Chamber has praise, recommendations, for PA budget

By Thia James
March 11, 2014 - 6:28am

paNOW Staff

The Prince Albert and District Chamber of Commerce praised the City of Prince Albert’s “due diligence” when it comes to limiting the tax increases in the proposed 2014 budget, but had a number of recommendations.

The chamber’s CEO, Merle Lacert represented one of the nine external agencies that made presentations during Monday’s public budget consultations. He repeated the call for Prince Albert to establish short and long-term economic plans and to create a competitive taxation policy.

But at the consultations, Lacert presented a recommendation calling for the City to change the way it funds its roadwork, calling for a “healthier balance.”

“We encourage the city to reform the current municipal roadways funding model to reduce the burden on the commercial sector,” he said.

For the Chamber, the municipal roadway tax burden is disproportionately placed on businesses. The Chamber suggests dedicating a larger portion of the roadway work to the general fund, which would be applied to the mill rate. It’s also suggesting restructuring the current funding model, which uses a flat tax for residents, and a rate based on assessed property value for commercial property owners.

Aside from the roadways-related taxation, the Chamber is calling on the City to look for efficiencies – particularly through procuring work versus producing it. Lacert gave the example of the City moving away from developing lots and towards working with developers.

“We support continued efforts to review other business cases, where it may be advantageous to procure versus produce,” he added.

The Chamber is also throwing its support behind appropriate user fees for using the city’s public facilities and tapping provincial and federal grants to complete projects or assessments.

While Lacert offered suggestions on behalf of the Chamber, other groups stated their case for additional funding.

For the Community Service Centre, not getting a funding increase in 2014 could mean service cuts within its Special Needs Transportation transit service, which serves riders with physical challenges.

The Community Service Centre is asking the city to set aside $42,734 more for the specialized transit service in the 2014 budget for operations.

“Almost $21,000 of that has to do with salaries and benefits for staff,” said the Centre’s executive director, Merv Bender.

He noted the transit service’s staff, who are members of our local CUPE Local 2182, receive cost of living increases identical to members of CUPE Local 160, which represents the City’s outside workers.

Last year, the Community Service Centre was denied a request for an increase to its operating funding.

And if this year’s request is denied, Bender said they would need to reduce service by an estimated 30 hours per week. The reduction of service hours could be limited to only 23 or 24 hours if fuel reductions were to take place.

“But having said that, two years without an increase would result in a service reduction … which we would obviously not want to do,” Bender said.

The Mann Art Gallery is similarly facing a funding crunch.

Its chair, Annette Heinbid told members of the budget committee that its biggest funding supporter, the Saskatchewan Arts Board cut funding to the Mann Art Gallery in 2014. The funding cut came as a result of a growing gap in municipal funding to the Mann Art Gallery from the City, as compared to other institutions around the province.

“This has had serious repercussions for us as an organization,” Heinbid said. “We have recently had to lay off a permanent full-time staff member to avoid a deficit financial condition.”

In order to sustain the remaining three positions, the Mann Art Gallery is requesting a $94,500 increase to its annual operating grant from the City.

Members of the budget committee also heard presentations from the John M. Cuelenaere Library, the Prince Albert Arts Board, the Prince Albert District Planning Commission, The Prince Albert Historical Society, Prince Albert Tourism and Marketing and Star Development Corporation, which operates the E.A. Rawlinson Centre.

For more, see the detailed requests here.

For Mayor Greg Dionne, the public budget consultations are an important part of the process – it’s a way for the budget committee to hear the presenters’ needs.
“Of course we have to weigh them of course with the needs that we have and the taxpayers’ requirements and needs for service,” he said.

The presentations alone won’t necessarily sway the budget committee’s decisions.

“It all boils down to needs and priorities,” Dionne said.

“So, at this point, we’ll be deliberating again Thursday night and all day Friday with the budget and at that time, we’ll make a decision. Because at the end of the day, all of their needs are important. Especially if you’re one of these organizations, your needs are probably No. 1. But as council, we have to weigh that and see what’s best for our community.”

To keep up-to-date on what the budget committee decides, and to follow the budget deliberations up-to-the-second, follow @thiajames.

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