeting on Monday with a presentation, offering administration’s perspective.
Enns-Wind referred to history as Battleford’s “raw resource,” in the sense that oil is to Alberta.
“A lot of [history] is good, a lot of it is not good, but there’s a story to be told here,” Enns-Wind said.
Historic sites could be a boon for the town, Enns-Wind said, although the province’s historic restoration budget “doesn’t really put a dent in what we have to do.”
Enns-Wind spoke about some of the many capital projects facing the town.
Some proposed projects include a structural assessment of Town Hall, and community consultations regarding “the best way to use Town Hall.” Currently, Enns-Wind said, about 40 per cent of the building is being used.
The Town has an erosion problem near the industrial area that Enns-Wind said has grown in the past three to five years. He said the Town dumped dirt in the area this past year because the erosion “came within about 10 metres of the road.”
Surface water from the industrial area goes down into the ravine, and the erosion would be slowed by work on the storm sewer system.
“It’s an area if we don’t do something about it, it’s going to do something to us,” Enns-Wind said.
The proposed budget plans to fund the storm sewer project in “a staged approach.” Amounts toward the project range from about $250,000 to $526,000 from 2019 to 2023.
If council decides to make basic fixes for the old St. Vital Church, Enns-Wind questions future expenditures on the project, and if such money might be better going toward a skate park or an arena upgrade.
Enns-Wind said he also worries about high expenditures toward the North Saskatchewan River truss bridges, warning they could become “a money pit” as expenditures increase.
The CAO called the bridges project the “elephant in the room” in the proposed budget document, adding the expense could be approximately $5 million over eight years, along with ongoing maintenance and repair.
Battleford has $10 million in reserves, and “many municipalities would be glad to be in that position,” but Enns-Wind added with the opportunities and challenges Battleford is facing, $10 million “doesn’t cut it.”
The proposed budget asks for a two per cent increase to property taxes, and to raise $116,000 from utilities fees. The utilities increase would cost the average water consumer about an extra $72 per year.
Enns-Wind said utility rates haven’t increased since 2012, and added if the town had applied an inflationary increase each year to the utility rate, residents, in 2019, would be paying $78 per year more.
Clarification update: “$78 more” refers to $78 more than what the average water user would have paid versus the 2012 rate. “$78 more” isn’t to be understood as $78 added to $72.
Those who use more water would pay more than $72 per year, those who use less would pay less. Similarly, property owners with properties below the town average assessment would pay less than a two per cent increase, while property owners with higher assessments would pay more than two per cent.
Utility rate increases must be approved by the provincial Saskatchewan Municipal Board, Enns-Wind said, but an increase might not hypothetically pass until July, in which case utilities wouldn’t increase until then.
Mayor Ames Leslie said his priorities include recreation, and putting sidewalks on First and Second Avenue.
Leslie said he’d “love to see an outdoor pool,” but not one that replaces the Tot Lot. A message he often hears from youth aged 12 to 16 is that they have nothing to do.
“For me, my priority is not losing some dirt along the river bank,” Leslie said. “My priority is to get sidewalks on our streets so our kids can walk safely to school.”
Incoming Chamber of Commerce President Dallan Oberg, who attended the meeting, said he’d also like an outdoor pool.
An argument against spending money on an outdoor pool, Enns-Wind said, includes the proximity of lakes and the CUPlex. In the 2019 budget, administration proposed developing a Parks and Recreation Master Plan, in co-operation with the City of North Battleford, that would feature a community consultation component.
Attracting business downtown is a priority for administration and council. Town officials say Battleford has one of the lowest commercial taxation rates in the province.
Leslie said he’d like to see downtown Battleford remain open after work hours, and attract businesses such as bistros, pubs and those that provide entertainment.
Currently, Leslie said, the town isn’t doing enough to attract businesses and the town waits for businesses to come, although “waiting has got us nowhere in 20 years.”
Since he’s been on council, Leslie said he’s found costs of studies and work by engineers to be frustrating.
“We don’t need to do a study these six people elected to this table can go out and find out for themselves,” Leslie said.
Some councillors responded to a question from the gallery regarding their concerns with the budget.
Councillor Kevin Russell said previous councils were intent on not raising taxes, but they weren’t spending money on infrastructure.
“People do not want to see a tax increase out there,” Russell said, “but at the end of the day, you have to move forward and you have to make the town prosperous.”
Russell said he doesn’t want a tax increase, “but I think it’s inevitable because we’ve really had it good over the past few years.”
Councillor Judy Pruden raised the point that zero tax increase often results in higher expenses later on.
Leslie said he’s still not sure how he’ll vote on Monday, as there are “aspects of this budget, from a capital perspective, that I’m not fully on board with yet.”
Council will vote on the proposed budget on Monday, Jan. 21. Compared to previous budgets, the 2019 budget is ahead of schedule.