The lights will stay on and the doors will stay open at City Hall.
On Monday, the city council of Lloydminster gathered to debate the final draft of the 2017 municipal budget. Development of the financial plan for next year has been an ongoing process since late September, when the first budget was presented to the outgoing council with an operational deficit of $10.5 million.
Since first being presented, the municipal government has been seeking to reduce the deficit through a range of measures, which were detailed in the budgeted documents. The measures included asset sales, the folding-in of the Lloydminster Economic Development Corporation, and the raising of property taxes by four per cent, among others.
The final budget documents had placed the operational deficit at $0, with no surplus left over.
However, the gathered council members did not grant final approval to the document. Instead, the budget was approved on an interim basis, which means it will be re-visited towards the end of January, or upon the completion of a review of all budget items. The approval of an interim budget also means that the operations of the City of Lloydminster will continue without interruption.
Approved third-party funding requests were also included in the interim budget. The requests were the subject of long discussion during the meeting, and not every request was met in its entirety, with the Lloydminster SPCA receiving an operational grant of $50,000, but receiving a further amount of $25,000 for a spaying and neutering program.
The Lloydminster Interval Home also had a land grant request accepted as information by the council.
The Lloydminster Economic Development Corporation remained independent from the City of Lloydminster, but that decision will be re-examined during the final approval of the budget.
Towards the end of the meeting, Councillor Jonathan Torresan voiced concern about the lack of discussion about the proposed four per cent tax raise, and a lack of information given to council about how the budget was balanced. The concern was echoed by Councillors Michael Diachuk and Ken Baker, who wanted to see a line-by-line explanation of where savings were found in the municipal government.
“I think we’ve looked at some areas on a pretty in depth basis, but I think when you look at the operating expenses, there are two lines around operating expenses in there, and they showed a reduction around five million dollars, and so trying to wrap my head around what that five million dollars means, does it mean a reduction of staff, a reduction of services, strategies for efficiencies?” said Diachuk, after the meeting.
Diachuk said he would want to be able to defend the budget to members of the public. He also indicated that putting the final approval on the 2017 budget on Monday would have been a poor decision.
“To make a final budget today would have been, I want to use the word negligent, because I really feel that we would have made a decision without really having as much information as we should have as members of council,” said Diachuk.
Lloydminster mayor Gerald Aalbers said that the passing of the interim budget would allow the City to operate, while council does further budget review.
“We’ve got an ability for the administration to operate the city, where we now have the opportunity to spend a little more time, question administration, and get the details that we need to be able to come out and answer to you, in questions, though the media, through the public, through inquiries, where is this money being spent?” said Aalbers.
“I’m a taxpayer, just like anybody else, and I think that if people would like an answer, we want to be able to provide that answer, and you’ve got that very clearly from the council members at the table, they would like that information.”
Aalbers also indicated that the desire for a line by line review of the budget had sprung up in recent days among council members.
“I can tell you, over the past three, four days, there has been a series of emails and information provided by administration, requests from council, and that’s shared, so that we’re all on the same page,” said Aalbers.
“I think what we identified with administration very clearly last week was there was an information gap, and a gap was created by a change of council. Previous council were satisfied with the information, and the way it was changed, the information was presented this year slightly differently. Why? It’s the way it evolved, but I think we now have a clear direction from our council to administration.”
As for the four per cent raise in property taxes, Aalbers had no firm answer on which direction the rate will go in the final budget.
“Let’s be honest, no one wants a tax increase,” said Aalbers.
“If I could bring in a budget in, and lead council to a two per cent (increase) that would be a more realistic number, in everybody’s opinion. If it takes four per cent, I think people realize that at the end of the day, when as a city, our previous council and administration have done the best they could do with what they had, now this is where we’re going to put into the position, there may be a four per cent (increase).”
Aalbers said he didn’t have an answer on whether the rate could rise.
“That’s why we want to do the best that we could do, for the residents and the taxpayers of this city, to examine that as best as we can, and that answer will be very clearly made to you as soon as that budget is finalized.”
Aalbers promised that the rate will be “fully worked over” to make it as low as it could be.
The next meeting of city council is scheduled for January 16, 2017.