By Trevor Busch
In what amounted to a municipal State of the Union address to open budget deliberations at town council’s Nov. 14 regular meeting, Mayor Henk DeVlieger advocated for a new approach to addressing many issues.
“As an elected official, I find the yearly budget deliberations a very important component of our governance duties, especially this year when a three year budget is being discussed. We are entering times where money will be tighter, which means we have to become more innovative and creative to find ways to do things more economical and different than we are used to. We are also competing in a global market, and Taber is a part of that as well.”
On the infrastructure front, DeVlieger sees innovation and new technologies as a way for the municipality to address growing infrastructure deficits.
“One of the largest budget items is upgrading of our original, at times neglected, aging and deteriorating infrastructure, and also the added forced upon us government rules and regulations, which adds substantially to the cost of our infrastructure budget. Again we have to become more creative and think outside the box, and look for new technologies that can be more efficient and economical. We live in a time of fast changing technology. We have to stay informed and use these technologies to our advantage to stay competitive as a municipality, which means we have the right people in place to make this a reality.”
Forging new partnerships with neighbouring municipalities to commonly address mutual concerns should be a growing focus.
“Our storm management plan will become a large budget expense over the next few years,” said DeVlieger. “Collaboration with the Taber Irrigation District is an option that we are exploring, to come to an environmentally better, and more cost effective solution that fits well with the environmental view of our government. Collaboration and partnerships will be stimulated in the new MGA (Municipal Government Act), and we should take advantage of this to become and stay more sustainable in the future.”
A common refrain, DeVlieger derided the Municipal District of Taber’s financial contributions to town recreational facilities, while suggesting provincial legislation may force this municipality’s hand in the near future.
“We all know that at the present time to have sufficient recreational facilities we will have a budget deficit. The only contributions besides the town are coming from the M.D. of Taber, which is $10,500 toward the library, which is roughly 2.5 per cent of the library budget, while out of town usage is approximately 30 per cent. The M.D. contribution towards our recreational facilities is $156,787, which is approximately 8.65 per cent of the recreation facilities’ deficit. The out of town usage is estimated at approximately 30 per cent. The new MGA, which will come into effect next year, is steering towards municipalities collaborating and sharing recreation expenses. If based on a per cent of usage, this could bring in approximately another $550,000 towards our recreation deficit from neighbouring municipalities.”
His worship also lamented the parting of ways between the town and M.D. over fire services, and the financial implications for the town.
“As we are all aware, 10 months out of the 2017 budget we will not be receiving funding from the M.D. towards our fire department, and every year thereafter. This puts approximately an extra $299,000 strain on our 2017 budget. It is still sad that this separation is happening, but I still hope that we can come to a new working relationship with the M.D. It absolutely makes no sense to have two separate identities doing the same amount of work as before, while it cost the taxpayer an extra unnecessary $300,000.”
Drifting into more controversial waters, DeVlieger drew a bead on employee compensation, suggesting wage and benefit increases in recent years are becoming unsustainable for the town.
“The second largest item is wages, which amounts roughly to the same amount that we collect in property taxes. I know that the comments I am about to make will not make me very popular, but I was not elected to be popular, but to do what is best for the town. Payroll is the second largest budget item — 41 per cent of our operating budget — and therefore worthwhile looking at. I realize that I’m starting to talk about people’s livelihoods, and I agree people deserve a fair compensation for the work they perform, that said I think that already for a long time the town employee organizations have had a large influence on our operating budgets with rising wages, benefits and other added privileges.”
The question of arbitration in contract negotiations DeVlieger viewed as a system that rarely delivered advantages into the hands of an employer, but rather the reverse.
“This influence on the payroll part of the budget is very one sided. If the town and the employee associations cannot come to an agreement, it will end up most likely in arbitration, which has been proven that this ends up most times in favour of employees, and not the employer, therefore I felt as a council member that I had no choice but to vote in favour of some agreements to prevent arbitration, which would create an unpleasant working relationship with the employees first of all, and secondly could cost the taxpayer even more money. By saying this, does not mean that I myself necessarily will vote for a similar budget increase.”
Taking aim at an entitlement deeply ingrained in the public sector, namely that employees should be identically compensated based on others in similar positions in the same sector are afforded, can have dangerous implications for a municipality’s bottom line, according to DeVlieger.
“Secondly, negotiations of different municipalities are usually staggered so that previous agreements from other municipalities are used to justify the demands, which creates a vicious circle that never ends. Every time, contracts come up with new and increased proposals in order to justify their existence. To me, this can lead to unfair and unnecessary budget increases. If the town deems it necessary to promote an employee for the benefit of the town, because of her or his talents and potential, the town needs approval from the employee organization. This strikes me as wrong. Who is the employer? This process can have a negative effect on the efficiency of the town and therefore the budget.”
Citing a series of contract-mandated wage increases for town employees and departments for 2017-2018, DeVlieger pushed for the creation of a “dialogue” with various employee organizations moving forward.
“The cycle of these yearly increases is above the 1.5 per cent of tax increase council has in mind. Last year the national inflation rate was 1.3 per cent. This year as of September it is 0.5 per cent in Alberta. It would be my wish that the town could start a dialogue with the employee organizations to see if there is a willingness to look at ways to find models that can work within the straining budgets we are facing. In closing, it is not my intent to offend people, or to take it out on one particular group or budget item, but to find new, innovative, and fair ways to make and keep our town sustainable, and it would be great if we could all work together towards that same common goal. Where there is a will there is a way.”