Tight budget challenges Wetaskiwin County

Wetaskiwin county council approved its 2016 budget as presented, with a four per cent increase to the mill rate overall.

Wetaskiwin county council approved its 2016 budget as presented, with a four per cent increase to the mill rate overall.

The total amount of the budget is $20.2 million, $19.9 million after transfers to reserves. Reeve Kathy Rooyakkers says most of the increase comes from the provincially mandated school requisition tax and other items out of the county’s control.

Councillors Larry McKeever and Keith Johnson were opposed to to the final decision.

Out of 31 county departments three saw decreases in funding while the others received increases.

Fire services, public works funded and economic development departments were those that saw funding cuts. Fire services lost $13,465 to come out at just over $1 million, a 1.27 per cent decrease from 2015. Public works funded is down 18.74 per cent, $838, 862 from 2015’s $1.03 million. Economic development has a $120,109 budget this year, which is a $16,955 12.37 per cent decrease from 2015.

Departments that saw an increase to their budgets greater then 4 per cent include: council (4.28 per cent for a $466, 015 budget), administration (6.75 per cent $701,857), finance (16.27 per cent $324,853), assessment (5.52 per cent $422,072), information services (4.42 per cent $823,431), public works shop (5.29 per cent $793,880), public works patrol (4.10 per cent $2,207,000) and planning (5.11 per cent 563,007).

County CAO Frank Coutney says this year was a difficult, tight budget because of how much money was lost due to a decrease in linear assessments.

“This year we saw a large decrease in linear,” said Rene Boutin, director of assessment services.

“The 5.57 per cent drop equates to a loss of just over $500,000,” says Rooyakkers. Linear represents 21 per cent of total assessment funds.

Boutin says the basic makeup of the assessment class is wells and pipelines. He added this is one of the most drastic drops the county has seen in the last 10 years, due mainly to rate changes.

“With the decrease and the regulated rates from linear this was a challenge,” said Coutney.

Farmland and machinery and heavy equipment assessments also went down while residential and non-residential increased.

“The tax base is up but a lot of that is residential taking the place of industrial,” said Boutin, explaining the total amount of taxes collected has decreased.

Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding was reduced in municipalities, leaving the County of Wetaskiwin to cope with a $250,000 reduction.

Rooyakkers says this affects the county’s five-year plan. “So we have to realign all our capital projects we don’t know what next year will bring.”

Before coming to its final decision council debated various other methods to help alleviate stress on the budget. Coun. Larry McKeever thought council could possibly use some of its reserves for this year, mentioning there was $30 million in reserves.

“To me that’s short-term gain,” said Coutney, who felt it would be a bad business decision made by council, as they would then be short that money next year.

McKeever mentioned he also feels the county has relied too much on linear assessment funds. “This is one of the toughest budgets I’ve been included in in eight years. One thing we could do is council could cut half its raise. It’s a very small amount but it’ll show people we understand,” he added.

Coun. Lyle Seely agreed with McKeever and and also wanted to forego a newly developed position in the planning and development department.

Coun. Terry Van de Kraats was concerned this would impede the level of service the department would be able to provide.

“I tend to agree with Terry. We’ve had delegations coming in here because they’re tired of waiting for things to get done,” said Coun. Keith Johnson.

Dearing says for any action to make a sizable difference it would have to be a program that was cut. He said he had no qualms losing salary or milage funds but it would not make a big difference in the grand scheme.

“We have to evaluate today what level of services to give back. If we don’t want to raise taxes something’s got to go,” said Rooyakkers.