The MD of Bighorn administration building in Exshaw.File Photo/Rocky Mountain Outlook

The MD of Bighorn passed its 2024 tax rate and it comes with a big price tag to address staffing challenges.

Residents will see a 4.3 per cent increase on their tax bills next year after council passed Bighorn’s budget Tuesday (Dec. 12). For the average residential home assessed at $700,000, it means a $4.70 increase monthly or a $56.42 increase annually.

A one per cent increase represents about $75,000, or about $20 annually for ratepayers. Likewise, a one per cent increase in utilities is about $10,000, or $19 for ratepayers. Utility rates, however, are being held in anticipation of an MD utility rate review next year.

For Bighorn to maintain its current level of services and meet growing needs, the budget requires $8.058 million in property taxes in 2024 – an increase of $319,390 from 2023. Among the increases are to fill three vacant positions and nine new staffing positions in 2024 across various departments with salaries and benefits totalling about $800,000.

The draft operating plan puts 2024 expenses at $14.1 million, with the majority spent on staff salaries and wages at $5.94 million.

New positions include a manager and supervisor of engineering and infrastructure, three new positions under corporate and community services, a building code officer and three new firefighters to address shortages within the MD.

Some of the key positions that have been identified by the MD’s recent organizational review and human resources and governance audits include a human resources position, deputy fire chief and a communications professional.

“That’s been identified not just by studies but as well in engagement reviews with employees as a consideration,” said Bighorn CAO Shaina Tutt, who noted the MD is still working through recommendations of the organizational review. “We know roughly where we need to utilize staff.”

Coun. Jen Smith, whose husband captains Exshaw Fire-Rescue, said while she understands the shortages within fire services, approving three new positions without first revisiting levels of service feels like “putting the cart before the horse.”

There are about 50 paid on-call firefighters across three stations in Exshaw, and the Ghost River and Jamieson Road areas. The MD’s director of protective services, fire chief Andrew Box, recently presented fire response data to Bighorn’s governance and priorities committee during discussions of its fire services risk assessment. He indicated the MD had four on-paid call firefighters an average 69 per cent of the time from October 2020-23.

Without support from municipal staff who are also employed by Exshaw Fire, the MD is without a full crew of four firefighters 31 per cent of the time.

“To know that a lot of the times the only firefighters available for Exshaw Fire during the day are coming from our MD staff, which is also running at capacity … we’re kind of creating two deficits. When you wear too many hats, it feels like you can never do one thing really well,” said Reeve Lisa Rosvold.

Full-time firefighters would give the MD the ability to better service areas currently serviced by Canmore through its fire agreement, including Dead Man’s Flats, Lac Des Arcs and Harvie Heights, as well as the capacity to address staff shortages.

At the suggestion of Coun. Alice James to wait until 2025 to bring on the new positions, Box urged the need to hire a full-time crew if it is to successfully negotiate a better deal in its Intermunicipal Collaboration Framework with Canmore at the end of 2024.

“That’s why the timeline was presented as suggested, was to go to the community of Canmore and say, ‘this is what Bighorn has done,’” he said.

“There are no cost savings to answer Coun. Smith’s comment. The cost we’re paying for this year’s contract is about 1.5 firefighters. So, you’re gonna have a double cost but you’re then controlling that investment back into your municipality rather than paying for an agreement we’ve already identified as highly inflationary and not delivering good value for dollars.”

Tutt said the MD has identified the need to review levels of service and suggested a resolution to have a discussion by spring 2024 to determine whether the firefighter positions would be approved by council. The resolution was supported by council and moved in a motion by Smith.

Rosvold noted the budget also includes a plan for a potential feasibility study for a fire station in Dead Man’s Flats in 2024 at $100,000 was only discussed informally by council, among several other capital projects and staffing changes included in the budget.

“Some of the initiatives that we haven’t talked about as council, it feels funny for me to approve items that are identified as initiatives before council has talked about it.

“In the past, or how I’ve always read a budget, is if it’s passed those initiatives have passed,” she said, adding it might mislead ratepayers into also thinking all the projects included are approved.

“It’s not clear to me and I’ve been here for six years, so it’s definitely not clear to the public.”

She also argued the potential need for staff to support recommendations coming out of the MD’s revised recreation master plan and an upcoming trails master plan.

Coun. Rick Tuza said he agreed with the reeve, but added it’s also been an “unusually” busy year for MD staff.

“What I’d like to see in the future is when we ask for one of these studies to be done, and we get recommendations coming out of it, that we actually have a council [strategic planning session] or a special council meeting coming out of these reports, and then plan a path together, rather than hearing about it at a budget time because that’s where it kind of catches us off guard,” he said.

“[It] makes sense, but we haven’t had the discussion about it. I think that’s the piece we’re missing.”

Tutt said administration will better coordinate quarterly strategic planning sessions for 2024 acknowledging the need to allow more time for council discourse before budget discussions.

The MD’s budget looks to spend $15.95 million in capital in 2024. From 2024-28, the MD is forecasting spending of $49.58 million, with much of that coming from its $18 million in reserves. From 2024 to 2028, reserves are expected to drop from $10.256 million to $5.917 million in 2028.

The MD will need to focus on raising off-site levies, especially for road and fire projects, to offset anticipated capital costs in the five-year plan, Brenda Hewko, Bighorn’s director of corporate and community services noted.

“For context, when we think about the MD having $115 million in actual assets right now, that means there’s a lot of work coming should everything unfold the way we’re contemplating it to unfold,” she said.

New projects include $50,000 in 2024 to investigate flood mitigation in Harvie Heights and $450,000 through grants in 2025 to fund any resulting work, $30,000 in 2024 for council meeting IT improvements, $50,000 for records management and $20,000 for cybersecurity costs.

The budget also allocates $40,000 for IT and other equipment to support a potential new deputy fire chief position and $31,000 to connect all three of the MD’s fire stations to Starlink internet.

Also in 2024, $210,000 from a combination of grant funding and reserves will go toward raising the Exshaw Wastewater Treatment Lagoon exfiltration cell.

“We have a lot of groundwater infiltration coming in from east Exshaw. We’ve had a couple uncontrolled releases when the lagoon can’t handle that inflow,” said Bill Luka, director of engineering and infrastructure services, noting this occurred in 2012 and again during the 2020 groundwater flooding event. “It’s in contravention to our approval and licences so this would be to raise the cell and to modify the concrete structure as well.”

An additional overflow basin is planned for the lagoon in 2026 at $380,000 from grant funding and reserves.

Not being funded by reserves but by long-term loans and grants is a long-awaited operations shop delayed by a decades-long land swap with the province which was completed earlier this year.

The new operations building, originally budgeted at $6.2 million, requires another $5.55 million in 2025 due to the increase in building costs. Also outside the MD’s control are third-party costs for services such as RCMP at $240,000, up from $158,381 in 2023.

Other costs include continued Jura Creek flood mitigation work of $200,000 in 2024, $6.27 million in 2025 and $100,000 in 2016. The bulk of the spending for 2025 is in coordination with Alberta Transportation to work on the south side of the highway, going underneath the CP Rail tracks, explained Tutt.

“Just to clarify, this is an Alberta Transportation project, primarily, and we are assisting through doing the project management. Any invoices paid are reimbursed by Alberta Transportation for this portion of the project,” she said. “There are no taxpayer dollars going into this project aside from any staff time that is allocated to assist with it.”

Council also authorized the placement of order, due to lead time requirements for vehicle equipment including a solid waste garbage truck in 2025 ($300,000), a hook lift for the roads department in 2025 ($240,000), and for fire services, a bush buggy in 2026 (385,000) and a replacement tender for another bush buggy in 2025 ($650,000).

By Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Dec 18, 2023 at 17:19

This item reprinted with permission from   Rocky Mountain Outlook   Canmore, Alberta

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