City to make budget decisions Wednesday

City council's budget deliberations on Monday began with a change to the way council approves its budget.

The change means council didn't vote on any aspects of the city's budget on Monday. City council is scheduled to meet again on Wednesday, where a budget including a proposed two per cent tax increase will be up for debate.

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"There is no point in rushing through the process," Coun. Murry Krause said Monday. "If we go at it too long tonight, we might make decisions we might not agree with tomorrow."

Previously, city administration presented each department's budget to city council, who then debated and voted on it before proceeding to the next departmental budget.

At the start of Monday's budget meeting, Coun. Kyle Sampson proposed that council receive the all the departmental budgets for information, then debate and vote on them once they had received all the information.

The wildcard in the city's budget discussions will be the $6.11 million the city received from the province through the COVID-19 Safe Restart Grant for Local Government. The funding can be used for a wide range of things, offsetting lost city revenues to reduce the proposed tax increase.

During a meeting last year, the city's finance and audit committee approved a recommendation to use the fund to keep the city's tax increase down to two per cent. According to a report presented to city council on Monday, that would require using $796,185 of the $6.11 million grant.

To eliminate the tax increase for 2021 would require using more than $3 million, leaving roughly half the balance of the grant for 2022.

On Monday, members of council were divided on which approach to take.

"I'll be looking at this with a zero per cent (tax increase) in mind," Sampson said. "We can sustain that for roughly two years."

Coun. Brian Skakun said he's also in favour of eliminating any tax increase for the year.

"Residents and businesses are suffering," he said.

Coun. Garth Frizzell, who chairs the finance and audit committee that made the two per cent recommendation, said he's concerned that spending too much from the restart grant could leave the city scrambling later and result in "tax shock" in future years when the money isn't available. While B.C. and Canadian municipalities are calling for additional funding this year, there is no guarantee that it will come, he said.

"I'm nervous about taking the risk of spending down that surplus," Frizzell said.

That said, all the feedback the city has received about the budget urged a zero per cent tax increase, Frizzell said.

"I've had some similar concerns about spending (the grant) down dramatically," Krause said. "I want to make sure we don't end up where (Coun. Garth Frizzell) said: zero (per cent) this year, maybe zero (per cent) next year, and then seven (per cent) the year after."

Coun. Cori Ramsay said she expects it could take years for the city's revenues to return to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The department budgets presented to city council on Monday were built on the assumption that civic facilities like the Four Seasons Leisure Pool and Prince George Conference and Civic Centre will remain closed, and public health restrictions will remain in place.

If restrictions were to change, the city could use its contingency budget to reopen facilities and resume normal – or more normal – operations, city director of finance Kris Dalio said.

"The fluctuations this year could be incredible," Mayor Lyn Hall said.



The only service enhance proposed in the 2021 budget would see the RCMP hire two additional officers to form an internal training unit for the detachment. 

The goal of the training unit would be to provide local officers with additional skills in things like crisis de-escalation, mental health knowledge, first aid and lifesaving skills, use of force, and other training specific to the needs of policing in the city, RCMP Supt. Shaun Wright said.

"I spend a lot of sleepless nights thinking about how we can do things better. I wouldn't have taken this job if I was satisfied with the bare minimum," Wright said. "They (the RCMP) do provide baseline training. What I'm really looking to do is to go above that."

Currently, one of the detachment's general duty supervisors has been seconded to full-time training duties as a temporary measure, Wright wrote in a report to council.

Otherwise, RCMP members in the city are required to travel to Chilliwack for training – which adds costs and travel time, and reduces the accessibility to training.

Comparable-size detachments like the RCMP detachment in Kamloops already have similar full-time training units, Wright added.

Currently the city's RCMP detachment nominally has 142 members, but is only funded for 128.

Because of medical leaves, transfers, retirements and other factors it is almost never at full strength at any given time, Wright.

The program is expected to cost $96,000 by the time it starts in late 2021, and $365,000 for the full year in 2022. If approved, it would add 0.08 per cent to the city's tax levy in 2021, Dalio said.

The city's budget meeting starts at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and resumes at 6 p.m. after a one-hour break.

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