City council will re-examine the chronic over budgeting of the funds its sets aside to pay for local RCMP services.
During a budget meeting on Wednesday night Coun. Camerson Stolz pointed to figures showing the RCMP has been coming in under budget by an average of about $900,000 over the last five years and he thinks the funds could be better allocated.
"In looking at the RCMP piece there was an opportunity given the track record that we have of being significantly under budget that maybe we could manage the budget a little more tightly and have the budget a little closer to what's actually expended the previous year," Stolz said after the meeting.
In 2012 the police budget came in $2.1 million under budget, with the excess money going into the city's general surplus fund. Stolz is proposing changing this year's budget to add a $1 million buffer to the 2012 actual expenses which would give the city about $1.2 million to re-direct to other priorities.
Stolz went to great lengths to explain he didn't want to cut the actual police budget, rather just take away the generous wiggle room that was available in the 2012 budget.
"This is about how we manage the budget itself," Stolz said. "The intent is still to deliver police services at the exact same level they did in 2012 and that we're still going to target the same number of police officers we did last year."
Mayor Shari Green likes the idea, but was worried it would generate headlines about the city cutting the police budget when in fact service levels won't change.
"Of course people will think that we're cutting the police budget at a time when we're the most dangerous city in Canada in the eyes of a few, so that is a communication challenge the city will have to deal with," she said.
Council voted to have city staff examine the issue and meet with the RCMP to discuss what the changes might mean. Council will delve into the ins and outs of the plan at a special meeting called for Feb. 25.
Green said the $1.2 million figure might be a little high and that after the RCMP and staff weigh in the actual savings may be closer to between $500,000 to $700,000.
Stolz is hoping to use half of the savings to fund roadwork and dedicate the other half to the new crime reduction task force. However other councillors provided differing opinions on how the money could be spent.
"Coun. Skakun wants to see some more money for parks and Koehler wants to lower taxes and Coun. Stolz wants to put some in roads and is there an opportunity to create a fund that the crime reduction task force can [use]," Green said.
Although there was a significant surplus last year, the amount of money left over in other recent years hadn't been nearly as large.
"The size of the surplus in 2012 in my view was a bit of an anomaly to what we had seen previously," administrative services director Rob Whitwham said.
Currently, the extra money goes into the accumulated surplus which can be used to ensure other areas of the budget are balanced or to finance one-time expenses.
Meanwhile, council also voted in favour of a one-time grant of up to $60,000 for non-profits to make whole their tax exemption. Previously council had voted to reduce the 100 per cent exemption to 97 per cent because the amount waived exceeded a pre-set cap. The one-time funding could lead to a tax increase of up to 0.08 per cent.
Both Green and Stolz voted against the motion, which was put on the floor by Coun. Dave Wilbur, but it passed with a 6-2 vote.
"We've got a $20,000 'oops' around this table," Green said, noting council could have saved one third of the cost had council acted in October.
Wilbur said it was unfair to saddle non-profits with an extra tax bill as a surprise and said passing the motion "was the right thing to do."
Council easily passed 16 sections of the operations, public safety and civic facilities budget. Most passed unanimously, but Coun. Albert Koehler opposed an $800,000 increase to the road budget, saying it was too costly.
Due to the high price of asphalt in the region - Wilbur said the city pays a 17 per cent premium compared to similar municipalities - the city is considering getting into the asphalt business itself or opening up the bidding process to encourage more supplier to apply. Rather than starting from scratch, Wilbur asked city staff to consider buying an existing supplier.
There was also extensive debate on the parks budget, with Coun. Brian Skakun considering bringing a motion forward to increase the amount of money available to cut grass on boulevards and in parks.
"We really did pay for it [last year], some of the boulevards really didn't look nice," he said.
His idea of spending more got some support around the table, but other councillors agreed with Coun. Murray Krause's suggestion that it was too late in the process to change things for this year.
A new budget item was passed for the district energy system. City operations superintendent Bill Gall said despite the uncertainty surrounding the future of Lakeland Mills, there are no short-term concerns about the viability of the system.
Council also approved a capital budget for 2014-17, with Koehler was the lone dissenter.