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Cochrane town council debate over budget cuts gets testy

Two days of arduous page-by-page examinations and questions to administration last week culminated in council asking them to go back to the drawing board with their Draft 2023 to 2025 Budget, which initially proposed a 7.55 per cent property tax increase.
20211122 Council budget meeting screenshot JL

Rarely heard personal animosities bubbled to the surface among Cochrane town councillors this week as they got into the nitty gritty of difficult cuts in the second week of budget deliberations.

Two days of arduous page-by-page examinations and questions to administration last week culminated in council asking them to go back to the drawing board with their Draft 2023 to 2025 Budget, which initially proposed a 7.55 per cent property tax increase.

At that time, council agreed a target increase somewhere in the range of three to five per cent was more reasonable due to the tough economic times facing residents, and they directed administration to come back with options to achieve that goal.

But on Nov. 21, after another three hours of debate, agreement was a scarce commodity, as council members discussed the newly trimmed-down draft, in which administration had selected areas to reduce the operating budget.

Two councillors expressed their fundamental disapproval of the entire budget process.

The lines were drawn over who’s responsibility it was to identify areas to cut.

Coun. Tara McFadden repeated her stance on a couple of occasions, that it was council’s job – not administration’s – to identify necessary reductions.

McFadden said she was frustrated and had problems with transparency, as she pointed out examples of things that weren’t clear to her from reading the draft budget over the past couple of weeks.

“I don’t think the public has had a chance to understand the overall budget in a fair way, to be able to engage in meaningful feedback,” McFadden said, before adding that she’d prefer another re-do of the budget, with the new document to then be released to the public.

“If council’s just going to tap out and say ‘Administration is the expert,’ there’s pretty much no role for council.” she said.

“I don’t think anyone’s suggesting we tap out,” Mayor Jeff Genung responded, followed immediately by Coun. Alex Reed, who was offended by McFadden’s comment.

“I think the ‘tap out’ comment was vulgar and inappropriate,” Reed said, raising eyebrows among those in council chambers.

McFadden had proposed a freeze in hiring municipal staff, a suspension of a proposed 3.5 per cent cost of living adjustment (COLA) for council and management, and a reduction in training costs. None of those ideas gained any traction.

Later, Coun. Marni Fedeyko raised a concern she had also repeated a few times over the past couple of weeks about a lack of transparency and difficulty in getting answers to her questions.

“This budget process is not transparent at all. If we’re having to ask 45 questions on background, on this (budget) book, on what’s going on within our organization, [then] something has gone wrong,” she said.

She said she wanted council to be “set up for success” when explaining to the public how their tax dollars are being spent, and that is not happening because the budget document isn’t clear or comprehensive enough.

“Right now, this council is taking an ultimate beating in the community – and administration,” she said.

Genung suggested a calming coffee break at that point, reminding everyone that council was working together with a common cause – to arrive at what’s best for the community.

But the appeal to a more collegial atmosphere didn’t last.

Coun. Morgan Nagel, a proponent of allowing administration to do the work of finding areas to cut, took aim at Fedeyko, who, in his view, was going to vote against the budget no matter what.

“To be frank, I feel like a lot of your questions have just been grandstanding and opportunities to find a way to vote against it,” he said.

He accused her of smearing the process with her objections, adding “it hurts me and it hurts everybody in this room.”

Fedeyko stuck to her guns, saying she asked for certain information and hadn’t received it.

“I’ve seen lots of grandstanding from the other way,” she retorted.

In an interview after the meeting, Fedeyko said she wanted to clarify that she was in favour of the new, reduced increase in taxes. It’s just the process she’s opposed to, as well as feeling like she was “called out” for expressing her views.

She pointed to corrections administration had to make over the course of the three days of debate, which made her uneasy.

“If there’s $25,000 in the council budget alone, and there were mistakes made . . . if there’s $25,000 in my section, how do I know there’s not $25,000 in other sections?” she asked.

“This is taxpayers’ money. And when we stop asking questions, we are not doing the job we were elected to, and that concerns me.”

The redrawn draft will feature a reduction of $1.27 million from the operating budget submitted earlier. The bulk of that figure ($751,000) would come from the projected surplus.

The removal of what administration calls ‘low risk/impact items’ accounts for $235,000 in savings, and another $284,000 would be held back by delaying some hires, including one RCMP position, for later in the year than initially planned.

The impact would be to reduce the 2023 monthly property tax increase for an average house in Cochrane from $15.67 (proposed in the first draft) to $7.67, exclusive of utilities.

Dipping into the surplus, along with the new cuts, would bring the proposed 2023 property tax increase to about 3.7 per cent. That would be below the average proposed increase in mid-sized Alberta cities, which currently sits at 5.74 per cent.

In the end, council voted unanimously in support of asking administration to make the suggested changes to the draft and bring it back to Committee of the Whole meeting on Dec. 5. Formal adoption of the budget could then take place at the regular council meeting Dec. 12.

At the end of the debate, observers were left to decide which cuts were the deepest.

Howard May

About the Author: Howard May

Howard was a journalist with the Calgary Herald and with the Abbotsford Times in BC, where he won a BC/Yukon Community Newspaper Association award for best outdoor writing.
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