© Scott Anderson
Swift Current Mayor Jerrod Schafer refers to the 2014 city budget with the theme We're On Our Way during the March 17 City Council meeting.
The average Swift Current homeowner will pay an additional $6.67 per month in property taxes after Swift Current City Council unanimously approved their 2014 Budget.
Council approved an overall 9.2 per cent increase in property taxes in order to generate an additional $2.4 million in taxation from what was approved last year. Swift Current's overall budget of $67,179,596 is an increase from the $64.7 million budget in 2013.
A breakdown of the numbers shows the City approved a 6.9 per cent increase, or an additional $5 per month on average, in order to maintain and improve civic services. An additional 2.3 per cent increase was approved for capital projects, with the average household paying an extra $1.67 per month towards capital projects.
The budget is an additional step in the city's newly approved Strategic Plan, which includes a target of reaching 25,000 residents by the year 2025.
"Obviously growth is our message going forward," Schafer said following Monday's City Council meeting.
"We want to send a really clear message that we're going to shift the way we think around here. We want to grow the population. We want the benefits that come with growth - the increased amenities, the lower cost for providing services in our community for more people using them, the benefits to organizations like the Broncos and Indians, and users of culture and arts."
In the area of Capital Projects, a series of targeted projects were approved in order to enhance the lifestyles of current residents and help attract new residents and businesses. The largest expenditure is $2.1 million to upgrade and rehabilitate roads, intersections and sidewalks. A portion of that funding will including dollars for an engineering report regarding the 2nd Avenue Overpass Bridge which will allow the city to evaluate future upgrades and rehabilitation to the structure. However this year's road and sidewalk spending is down sharply from the $3.7 million investment approved in the 2013 budget.
Other investment areas include $990,000 to enhance city recreational facilities including Kinetic Park, the iPlex, and the Aquatic facilities. Funding has again been set aside to complete the schematic designs for the Integrated Facility, with the final plans helping to create a document that will attract investors, sponsorships and grants.
Other capital project expenditures include:
- A final investment of $309,000 will be made on a Rescue Pumper truck for the Swift Current Fire Department to replace one outdated unit.
- A total of $150,000 will be spent on improvements at the Chinook Golf Course.
- $123,000 invested into city cultural facilities.
- $100,000 for a second accessibility structure in the Centennial school playground.
- $150,000 for improvements at the ACT accessibility park.
- an $80,000 investment to complete the survey portion of the Business Retention and Expansion Initiative survey.
Tim Marcus, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer/Chief Financial Officer highlighted that a few main areas impacted on this year's budget to budget increases.
While operating expenses are up $4 million, $1.4 million of that total is associated with the Light and Power utility's increased cost of purchasing electricity.
The other major area was in the fiscal services category, which includes the City's borrowed money in 2013, with this budget area growing from $2.1 million to $3.1 million.
"That's strictly the principle and interest associated with the money we borrowed," Marcus explained.
Schafer noted that other communities across the province have approved or are approving tax hikes. And while Swift Current's increase is more significant percentage wise, the city still boasts the lowest municipal taxes in Saskatchewan compared to other provincial centres. When comparing an average 1,600 square foot home, less than five years old, with an assessed value near $400,000, Swift Current's estimated 2014 taxes are $1,483, compared to $2,217 in Saskatoon and $2,618 in Regina.
"We're unique in the sense that we're trying to change our strategy a little bit, which makes the job a little tougher for us."
Schafer did concede that a number of cuts were made from the original budget draft. A total of $18.43 million in capital expenditures were approved in the 2014 budget, a decrease from the $19.9 million approved in last year's budget.
"We've cut more out of our capital budget this year than we have in any other budget that I've been a part of," he said.
"There's a lot of things that we cut out of this budget that some may suggest is a want, and not a need in our community. But some would also suggest that they improve the quality of life in Swift Current. So it's a tough balancing act, but I think we're happy with the efficiencies that we're seeking and we'll continue to see."
While giving unanimous approval to the budget, all councillors were excited about the changes occurring in Swift Current and their ambitious strategic plan is fuelling their enthusiasm to grow the community.
"Budgets are always tough. Tax increases are always tough. But you have to change the way you're doing things if you expect different results. And we expect different results - we're going to grow the city. So we have to change the way that we've been budgeting, we have to change the way we've been planning, and we have to set some goals and work really hard to achieve them," explained Councillor Pat Friesen.
She reflected that as a member of the Swift Current Chamber of Commerce in the late 80s and early 90s they had a different focus than what exists today.
"At that time our focus was on how can we retain the people that we have and the businesses that we have. We weren't worried about trying to grow the city, we were just so concerned that we were going to lose more people," she said.
Deputy Mayor Ryan Plewis admitted there were lengthy discussions during budget deliberations and the number crunching was a difficult process.
"For me I think this was one of the more difficult budgets that I've been through as well in my two terms. But I also want to add that I think that this was probably one of the most enjoyable and rewarding budget experiences that I've been through as well. We made some significant steps in how we're doing things as a council and an administrative team," Plewis said.
With the direction of the budget tying to their strategic goals, he said their decisions are intended to make Swift Current the best place to live with a vibrant and growing population as they aim to grow to 25,000 population by 2025.
"I refuse to propose this apologetically. This was a target that wasn't reached accidentally, and it wasn't reached because we thought 25 by 25 sounded cute. It's something that was very intentional, and something that I think that we can and will achieve."
"There's lots of planning about how we're going to get there. But if we don't set a target, you're never going to hit it."
"There's a lot of detail in how we're going to hit that target. But the most important thing we can do right now is actually set that target we want to hit. I'd rather be accused of being optimistic than not being able, or willing, to set a target for this community. I think that would be a real failing of this council."
Councillor Denis Perrault was also excited about the growth groundwork being pursued in this budget.
"What we're trying to look forward to is growth. We're trying to look to the future. You heard the term 25 in 25, although aggressive it's reasonable. And it's definitely something that's founded. It's founded in a little better than two per cent growth on where we're currently sitting based on Health Cards. I feel excited about that. I think that's something to look forward to. It's a vision. Part of having a vision is looking broader than just the next year. It's looking at the next 10 or 20."
Perrault said operational efficiencies were, and will continue to be, a focus by city council and administration.
"That's one thing that's been tasked to our management team by this council is to look for efficiencies throughout all of our departments and trying to find ways that we can do things right and do things best."
He also highlighted Swift Current's 2014 budget contains no new Full Time Equivalent employee additions.
"What that means is our administration is tasked to find efficiencies, and they're tasked to do that while maintaining the current amount of a workforce that they have. So I challenge them to that. I look forward to hearing some of the ideas and the innovations that are going to be coming forward in managing these assets," Perrault said.
Councillor George Bowditch said the budget shows a lot of community pride.
"If we don't grow we're going to just stagnate. We have to grow this community. I think we've got a plan that's going to do it in a responsible way that's going to give us the opportunity."
Councillor Ron Toles was pleased with the final draft of the budget, noting council had to make both hard choices and smart decisions.
"Some of the choices we had to make were hard. There were things that we all agreed we need, but can't afford. There were things we all agreed that are expensive but we have to have. So we had to make those hard choices and smart decisions."
"We sent back our initial budget and said 'This will not do. Go back and fix it, cut it, make it better.'… 'you need to find a better way to do more with less.'"
Councillor Gord Budd, who was involved in his 10th budget process, said this one backs up their desire for growth with action.
"I hate to say it, but I think this is probably the first real budget that I've seen in those 10 years that coincides with a really good strategic plan."
"We're making some tough decisions with our strategic plan and with this budget. It's going to cost people more money to live in Swift Current than what it has in the past. It's a simple as that. But we can not keep putting off the inevitable for years and years. If we had done something like this a number of years ago, we'd be so far ahead of things."
"This is a turn around year for us," Budd said. "It'll be a tough budget, I think, again next year, but you're going to see some light in the tunnel next year. I think we're right at the edge right now."
"We're going to look back on this in a few years and say that was the right thing to do."