Budget 2015: Council discusses core services at budget meeting

Trent Ernst, Editor


While the first few budget meetings saw Council dreaming about things they wanted to see added to the budget, they’ve started sharpening their pencils to see what they can keep and what they have to lose to stay on budget this year.

Council was joined by accountant Clive Freundlich, who has been helping the District with their finances for the last couple of years. Freundlich says, despite the current situation, Tumbler Ridge is one of the healthiest municipalities he has worked with, with a $20.8 million surplus. Other municipalities, he says, may have a ten million dollar surplus, but also have a ten million dollar debt load.

Moving forward, though, he says the biggest challenge for Tumbler Ridge will be asset management. “That’s what our core services is all about,” says Freundlich. “Each of those departments are maintaining and protecting the capital assets.”

The trouble is, he says, the community was all built at the same time, and things are starting to wear out at the same rate. “You are now a thirty year old community and things are starting to show their wear. Someday soon, you’ll have to go out and start replacing sewer lines, for instance.”

Mayor McPherson asks about the $20.8-million surplus. “We’re not here to make money,” he says. “Will people say ‘you’re taxing too much, look at all this money you’ve set aside.’?”

Freundlich says no. Most of that money is earmarked for large projects. “You’re protecting your infrastructure. Yes, there are grants but you need to have a plan going forward. This building was built to last 60 years. You have 30 years left; if you don’t take care of it, it might only last 40 years. But if you continue to do maintenance on it, it might last another thirty years. But you’ll take a hit when you have to rebuild that.”

Because there is no asset management plan in place, Freundlich can’t provide a definitive answer as to how long it will last, but he knows that if the District does not come up with an asset management plan to tie together with those funds that have been set aside, there will be. Because while the District has a surplus of cash, it is running an infrastructure deficit.

Councillor Caisley asks for definition of infrastructure.

Doug Beale says the District has 41 km of roads to maintain. “That’s part of it. Sidewalks, water, sewer, and everything required to maintain that is also part of infrastructure. Most of it is underground or in buildings. Curbs gutters, street lights, street lamps, drainage system, fleet and buildings make up much of the rest.”

Freundlich says it costs the District three million per year to keep on top of that, and keep things working. As Council moves forward with budgeting, they need to determine what mill rate needs to be set to maintain the same amount of income as last year. While the mines are still paying taxes, the District has lost three million in revenues from utilities.

“When there are big changes in assessment, there is disparity and you get a lot of people complaining,” he says. “We can’t control that. That’s BC Assessment. We can shift how much we make from each class, but we can’t change the amount of tax per property. One of the areas you’ll be looking at is class rate ratio. There’s a nine to one ratio between utility and residential. When you lose property in that class, it’s a big hit. Fortunately, there’s been growth in major industrial.”

Freundlich says he’s asked each of the department heads to come in and speak to what their department does, and why it is part of the Core Budget.

Barry Elliott starts, His budget items are General Government, which is broken into two categories. Legislative Services is all of Council expenses, from travel to and from conferences to the cost of running elections. The second category is administration, which covers the costs of running administration of the District. Most of the costs here are staffing costs, but also includes things like the costs for discussion with legal counsel, a section for special project contingencies, like the multi-cultural fair. One of the line-items is for the Tumbler Ridge Library.

Elliott says they have been facing challenges around resources. “Our staff is stretched thin,” he says. “Miss Torraville has been looking after Community Centre for the last few months, which means she has less time to do her job here.” He says outdated bylaws are a challenge, and they are focusing staff efforts on updating those. And of course, everything flows through administration at some point in time.

Within the overall HR budget, which is about $4-million, there have been a number of changes in this year’s budget, says Elliott. “I have allocated an additional amount for our grant writer tentatively to equate to full time hours. In the past, the grant writer’s contract was simply to look at requests from outside the District itself, but in the last couple of years, it’s been more District-related grants. I see an opportunity to exploit that. We also have the budget for full-time support person for Economic Development Officer. Finally, there has been some additional funds put in for more front line staff at the Community Centre, especially janitorial, as there’s a new building coming on stream.”

Elliott says they are still looking for people to look after the Golf Course; there have been three expressions of interest after the Request for Proposal went out. “However, I have taken the liberty to make sure there is sufficient funds in there to operate, if need be. We’ve had to make allowances to make sure our facilities are up and operating.”

Chris Leggett, Finance Manager says his department is responsible for the day-to-day working of the District, and controls how tax dollars are used. The department manages, records and reports 14 million to 15 million annually in 2700 different line items. “Just to give you a sense of that,” he says, It takes three to four hours every two weeks to run the paycheques.”

His secondary function is IT support. He responds to 10 to 15 IT inquiries per week. On top of that, as finance manager he receives 25-35 emails and three to four phone calls a day. It is a diverse job (he says his job description was five pages long), and it is a challenge to meet everything in a timely fashion. The department’s biggest hurdle is outdated equipment and policies. The purchasing policy, for instance, hasn’t been updated since 2003. “We run a 15 million corporation, yet still use a paper based system,” he says. “It’s like using a carrier pigeon instead of an email. Some documents still refer to accounts with the Royal Bank in Tumbler Ridge, which hasn’t been here for nearly two decades.”

Doug Beale says that of all the departments, Public Works has one of the largest budgets and is responsible for much of the infrastructure. “You name it, Public Works looks after it.” Part of that, he says are legislative requirements. “We are responsible for what we discharge; we are responsible to deliver clean water.”

Other core areas under this department are the airport, trails in community, and horticulture like hanging baskets, which will be increasing this year with the new Visitor Information Centre and plans to do more with the RV park.

He says this year, they are trying to focus more on core services. “Historically we’ve been reactive,” says Beale. “We wait until it breaks then fix it. Our asset management needs to pick up. Need to keep track of it and maintain it. We’ve started, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Over the last few years, Public Works has had a lot of work on capital projects. While this seems like a good thing, says Beale, it’s not. “Putting in playgrounds takes away from asphalt maintenance. It’s a challenge to keep up. I’ve got over 27 employees at peak season. I want to focus on critical infrastructure as we move forward.

“One of the doctrines I’m just about complete is scheduled maintenance. That will be done soon. It gives us a schedule, so that we know this week what we’re going to be doing. That’s what we need to get to. It’s been a challenge. In the time I’ve been with the district, we’ve made a lot of improvements to the way public work operates.”

Jordan Wall says the Economic Development Department is more than just economic development. It would be better called Community and Economic Development, he says. “It’s more than just the dollars and cents,” he says. “It’s about marketing Tumbler Ridge, both internally and externally.”

A big portion of his job is to work with projects coming through town: coal, wind, etc., and deliver to them the information that they can make the decision to invest in TR.

Another big portion of his job is working on worker transition, and making sure the levels of services provided to locals who are trying to find work is adequate.

And at least ten to 15 hours per week are spent in meetings with groups around the community.

He says one of the biggest challenges he faces is simply organizing all the information. “This position was vacant for about a year before me,” he says. “There is such a large gap and with the staff turnover, there’s a lot of work that might have been done that nobody knows it’s there. Because there’s such a significant rift, there’s a lot of work. Because of that, there are deficiencies that need to be worked on.”

Other challenges include an outdated land sales policy and economic diversification. “By definition, diversification is getting into something you aren’t good at,” he says. “That’s tough.”

Aleen Torraville speaks to the community centre, which she has been looking after for much of the past year. This includes the aquatic centre, weight room and recreational programming. “The goal of recreation services is to provide a wide range of recreational activities to residents,” she says. “The biggest challenges: there’s no director there, so I’m between two places. I can’t be here when there is no director there.”

She says there’s been a reduction in hours in operation as there’s not as much traffic with the turn down in the community.

Ken Klikach became the Building Service Manager at the beginning of the year. “I have more people now,” he says. “There are 32 employees at the rec centre, and 17 of those people are under my direction. It’s the most sophisticated building in town.”

He says there have been some training issues. People were trained ten years ago, but in that time, the procedures and infrastructure has changed completely. “There’s a new ice plant, a new heating system. There is a need for training for people to operate these things.”

He looks after 14 buildings in town, as well as lighting. He is responsible for making up contracts, RFPs and interpreting bylaws for people that continues even on Sunday. “I get calls at home from people in Grande Prairie asking what type of material they can use for their deck.”

He says the Visitor Centre will hopefully be done by April 30, but there is about $230,000 in additional costs being debated right now.

And that, says Freundlich, covers core services, which has a budget of about $9-million. “There are lots of challenges,” he says, “but that’s normal.”