Lagoon funding, attracting businesses top town budget public hearing

By Tyler Marr
January 16, 2019 - 8:48am

A slowdown in the economy and some big-ticket items to pay for down the road has the Town of Battleford eyeing marginal hikes to property taxes and utility rates in their 2019 budget.

Proposed is a two per cent property tax increase, which equates to approximately $32 per year. For utilities, the average resident could see roughly $72 added to their bill annually, expected to bring in around $116,000 to government coffers. 

The utility bumps come as the town moves to more of a user pay model for the sole purpose of funding the necessary wastewater lagoon upgrades, which carry a price tag near $5 million. The rates are anticipated to be approved by the Saskatchewan Municipal Board this spring. Utility rates have not been increased since 2012.

Monday night, the town held their first public hearing in a number of years for budget deliberations. CAO John Enns-Wind outlined the town's growing population, priorities for today and down the road, and challenges and opportunities on the horizon.

Among the challenges discussed was how close to 80 per cent of roads are in fair to poor condition, arena upgrades are needed at a cost of $2.5 million, a cemetery expansion worth $500,000, a laundry list of historical buildings in need of rejuvenation, and new recreational facilities like an outdoor pool and skatepark. 

These pale in comparison to two massive projects in the waiting; the waste waster lagoon upgrades to meet the town’s growing population and the North Saskatchewan River Truss bridge repairs valued at $5 million. Erosion of the riverbank slope on the southwest corner of the Finlayson Island walking bridge has reached a critical point. If it is not mitigated, the bridge may not be usable. Enns-Wind stressed a need for the town to tread lightly on this project, worried it could become a "money pit" once they get into it.

While the town has around $10 million in reserves to work with, it is not enough to cover everything, and will require a balancing act between dipping into reserves, accessing grants, borrowing and levying taxes and utility rates. 

Councillor Kevin Russell admitted the economy is in a slowdown and that no one wants to see a tax or utility rate hike, but said the town has to make investments. He said while previous councils were diligent in saving money, didn't spend anything on infrastructure and now the town is faced with funding "a laundry list [of projects] that goes down and down and down."

"I don’t want to see a tax increase but I think it is inevitable," he said. "At the end of the day, you have to move forward and make the town prosperous."

The proposed budget outlines just over $7.504 million in revenues and $5.979 million in expenses for a $1.524 million surplus. After setting money aside for future endeavours, the ledger essentialy balances out.

The town is budgeting $880,000 in municipal revenue sharing from the province once again, as very little information has trickled down from the province on what this funding package could look like in 2019. In 2017, the province slashed its grant-in-lieu payments and revenue sharing, which carved massive holes in municipal budgets across Saskatchewan.

A goose egg sat in the 2018 column for revenue from land sales, as the town didn’t sell any lots last year. They had budgeted for four, or $200,000, but are only budgeting for a single sale in 2019 and $50,000.

Plenty of questions sprung up around what the town is, or plans on doing, to attract business and spur development within its borders. The CAO shied away from recommending any abatements or incentives, instead preferring prudent, consistent policy.

“Businesses need to have a sound business plan to be able to be up and operating. It isn’t the responsibility of any level of government to help get them started,” he said. “If they need a big subsidy from us, perhaps they are not a worthwhile business. We want to put before council sustainable policy. The town has to protect its interest but we also want to see business success."

Mayor Ames Leslie outright said the town has done “nothing to attract business” and vocalized a need to change this trend. He said economic development has fallen on CAOs, but they don’t have adequate time to be proactive and pound the pavement to draw businesses to town. 

“It is getting out there and meeting them and having an economic development person phoning people and saying, [Battleford] has the third lowest commercial taxation levels in all of Saskatchewan, you should come check us out,” he said after the meeting. “We need to go hunting down businesses instead of sitting here.”

The town’s tax base is made up of approximately 85 per cent residential and just 12 to 15 commercial. The mayor said by attracting more businesses, residential properties wouldn’t have to bear the brunt.

Road and infrastructure repairs take up the bulk of capital spending in the proposed 2019 budget. Big ticket items that could be funded include $450,000 for street rehab along Second Ave., from 30th to 35 St., $70,000 for a firefighting command vehicle replacement, $30,000 to put LED lighting in the arena and $105,000 for walking trail lighting from Riverbend to 35th St.

The town also wants to direct just short of $860,000 for future spending on for everything from water treatment plant upgrades to arena upgrades and eventual cemetery expansion work after the design is undertaken in 2019.

During the meeting, Leslie said he did not know how he was going to vote next Monday on the final budget, citing different capital funding priorities. 

Asked how he would spend money, Leslie directed  focus to recreation. He expressed a desire to see an outdoor pool and a skatepark. A majority of his funding, he said, would go towards sidewalks and increasing annual street paving. He highlighted a need for sidewalks around the hockey rink and school, as busing was cut from the town and does appear to be returning anytime soon.

“For me, a priority is not losing some dirt along the river bank, it is to get sidewalks on the streets so our kids can go to school,” he said. 

The town has focused on paving streets without any front-facing residential lots, but these projects are starting to run out. The mayor sees an impasse on the horizon as the town grapples with how to fund these.

“Council needs to decide: Do we move to a levy where everybody shares in the cost of paving every street in town,” he said. “Or do you just pay once for the street in front of your house and hopefully don’t have to pay for another 10, 15 or 20 years.”

On Twitter: @JournoMarr

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