Taking into consideration the current Alberta economic situation, Stettler County council struggled with tough financial decisions at their Dec. 9 meeting.
While smaller decisions like approving the purchase of two graders this year instead of 2016 to realize a $40,000 savings, or deciding to hold wage increases to zero per cent were approved easily, however grappling with the decision to construct a new public works shop and administration building wasn’t so easy.
As well, what to do about the old public works shop, which has needed extensive repairs to meet code for the past two years, has councillors divided.
Air quality, fire code issues and the possibility of mold in the walls means upgrades could cost upwards of $1 million.
CAO Tim Fox requested council’s direction on whether council wished to pay for a more thorough assessment on the building’s condition.
“We have to know,” declared Coun. Dave Grover, indicating the building condition has to be available for potential buyers.
Council could not reach a consensus, delaying a decision until January.
Because the economy is driving down construction costs, council is considering moving ahead with both phases of the new shop and administration building rather than just the shop.
A straw pole saw all but one councillor, Dave Grover, prefer to go ahead with construction of both at once rather than separately. Coun. Joe Gendre preferred both if a clear cost benefit existed.
The cost for the shop alone is pegged at $5.4 million and the office building $4.4 million. Including the site and engineering fees of $700,000, the total for both is $10.5 million.
According to a County of Stettler memo included in the agenda package, factoring in the use of reserves, favourable construction costs, a low interest rate for borrowing and the sale of the existing property, the cost savings support proceeding with both buildings.
Council requested that administration bring back further cost comparisons before they make a decision. Coun. Greggory Jackson summed up the debate by requesting that councillors be prepared to make a final decision in January.
“The minister expects some kind of recommendation to make that community viable,” explained Linda Reynolds, Municipal Affairs Chairperson for the Botha Viability Review Team during her visit to council. Reynolds was outlining the possible outcomes from the review and requirements expected of the review team, of which the county is a part.
Reynolds fielded a number of questions from councillors about the review, specifically what options the county has if the review team finds Botha not viable. Stettler County would shoulder the responsibility for the village if Botha chooses dissolution.
Reynolds strongly recommended that Botha conduct an infrastructure audit. The village is eligible for a $150,000 grant to conduct the audit, which does not have to be repaid if the village remains viable. The audit will provide a clearer picture of the actual, financial state of the village.
2016 draft budget
Councillors listened, took notes and asked questions of department heads as each presented their wishlist for the 2016 budget at the Dec. 14 draft budget meeting.
Councillors sharpened their scissors to chop items to reduce the $922,206 deficit of the $28,340,633 budget. They also eyed using reserves to make up differences.
A few highlights from the presentations were Fire Chief Mark Dennis’ report that the department is down to eight from 12 volunteer firefighters. Dennis is hoping to attract new recruits with the offer of training, which is free for recruits.
The recreation budget will undergo some scrutiny in the new year with possible changes to the criteria groups must meet when applying for grants.
Water fill stations were well used in 2015 and generated higher revenue than predicted, likely due to the dry weather. Upgraded systems for Endiang and Byemoor stations were on the wishlist, which would put them on the same system as other stations.
All departments are attempting to reduce costs due to anticipated revenue shortfall.