Council opens discussions on 2021 budget

Estevan city council took a long, hard look at the 2021 civic budget on Monday – a document that features a number of needed projects, but does not, at this time, have a property tax increase.

Council spent hours pouring over the document and quizzing the various department heads about their plans. Each department head discussed their operational needs and, when applicable, their capital needs for this year.

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While the meeting was not open to the public, members of the media were able to watch via Zoom.

With four new members of council, it was a learning experience, and a chance to get more information about the city’s operations.

“We’re very satisfied with the way the day went. Our new council was very engaged, with lots of questions,” said Mayor Roy Ludwig.

As of right now, the budget does not have an increase for the municipal portion of property taxes. It would be the third straight year in which council has held the line on property taxes.

Ludwig said that with the ongoing struggles from the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a lot of stress in the community, so council doesn’t want to increase taxes.

It’s also a year in which the figures from the 2019 provincial reassessment will be released, which could have an impact on local property values.

“We have tax tools, so we can help mitigate some of the changes between the classes,” said Ludwig.

Provisional numbers for the budget show the projected revenues for the city are nearly $25.37 million, which are down more than a million from the $26.38 million from the 2020 budget. It was noted during the meeting that the city expects to have lower revenues for fees and charges due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with less money for ice time and facility rentals, special events, memberships, programs and more.

Initial expenses are $24.16 million, down from the $25.15 million from the 2020 budget. Policing will be the largest expense at $5.47 million, a 3.6 per cent increase from 2020. Police Chief Paul Ladouceur told council it’s the first increase they have had in three years.

The utility fund’s forecasted revenues are $6.61 million for 2021, down from the $8.993 million in 2020, but the 2020 budget included $2 million in capital funding from other levels of government.

Utility fund expenses are expected to be $5.37 million, on par with the $5.372 budgeted in 2020.

The budget also does not include an increase to the utility rates or water consumption rates at this time.

The revenues and expenses could still be adjusted as council continues to adjust the document.

The budget also calls for another $4.5 million in debt repayment, between the principle and the interest, which will leave the city with $17.2 million in long-term debt.

Highlights to the capital budget include $1 million for repairs to the Leisure Centre’s roof and the HVAC units on the roof, $450,000 for the city’s fleet renewal, $250,000 for a new fire truck to replace an outdated unit, and $400,000 for repairs to the Churchill Play Park paddling pool. The park’s paddling pool was shut down last year due to its condition.

Some of the projects will be funded through borrowing.

Not included in the capital budget is $2 million for repairs to the water tower, which will be funded through the federal gas tax.

Council also had a discussion about third-party grants, in which the city supports a number of cultural agencies and non-profit organizations in the community. While there are no plans to axe the third-party grants in this year’s budget, council did discuss eventually removing some of them from the budget.

Other grants, such as those for the Southeast Regional Library and the Estevan Public Library, are provincially mandated.

Ludwig said the new members did very well during the budget discussions, which traditionally is part of the learning curve for new council members. 

“They rolled up their sleeves and got full involved,” said Ludwig. “And had great input, actually.”

Returning Councillors Shelly Veroba and Travis Frank were also very vocal during the meeting.

Council will publish the budget on its website so that the public can provide feedback. Ludwig expects the budget will be approved at the February meeting, which is scheduled for Feb. 22. 

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