City coffers face infrastructure backlog

Tyler Clarke
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Mayor Greg Dionne is seen in his office near the end of the year -- a time he said will be a turning point for a city council entering its second year. 

Those receiving municipal tax notices in the new year will see another increase, Mayor Greg Dionne said -- an increase that’s “probably going to be very small.”


Looking forward to 2014, Dionne notes that the city still faces a massive underground infrastructure backlog that has recently been estimated at $71 million.

“This is accumulation of years of not funding the program to do the upgrades, so it’s not one council’s problem, it was probably 10 councils’ problem,” he said.

There are pipes in the ground that are more than 100 years old, he said, noting that although some have held up for more than a century, they won’t last forever.

They have to be tackled now, because the cost of doing nothing has proven more damaging than biting the financial bullet early on.

In 1990 the backlog was $11 million, Dionne said. By 2007 it was $23 million -- a number now dwarfed by the current backlog of $71 million.

“What was a killer for us is -- and this is the killer -- in 1990, to do a repair of an average block, it was $40,000 a block,” Dionne said of installing new underground pipe systems.

“In 2007, the average block grew to almost $82,000. Now, in 2013, that block is now $150,000.

“That’s why it is important that we work with our partners in both the provincial and federal government to attack these problems.”

During their first year, the city’s elected officials introduced a new base tax to take on paving projects, effectively doubling the annual paving program to $4 million.

The base tax amounted to $189 for residential property owners and a higher, variable rate for commercial properties.

Pending an unlikely motion of council, this base tax will remain in place, Dionne said.

Last year also saw utility rates jump by 10.4 per cent, and the city’s elected officials tentatively agree to subsequent increases of 9.2 per cent, 8.9 per cent and 8.9 per cent between 2014 and 2016 -- a decision that will also face review in the new year.

“I think that the most exciting part of my job is that I have a council that is willing to tackle all these headaches, and that they realize that if we don’t start dealing with them today, what will be the cost to the next council -- as you can see, they grow,” Dionne said.

Unlike the 2013 budget process, wherein the city’s elected officials cut very few items and instead tacked on new expenses, the 2014 budget process will see the re-examination of status quo budget items, Dionne said.

I think that the most exciting part of my job is that I have a council that is willing to tackle all these headaches, and that they realize that if we don’t start dealing with them today, what will be the cost to the next council -- as you can see, they grow. Greg Dionne

“Leading into the budget process last year, we booked the Friday and Saturday. Well, this year I think we’ve had seven or eight dates already that we met for four or five hours doing the base budget.”

These base budget meetings have seen the city’s elected officials review every budget item with city administration line by line during private meetings.

“I was on council for nine years before I got the mayor’s job, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve learned by going through the base budget,” Dionne said, noting that this has been a first for council -- at least in the last 10 years.

City council has also met with the unions for pre-bargaining meetings, which Dionne said is also a first.

In addition, the mayor has high expectations that incoming city manager Jim Toye will bring additional cost-savings measures.

As city manager of North Battleford, Toye has made a name for himself in his professional field for grouping cities together in order to gain cost-savings through group packaging.

For example, Dionne said that North Battleford managed to save $90,000 in the purchase of a new fire truck through by packaging the purchase with other cities.

“Those are big dollars,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s only half a street when it comes to infrastructure, but every penny counts.”

Between the base tax review and contract negotiations, the city’s already well underway in finding efficiencies, Dionne said.

Earlier this year, the city signed a new contract that will see next year’s natural gas bill drop by about $400,000 below last year’s.

The city also requested each department reduce their fuel and energy costs by 15 per cent, each, the result of which council will review in the new year.

Although base budget discussions have been taking place behind closed doors thus far, Dionne said that final budget decisions will still take place in a public forum -- meetings the Daily Herald will attend and report on.

With Toye set to start his work as city manager on Jan. 2, Dionne said that the 2014 budget process will be delayed in getting to the public.

Organizations: Daily Herald

Geographic location: North Battleford

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