Every Budget Tells a Story
Council approved its 2022 operating budget of $397.2 million including a tax increase of 3.11% for the coming year. It was a difficult decision after 5 years with no increases or tax reductions. However, council was firm in its belief that administration has done all it could to reduce spending while continuing to meet the programming needs of the community. The choice was clear: reduce service levels or increase revenues.
For the average homeowner with a residential property assessed at $408,000, the tax increase will amount to approximately $57 or $4.73 a month.
As I reflected on the decision, I couldn’t help but think that every budget tells a story. Some are focused on finding efficiencies; some are about building infrastructure such as roads, swimming pools or recreation facilities; and some are focused on inflationary pressures or growth. Council’s 2022 budget focused on our people – the lifeblood of our organization.
As we have all seen over the past 18 months, pressure has been mounting on our Emergency Medical Services and Firefighters who have seen a 30% increase in ambulance calls. The system is grossly underfunded at the provincial level. For Strathcona County, this underfunding has meant our ambulances are increasingly pulled out of the community to service Edmonton and the surrounding area. It has taken a toll on the mental well-being of these front-line heroes, as grueling schedules, increased overtime and COVID-19 affect their health and safety. In response, Council decided to add 12 additional firefighters/paramedics in 2022 to reduce the pressure on existing staff.
A second pressure point on the budget came from the recent contract signed between the federal government and the RCMP. Members have been without a contract since 2017, thus the decision addressed a growing wage disparity between the RCMP and other police forces across Canada as well as provided retroactive pay since 2017. While this decision was made without municipal input, it will impact our budgets, a reality local government often faces.
This budget also addressed a third issue: the conversion of approximately 59 staff from temporary to permanent positions. Council recognized that this was a justice and equity issue as many of these employees have been with the county for several years and did not have access to a pension plan. As with EMS and the RCMP contract, taking care of our employees is a high priority for me and Council.
At the same time, the budget recognized the importance of caring for our community by continuing to meet community needs without reducing service levels. While inflation is running at 4.8%, administration has done everything possible to streamline operations, reduce expenditures and shift resources from low to higher priority items amounting to $24 million reallocations over the past year alone.
Money was set aside to begin design work on a much-needed seniors centre. This budget focused on the safety and well-being of the community, providing over $1 million to non-profit groups that support some of our most vulnerable residents. Dollars were allocated for work on a tourism strategy and to increase economic development to further diversify the economy. The budget addresses the growing demand for parks, recreation and cultural spaces which strengthens our vision as Canada’s most livable community. On-demand transit was given the nod which will lead to a more efficient system.
I am proud of the work our administration did to prepare a budget focused on building the community, without reducing services, in challenging economic times. Every budget tells a story: ours is about caring for our people.
Bill Tonita is the Ward 4 councillor for Strathcona County. He can be reached by calling 780-464-8146 or by emailing [email protected]