Lethbridge city council engaged in debate and made multiple decisions on day two of its week-long budget review, highlighted by a unanimous vote to reduce the mayor and councillors’ salaries.
When deliberations began Tuesday morning, talks were dominated by EMS dispatch and the Lethbridge Public Safety Communications Centre (PSCC).
In a 6-3 vote, council chose to spend $698,000 in both 2021 and 2022 for five full-time-equivalent (FTE) supervisors at the PSCC, with funding provided through taxation.
Lethbridge is among a handful of cities hoping Premier Jason Kenney will overturn a decision to consolidate EMS dispatch.
In an appeal to the province on Tuesday, council approved funding of $1.2 million in each of the next two years. The amount matches what the province is currently giving Lethbridge to pay for the service.
“We would absorb a $1.2 million revenue loss,” said Mayor Chris Spearman. “Lethbridge would be paying that, and by doing that we’ll be able to maintain our integrated service that we provide — fire and ambulance — which is a lower cost and more efficient for a longer period.”
Spearman says by spending the money to maintain current service, the city would be saving money in the long run.
“If we lose ambulance dispatch from our call centre, then we will have to begin providing additional firefighters to staff our fire trucks, and there will be an added cost of us to $3.7 million,” he said.
The funding would come from city reserves for the next two years, but that money would remain in reserves if the province turns down the request.
Spearman had a meeting with the mayors of Calgary, Red Deer and Wood Buffalo on Tuesday, and said the group is working to finalize a letter to the premier, hoping to see action in the next month or so.
“The premier wants to see governments operating in a business-like way, and this is purely a business decision that makes sense,” Spearman said.
Following the decisions on the Lethbridge PSCC and EMS dispatch, council made a number of cost-saving decisions on Tuesday.
Five of the city’s fee-for-service groups have seen a 10 per cent reduction in funding in 2021 and 2022:
- Allied Arts Council
- Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG)
- Lethbridge Sport Council
- Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden
- Southern Alberta Ethnic association
The cuts do not impact base funding for the organizations.
“They are recognizing the city is facing financial challenges, and you know with COVID we are concerned about what’s going to be happening moving forward, and what sort of programs and supports will be needed,” Spearman said. “It’s great that they’re helping.”
Spearman said fee-for-service groups are specifically designed to allow them to access other forms of funding support, including local fundraising.
In-home wastewater services were also adjusted as a cost-saving measure on Tuesday. City council approved a motion to continue providing on-demand services 24/7, but through a bylaw amendment, the city will begin charging for all blockages on the private portion of the property line, beginning on March 1.
A number of reductions were also made to address city staff wages on day two of deliberations.
The mayor and city councillors voted unanimously in favour of reducing their salaries by ten per cent in 2021 — at a projected savings of $77,300 — and zero per cent in 2022.
In a second unanimous vote, council supported a zero per cent wage increase for “management non-union staff” for 2021, at a total projected savings of $513,000; $403,000 of which is tax-supported, and the rest is utility or self-supported.
In an amendment to the original motion, council decided to continue the flat wages in 2022 as well.
City council also voted in favour of cutting the mayor and councillor’s travel budget for 2021 by 50 per cent, to save $56,000.
Finally, after several proposed amendments, debate, and discussion, a unanimous vote supported the elimination of the 2021 municipal census, with a one-time reduction of $158,000 through taxation.
The city reported that after Tuesday’s meeting the updated tax rate is down to two per cent, with a target of a zero per cent tax increase for residents in 2021.