By a 5-2 margin, town council has favoured a proposed budget that will allow for the hiring of more firefighters and increase property taxes slightly to 3.85 per cent from 3.45 per cent.
In dollars, the proposed tax increase is $99.46 on the average assessed home, up $10.34 from $89.12.
After three days of deliberation, town administration returned with adjustments this morning (Nov. 23) to accommodate the hiring of four full-time firefighters, which will ultimately become eight after the transition of the town's casual program is completed within an estimated 12 to 18-month window. The transition will be done without any additional impact on the 2024 budget.
"So it's up a little bit from the 3.45 [per cent] originally but with the addition of four, ultimately transitioning to eight firefighters, there is a significant investment in our community at that level," said Town CAO Mike Derricott in his presentation this morning.
Derricott presented two options based upon bringing additional firefighters on board and a nominal $8,000 increase in The Station budget.
Option 1 calls for hiring the four firefighters in the second quarter of 2024, utilizing a $200,000 increase in revenue from investment interest since the administration began its budget preparations.
It also takes $150,000 from general operating reserves for an affordable housing project instead of from tax revenue.
"It's viable for what we would describe as a project-based piece as this isn't an ongoing cost that we would have to fund in the future, so we can comfortably fund that from reserves."
Option 2, which Derricott termed administration's preferred option, was to hire all four firefighters for the first quarter of 2024. It also takes into account the utilization of the $200,000 windfall in investment revenue and using reserves for the housing project.
The road not taken would have seen taxes increased another half per cent to 4.34 per cent, amounting to an additional $13 for taxes for the average home for the year.
The decision wasn't reached without debate.
Councillors Morgan Nagel and Marni Fedeyko rejected any increase beyond the 3.45 per cent proposed in the original draft and even reducing it, believing adjustments could be made.
"I'm not going to vote for these tax increases," said Nagel. "They're too high. I also don't feel we've been given enough options to consider, but perhaps our council group is not serious about trying to keep taxes lower than this, in which case we wouldn't need more options, but I wish we had more options, and I wish we were trying to keep taxes down."
Councillor Fedeyko believes the general public doesn't support a tax increase. She wanted to find the $350,000 somewhere within the five sections of the budget to allow for the hiring of additional firefighters without increasing taxes further than originally proposed.
"I'm sure there is stuff that you can cut out," said Fedeyko."Maybe it means one less conference, maybe it means we don't take six staff to a conference. Maybe those are the decisions we need to make in the background, but I like to see it at no higher than already proposed, if not bring it down to three."
She says it's hard to recommend where those cuts should be because no details are provided on $40 million of the spending.
Fedeyko stressed it's her job to criticize the budget, even if it raises the hackles of town administration.
"My job as a council member is to represent the community overall, and I can tell you right now, the community is hurting. You can see it in many different ways, many different places and I want to keep the tax rate [increase] no higher than 3.45 per cent."
Councillor Susan Flowers strongly disagreed.
"A few years ago, we cut, cut, cut and we didn't even end up with a community services department. We're trying to build it back up, we're growing and growing. Why would we cut, cut, cut again, and end up in a bad position? It makes no sense to me."
She says the town needs to keep up with inflation and the needs of the community, and that costs money.
Councillor Patrick Wilson is satisfied with this year's budget, something he says he hasn't been able to state before.
"I feel quite confident that we were presented with a lean budget, that's why I'm not going to make any remarks about making any additional cuts."
Councillor Alex Reed believes the budget represents integrity and confidence in the town administration and was bothered by the backlash he's heard in the community, despite a robust public engagement that helped shape the budget.
"I think this is a rational, reasonable, lean, physical budget that recognizes the economic situation our community faces," he said.
Reed says he wasn't willing to do any further nickel and diming, believing the administration has already made all the reductions it possibly can. He repeatedly stated he was unwilling to reduce the cost of living allowance (COLA) to nonunionized town staff members, believing it would only lead to a backlash and possibly the further unionization of town staff.
The majority of council agreed COLA should not be touched. It was one of the possible ways to reduce the budget suggested by Fedeyko and Nagel.
Mayor Jeff Genung said it is the role of council to criticize the budget, but its role is also to stand up for the organization and the community to do what's right.
He says the budget maintains services at the same level while improving community safety through the hiring of additional firefighters and one more RCMP officer.
"We're also investing in our community at a higher level to see not only old infrastructure upgraded and maintained but more connectivity, more pathways, more connections for motorists in the form of James Walker Trail, which we desperately need."
Councillor Tara McFadden continued to advocate for the unfulfilled recreational needs of the community and expressed the need to boost reserves to prevent going heavily into debt for projects like the Horse Creek Sports Park, which she suggested is a $50 million project.
The proposed budget returns to council for a vote on Dec. 11. There may possibly be some further information and discussions on the proposal for renovations and upgrades to Cochrane RancheHouse. They are designed to optimize the use of space and provide life-cycle upgrades to the council chambers.
During the debate, Councillor Nagel took aim at the upgrades proposed for the council chambers, believing it's likely the best meeting room in town already. He also questioned the need for renovations to the RancheHouse's basement.
Should council opt for the entire $1.2 million upgrade to the RancheHouse it will have no impact on 2024 taxes. The funding is proposed to come from reserves.
Earlier in deliberations, council also parked $55,000 of the library's funding request and some councillors welcomed the idea of revisiting that additional funding during spring budget adjustments.
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