Williams Lake city council continues to deliberate over proposed budget

It’s a start, said the city’s director of finance Pat Higgins at the end of Tuesday evening’s public budget meeting.

It’s a start, said the city’s director of finance Pat Higgins at the end of Tuesday evening’s public budget meeting after she’d gone over the five-year-financial plan with council.

She described ways city departments have tried to cut costs, meet goals outlined by council, and present a preliminary balanced budget.

So far staff has proposed a reduction of more than $250,000 in costs that include cuts of around $78,000 in general government services, $67,000 from the fire department, $11,000 from economic development, $43,000 from development services, and $66,000 in municipal services.

Most of the cuts are in the area of staff training and development, but there has also been a decrease in other areas such as grants to community organizations, the salary for a full-time building inspector and a reduction in the cost of solid waste pick-up due to recycling.

Higgins also said the proposed 2012 budget does not take into account collective bargaining that will be coming up in June.

She has not included any increase in salaries because at this point she is not sure what they will be.

A one per cent increase for staff would amount to $53,000 and for management $19,000, but if that were to materialize, the city would pay half because it would only cover six months in 2012, she told council.

The preliminary budget would allow the transferring of $420,000 from the $700,000 2011 surplus. It would also require a three per cent tax increase, while allowing the city to also put aside $400,000 in a capital reserve fund.

Chief administrative officer Brian Carruthers said when it comes to water and sewer the city can plan its capital over a long period of time because the amount of money coming in is certain.

“We need that same sort of ability with general revenue. If we know we have $500,000 a year to use for projects and we know we’re putting $400,000 aside a year, we can start to plan,” Carruthers said.

Mayor Kerry Cook agreed and said putting capital money aside is a priority because it will save money in the long run.

“I want people to realize that we know these projects are coming forward so we’re saying we’re putting money aside to reduce the amount of money we’ll have to borrow, so in a sense we’re saving taxpayers money in the long run,” Cook said, adding last week she heard from some of the visiting government ministers that municipalities have to have a clear focus.

“Two of them are on the treasury board and said you have to make it easy for government to say yes. We have a lot of work to do to really prioritize those big projects to move forward,” Cook said.

Coun. Surinderpal Rathor maintained he still wants a zero tax increase scenario presented to council and heard from Higgins that would mean a further reduction of approximately $300,000 in expenses from the total budget.

“Whatever we have to cut back, we have to cut back. I’m not supporting any tax increase,” Rathor said.

Higgins responded she would like to have a special meeting to discuss taxation and the industrial taxation.

At the previous meeting, Higgins had council look at policy and direction on how they wanted her to put the budget together.

This time around she had more meat and potatoes to share.

Higgins, who has been working at the city for a year and a half, says the city has a good budget.

“Initially when I was putting the figures together and council was saying they wanted this pavement management with $2 million I thought this wasn’t even feasible, but then I went back and talked to the departments and said let’s look at our capital and really look at a long-term plan,” Higgins said after the meeting.

Instead of only looking at the needs for 2012, which is how most municipalities plan their budgets, staff and council need to look at financial sustainability, Higgins added.

“Not just myself, but financial officers from all over are realizing it’s not OK to look at that one year and put in some figures for the five years. We really need to be strategic about those five years, and longer than that is really what I want,” Higgins said.

The next public budget meeting will be held in March at a date yet to be determined.