Swift Current City Council’s 2021 budget will place a focus on debt repayment while passing along no property tax increases to taxpayers.
In the first budget approved by the new council elected back in November 2020, council and administration combined efforts to comb through capital spending with a plan to hold the tax rate steady.
“This is made possible as a result of operational efficiencies found in many areas that will cause no added pressure on property tax revenue, while at the same time allowing us to maintain the level of service that you as citizens have come to expect,” Mayor Al Bridal said while unveiling the budget.
The 2021 city budget was entitled A New Normal, which recognizes the fact that after COVID-19 everyone is wanting to get back to normal, but that normal has now changed.
“We just wanted to say with this budget that the City is looking to also go back to a new normal, or something a little bit different. And that’s what this budget was about with a zero per cent tax increase and paying down a substantial amount of debt this year,” Bridal said.
The 2021 budget calls for $83,320,889 in spending, which is approximately $5 million lower than the 2020 total budget amount of $88.39 million. The operating and utility budget is $65,332,502, which is down slightly from the $65,638,530 budgeted in 2020. The larger decrease occurs in capital spending, with the 2021 budget calling for $17,988,387 in capital spending, which is down significantly from the $22,753,611 budgeted for in 2020.
Mayor Bridal noted the operating and utility spending decreasing by $300,000 was a targeted reduction.
“I was actually hoping for more, I’ll be really honest. It’s not a surprise. It’s something that we did target.”
City of Swift Current Chief Administrative Officer Tim Marcus explained there was originally a larger decrease in expenses before the City had to make a series of additions to account for the Carbon Tax and adding one full time RCMP officer salary for an additional member at the Swift Current Municipal RCMP Detachment.
“There was a fair reduction in operating expenses before we had to add back some increases that we were forced to deal with. As well as we did have some labour contracts with increases in them as well,” Marcus pointed out.
Additionally, a broad series of changes were made to the capital budget, with the city shelving a series of vehicle replacements, eliminating some planned studies, and taking other capital cutting initiatives.
Bridal was pleased that council and administration worked together to reach this.
“We talked about this at budget (planning meetings) and they came up with some ideas too. It wasn’t just council, city admin had lots of ideas. So I’ve been very happy with the help we’ve received from the administration team and from all of council.”
He was also insistent that the capital spending savings will not have a negative impact in the community.
“We’re not shortchanging our future by not spending that capital money today,” Bridal said.
He pointed out the budget contains no cuts to hours at recreational facilities, bus routes are not being reduced in hours, and City Hall will operate at the same hours as before the budget was approved.
Ratepayers will be required to pay an additional 1.8 per cent on their water bill to cover a pair of mandatory projects in the Water and Sewer Utility.
A $2 million expenditure is planned this year to design and construct a Water Treatment Plant Residual Management project which will handle backwash residue from the Water Treatment process. The project is required as a result of new Water Security Agency regulations and will be completed by March 2022. Additionally, the city is spending $550,000 at a Lift Station to mitigate existing flow conflicts and accommodate future growth demands, as well as to accommodate the disposal of residues from residual management project.
The 1.8 per cent hike will result in an average household of four spending another $1.83 per month on their water bill. The expenditure will be fully funded through water rates, but the city transferred $900,000 from the Light and Power Utility reserve which will allow the city to only add $1.64 million in debt to fund the projects.
Bridal said despite this small debt addition, the impact of the 2021 budget will result in the city reducing their debt load by nearly $5 million this year.
“One of the items that I personally wanted to see addressed when I was elected was our level of municipal debt,” Bridal said. “I believe we need to rely on debt less than we do, only utilizing it when it is necessary. And I’m very pleased to tell you that despite our need to take on debt this year to fund the two projects we just talked about in Water and Sewer, we will be reducing our overall debt load by just under $5 million.”
Bridal added that cautious spending budgets are sustainable into Swift Current’s future.
“I honestly think that if we continue looking every time we spend money, every time we do something at the city, if city administration and council looks at everything closely I think we can keep our tax rates at a lower rate, either zero or a very very minimal increases.”
“Our intention as council is to continue into the future so that our city is a city that people want to come to because the tax rates are low, or lower for businesses or for residences.”
The budget outlines a series of capital budget expenditure highlights for the year.
- A new Bike Track will be constructed on 13th Ave. N.E. with the support of the Swift Current Kiwanis Club.
- An interactive Hockey Simulator will be installed at the Ted Knight Saskatchewan Hockey Hall of Fame.
- Excess Municipal Economic Enhancement Program (MEEP) Funding will be re-directed to installing a new multi use floor at the Stockade at a price tag of $350,000, plus 15 Self-contained breathier apparatus to be utilized by members of the Swift Current Fire Department.
- The city is also proceeding with their annual rehabilitation projects including paved streets, sidewalks and curbing program, storm and sanitary manhole, and storm sewer main rehabilitation programs. They are also continuing with changing overhead powerlines to underground infrastructure in the downtown core, plus hydrant and water valve rehabilitation projects.
All six councillors voiced their support for the budget when it was tabled at Monday’s City Council meeting.
Councillor Ryan Plewis was hoping the City would enjoy some benefits from the sale of city inventory properties which would further improve the impact of the budget.
“This is certainly a good news budget, but there is potential to actually out perform these expectations as well,” Plewis said.
“Some of these numbers they are our best projections. Hopefully we can actually see some additional property sales from what we actually thought were reasonable to budget over the course of the year. I for one am really hopeful anyways, that as Mayor Bridal commented, with lot sales we hopefully will see a better take up than we have over the last year. And if we can actually reduce that debt that we have associated with property development that number can actually go down quite a bit more than that as well.”
“I will certainly be in favour of this budget. I think it strikes the right note at the right time.”
Councillor Pat Friesen was also pleased to see the partnerships of some budget items which are helping improve the community.
“I will happily be supporting this motion and this budget. There’s just a couple of things that were key for me when we went though it,” she said. “The fact that the debt will be paid down by just under $5 million, and I think that is so significant and we can’t lose sight of that. That’s huge for our city too. And it will put us in great shape for the future. And we are positioning for the future when our economy does turn around. So to be able to knock that debt off by about $5 million this year is fantastic.”
She pointed to the Kiwanis Club providing $50,000 over two years in support the new Bike Track on 13th Ave. N.E. and funding from the Living Sky Community Grant and a partnership with Saskatchewan Hockey and the City which will help provide an Interactive Hockey Simulator at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the support from those kinds of folks. So I just wanted to thank them again too.”
Councillor John Wall noted he was thankful that city administration agreed to look at the area of efficiencies during the budget process.
“I’m very grateful for the budget that we have before us which is a zero increase. And it’s been a long time coming in my opinion. It’s very helpful in helping the people with low income, and also very helpful for the people that are on fixed income.”
However he remains concerned about the impact the existing debt has on the community.
“If you think of it, we are still paying over $2 million in interest to service this debt. That’s a big amount. We could do a lot with the $2 million.”
Councillor Leanne Tuntland Wiebe was pleased with the first budget she was able to have input into.
“The 2021 budget fulfills most of the issues that I campaigned on. I felt we needed to be cautious moving forward in an economy that had been so drastically effected by COVID. The City had limited options to help, but one obvious way to do that was to have zero increase in property taxes. Our residents didn’t need to have that burden added to their already stressful lives.”
Councillor Ryan Switzer was also supportive of the budget and the direction it takes.
“I think it ticks a lot of boxes. We’re looking after infrastructure. We’re being responsible there. And there’s some excitement in this budget as well with that new Bike Track that the Kiwanis is going to help us out with. And that Hockey Simulator it’s going to be nice to have that added attraction at our Hockey Hall of Fame.”
“I really feel like we hit a home run with this one. There’s no increases. We’re looking after our stakeholders. And there’s some excitement in this budget as well. Couple that with the Strategic Plan that’s going to be happening this year, there’s certainly things to be happy and to be excited about.”
Councillor Tom Christiansen also voiced his support of the budget.
“I’m very proud of this budget. I think we all did a great job, including administration. The one thing that maybe hasn’t been mentioned here is we’re doing all of this without any reduction in services. I want to make sure our citizens understand that. The service levels that you’re used to, you’re going to continue to have. And we’re going to do it without increasing the taxes.”
Full details on the City of Swift Current’s 2021 budget can be viewed online at www.swiftcurrent.ca/budget21.