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If judged solely by how its first meeting went, the new city council is already off to a much better start in the 2019 budget deliberations than its predecessors had last year.
Council unanimously passed the 2019 water and wastewater budget on Thursday without much fuss or disagreement. This stands in stark contrast to last year, where the water budget failed to pass four times over the course of two meetings before a fifth compromise finally stuck. The ordeal turned out to be a harbinger for the rest of the painfully long and divisive 2018 budget process that would follow.
The new council under the leadership of Mayor Bernadette Clement is hoping to have the budget passed much more quickly than in years past, and if subsequent meetings continue to go as smoothly as Thursday, its members might be able to pull it off.
Of course, the difference between this year and last was that the proposed water and sewer rate increase for 2019 was 4.07 per cent, rather than the 7.6 per cent presented to last year’s council. That is still quite a bit larger than the 1.43 per cent increase passed in 2017, but nevertheless, everyone on council was able to accept it.
“It’s very clear to me that this is a budget we should be passing today,” said Coun. Carilyne Hebert. “With the backlog we have, we can’t afford to be cutting back the budget anymore.”
During the budget presentation, infrastructure general manager John St. Marseille and chief financial officer Tracey Bailey explained there is currently a 67-kilometre backlog of water mains that require repairs or replacement totalling $38-million. The backlog is a result, they said, of “historical underspending” from the city.
“Now we are breaking that cycle. This is a no-brainer,” beamed Hebert.
A four per cent rate increase for water and sewer services will cost the average residential user an additional $25 to $36 per year. Councillors agreed this was a fair increase for a single year, with Coun. Claude McIntosh challenging anyone who felt four per cent is too much to offer a better idea.
“We wouldn’t be doing ourselves any favours if we came in with a zero or one per cent increase. These systems need to be maintained,” he said. “If anyone thinks four per cent is too high, I would like to know what they propose to cut.”
Coun. Dean Hollingsworth said a zero per cent rate increase would be great in an ideal world, but noted that if the city shirked its responsibility to maintain the water system it would be opening itself up to lawsuits if something went wrong. Coun. Glen Grant, meanwhile, joked his coffee buddies would be criticizing him for raising taxes within a week of taking office but still said the increase was a sensible one.
Hollingsworth moved council accept the budget without any changes and the motion was approved unanimously.
With the first of many department budgets done without much fuss, Clement congratulated the council and administration.
“I must say I’m impressed with council; there were many good questions. It was a bit of a long meeting, but I think we flushed everything out,” quipped the mayor, her pun causing groans around the council chamber.