Council trades months of planning for a budget pulled from its hat

by Paul Dechene

February ended on a very busy week for city hall with council logging over 12 hours in Henry Baker Hall over two meetings. And depending on how you look at it, the news that emerged from those marathons is pretty good.

Believe it or not.

For instance, if you were alarmed by the seven per cent property tax increase proposed in the 2014 city budget, you can breathe a sigh of relief. After the best minds at city hall spent months drafting the document — tallying program costs, projecting expenses, anticipating revenues — somehow in just a few final hours at their special Feb. 24 meeting, our elected councillors shaved a little more than a point off the mill rate increase, getting us to a 5.8853 per cent bump for the year.

A bit of magic, that, but here’s the big reveal on how they pulled the trick off…

First, they shuffled a surplus around. This was achieved through a motion by Councillor Sharron Bryce. Apparently, city staff expect that once they complete the audited financial statements for 2013 we’ll have $2 million unspent. Instead of following standard operating procedure and putting all of that surplus into our reserve funds, Bryce proposed we use half of it in this year’s budget— $1 million — to help offset our spending.

The next bit of legerdemain involved making some spending disappear.

Councillor Bob Hawkins proposed cutting the allocation for Professional and External Services by $500,000. That’s the money used to pay for consultants and outside engineering, and in 2014 that line item was expected to increase by 34 per cent —from $15.3 million last year to $20.6 million. Hawkins reckoned a half million dollars wouldn’t even be missed.

City manager Glen Davies countered that even this small a cut could damage the administration’s operational capacity at a time when there are many major projects on the go.

“This may well impact the ability for us to have projects complete and on-time. That’s the risk,” said Davies.

Eight out of 10 councillors and the mayor considered the risk acceptable and Hawkins’ cut passed.

Also passed was a motion by Councillor Barbara Young to postpone the bylaw review that would cap off the rejuvenation of the city’s Official Community Plan.

Regina’s new OCP was passed last year but before it can become a policy document that governs development in the city, the administration will have to review all current city bylaws and recommend changes to put them in line with the OCP’s principles — a process that was to begin in 2014.

Young however said that she’d learned that city staff felt it unlikely the work would begin before 2015 because there was insufficient administration capacity to get to it sooner. City manager Davies confirmed that the project wasn’t even scheduled to go ahead until the end of the year so it was easy to imagine it being shunted to next because there are so many other priorities needing staff’s attention.

By passing Young’s motion to postpone the bylaw review, council shaved another $400,000 off their budget thus getting them down to that magic 5.8853 per cent property tax increase. Still the highest mill rate increase in more than 15 years but at least they kept it a hair under six per cent. And with public reaction to the original seven per cent mill rate hike being so negative, it’s hardly surprising that council would back away from it and approve some last minute changes.

But not everyone on council was so happy to see black Sharpies scribbling over the budget.

“When we put together this budget, for me, it was the idea of getting things done. I’m going to tell you, I’m a little frustrated because when I see now I have things in the budget that I thought were there and all of a sudden I’m now hearing, ‘But we might not be able to get that done.’ And I question why it should have been in the budget in the first place,” said Councillor Mike O’Donnell.

“If all we’re going to do is spend months and months and months, ask our staff to spend an entire year to put together a budget, and then we’re going to, in my words — my words — willy nilly, just cut a few things so it’s better, then we’re not doing our job and we’re not telling the citizens what it really costs to operate,” he said

Mayor Michael Fougere, however, saw things differently and pointed out that the intent of the draft budget was to get public feedback and then to incorporate that into the final budget.

That’s exactly what council achieved at the meeting, he argued.

“The city is saying to us [seven per cent is] too much. And I agree. So I voted for the amendments. I agree with those,” said Fougere.

“Our problems were not going to go away if we went to seven per cent. They’d be just the same as they are now. We have not taken away in any substantive way the fabric of the budget that we discussed before we tabled it. We’ve heard that there are some projects that may not get done this year. That’s an interesting conversation we just had. Have we pulled back the capacity to do others? We probably have. That’s to be a discussion that we have in the coming months,” he continued.

But his concluding statement fell well short of a rousing endorsement: “It’s not a perfect budget. We walked into the room, it wasn’t perfect, it still isn’t perfect. It’s the best we can do, and I support it.”

Grist For The Mill Rate

Bringing down the mill rate increase wasn’t the only change to the budget a councillor attempted at that meeting. Councillor Fraser tried and failed to raise spending on paratransit, calling on council to fund the purchase of one additional paratransit bus contingent on the province purchasing three more this year.

Fraser stated that with eight per cent of paratransit calls currently being refused, the program is in crisis. Paratransit is a program that was started by the provincial government but they have never put the full funding into it that they promised, he pointed out, making it impossible for paratransit to fulfill demand for the service.

Through his contingent funding motion, Fraser hoped to demonstrate council’s commitment to the program and thereby force the province to fulfill their end of the paratransit bargain.

Council however voted against the motion as it might antagonize the province and was unlikely to result in new buses on the road. And, though this wasn’t stated in so many words, doubtless there were fears the additional costs the motion called for would cut into all the sweet budget savings council had just made that night.

Concerns about transportation options for people disabilities carried over to the Feb. 27 meeting, where council passed a series of changes to the taxi bylaw. All taxis will see their flag drop rate raised from $3.80 to $4.00 and the per metre rate will rise from $0.10 per 60 metres to $0.10 per 57 metres.

But several provisions were passed making taxicabs more affordable for people with disabilities.

The flag drop rate for accessible taxis was dropped from $7.00 to match the new base rate of $4.00 and a provision was removed allowing a cab to charge an extra $3.00 when transporting two non-ambulatory passengers. Also accessible cabs will now have to accommodate service animals at no extra charge.

Finally, the city will be making six more accessible taxicab licenses available, bringing the total number for the city to 10. Still well below the 20 that Saskatoon has approved, but a step in the right direction.


Burlesque Gets A Second Look

Council had at least one sexy topic to consider last week. The Bottoms Up Burlesque troupe showed up to the Feb. 27 post-budget meeting to speak against a report that maintains the status quo for striptease shows.

After the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority changed their alcohol control regulations last year to permit adult entertainment, city hall was left to decide under what zoning such activities should be permitted. The recommendation they considered restricts striptease, wet clothing contests, adult bookstores and the like to industrial zones. Bottoms Up wants Regina to  adopt a model closer to Saskatoon’s, whereby regular nightclubs could feature adult entertainments a limited number of times per month, thus permitting a theatre troupe such as theirs a wider array of venues to perform in.

In a letter to the City, Bottoms Up Burlesque spokesperson Arloe Scott made a distinction between burlesque and the adult entertainment found a strip clubs, stressing burlesque’s diversity of age and body, reduced emphasis on stripping and cultural and historical significance.

Council ultimately passed the recommendation but staff will spend the next three months researching the issue to find a way for the adult entertainment bylaw to better accommodate burlesque.

Assuming, that is, that staff’s ability to complete this project on time is not impacted by the Council’s Feb. 25 budget cuts. /Paul Dechene