Community groups take the hit after millions in Columbia-Washington overruns

Andrew Bennett
By Andrew Bennett
May 4th, 2013

CAO Cecile Arnott confirmed to council at Wednesday’s committee-of-the-whole (COW) that the Columbia-Washington upgrades have cost the city on the order of $6 million, about $1.4 million more than was originally budgeted.

The final project cost is still under dispute as negotiations with the contractor continue. On top of Rossland’s $6 million, the total cost includes a contribution of about $1.4 million by the Ministry of Transportation (MOTI), plus an additional amount MOTI agreed to pay more recently when the cost overruns became apparent.


The final budget also includes $108,000 in street furniture—bear-proof garbage cans, recycling, bike racks, an ore cart bench, and other benches—which council has now decided to leave in the budget, pending final authorization from council before any purchases.


This time last year, Copcan was given the contract for “phase one”—the downtown core including Columbia Ave. and Washington St. to First Ave.—for an expected cost to the city of $4.64 million, plus $1.4 million charged to MOTI.


As several councillors mentioned at Wednesday’s meeting, this combines with other burdens on the city—such as rising wages and salaries—to put the city “between a rock and a hard place” as they struggle to keep municipal tax revenues the same as last year while maintaining core services and vital community groups. 


Community groups get squeezed


Please note: all council decisions at a COW, as related here, are considered recommendations pending official ratification at a “regular” meeting, the next of which is on May 6.


Feeling the pressure, council decided on Wednesday to reduce most funding to community groups by 5% relative to 2012 levels. Exceptions include the Sustainability Commission, whose budget request for $28,000, already $12000 less than last year’s budget, was cut to $0. The subsidy for seniors and children using the Trail Aquatic Centre were cut to $8500 from $20,000 budgeted in 2012 and a 2013 request of $10,000.


Moving the other way, the museum’s 2012 budget of $29,000 was increased to about $49,000, and all community groups receiving less than $6000 were left unchanged, and the Kootenay Columbia Trail Society and the public library will both receive the same as 2012.


In total, council reduced the “community support” budget items by about $14,000 (four per cent) relative to what was spent in 2012, and by about $47,000 (12 per cent) less than the groups had requested for 2013. 


These and other “social planning” decisions are explored in more detail in four separate articles, one that focuses on the Sustainability Commission and the museum, and another that jumps into the postponement of the Star Gulch swimming hole plan to save $10,000, a minor cut to the Neighbourhoods of Learning, and the pennies pinched from community groups.


A new budget item of interest is $10,000 slated in 2013 to hire a “social planning” consultant to guide council’s decisions around long term approaches to community support. “It’s in there as a placeholder,” Arnott said, responding to queries about whether a local consultant could do a good job for less. Spearn said, “There are people in town very capable of doing it, and $5000 would be brilliant.”


Arnott originally recommended a two per cent increase in the municipal tax haul for this year—about $70,000—to help smooth the ramp to higher taxes in future years to replenish reserves and pay back debt while the city also considers new projects such as broadband internet and ongoing capital investments.


In the short term, because so little time remains before the May 15 deadline for the city to submit its financial plan—for which discussions only started last week to accommodate the CAO’s holiday in January and February—Arnott suggested council cut out contributions to reserves for this year to give the city a chance to regroup over the next year and formulate a long term vision.


Also in the short term, council approved Arnott’s recommendation to put out an Alternative Approval Process (AAP) to gain residents’ approval for a $4 million, 30-year, low-interest government loan to fund the Columbia-Washington upgrades that, up until this point, have been paid for with cash out of reserves. The other $2 million will be funded through deferred capital projects.


Arnott acknowledged that there is a danger that deferring projects adds to the so-called “infrastructure deficit,” but she said that first the city must put together a solid asset management plan to look as far as 70 years ahead to determine capital and social planning priorities. She said a solid asset management plan helps the city attract federal and provincial grants, but more importantly is prudent as the city faces more than $40 million in infrastructure upgrades in the coming decades.


Coun. Cary Fisher’s motion that council begin next year’s budget-planning process on June 1 was unanimously supported by council.  


Fisher also recommended—and council supported—that this year’s financial plan aim for a zero percent tax increase. 


Following the decision to cut community groups by some 12 per cent relative to 2013 requests, Coun. Kathy Moore also requested “that staff come back with similar reductions in other portions of the city budget.”


Although Arnott will amend the financial plan before the regular meeting to attempt to meet this request, she flatly denied that it will be possible to reduce the rest of the city’s budget in a way that’s commensurate with community group losses.


Arnott cautioned council that the operations budget was already “bare bones,” and any more cuts will come at the expense of a service. She suggested the next step was to close a park or facility, but recommended such steps be taken next year, if they’re deemed necessary, after a public consultation process.


Fisher disagreed, and said with “time and hard work” he thinks there are ways to squeeze the city budget beyond community group cuts.


“The only thing left is operations,” Arnott said, to which Moore suggested, “And administration, government services, staff.” In the last year, for example, combined salaries and benefits for the CAO and deputy CAO rose from about $250,000 to $300,000.


Arnott said any cuts will come from the facilities and parks budget, which includes nearly $600,000 in expenses—such as the arena, $240,000, and general park maintenance, $93,000. Recreational programs and administration cost an additional $182,580.


This figure of roughly $780,000 in parks and recreation expenses is offset by nearly $230,000 in revenues, of which the arena accounts for about $109,000.


Capital expenditures for 2013 are budgeted at $1.4 million, from accounting software upgrades ($30,000) to the purchase of a mini-excavator ($228,000 after trading in the back hoe), $218,000 for the retaining wall beside United Church, $165,000 for broadband internet (of which $40,000 is to be raised from taxes and $35,000 from $4 million debt), $40,000 to replace more stairs around town, and more.


Council has chosen to follow the CAO’s recommendation to increase sewer and water user fees by two per cent each—or, technically, four per cent for the latter half of 2013.


Sewer administration rates have spiked by about $20,000 to cover arbitration fees, and the water utility was underfunded last year because water metering resulted in residents using about 25 per cent less water.

Other News Stories