Editorial: Upcoming budget the toughest task yet for new mayor and council

Although one of them had only officially been in his position for a week as of this past Monday, the date marked five months since the term of this mayor and council began, which amounts to slightly more than 10 per cent of their four-year mandate. In that time, they have resurrected the suspended transit system, at least temporarily, though how viable the bus service is over the long term – or at least whether the price at which it is viable is acceptable to decision-makers and taxpayers – very much remains an open question. They have also ordered the permanent shutdown of the Norplex Pool due to problems that began long before most of them even thought of being city councillors. But as big as those two challenges have been, most likely they are not as significant as one they have been working on since they got into office: preparing a budget for the 2019 fiscal year.

The budget process is one that consists of many, many decisions, most of which will anger one segment of Thompson’s citizenry or another, but also a great deal of spending that is already accounted for and which council has essentially no control over, mainly in the form of employee costs and the contract with the RCMP to provide policing services, as well as payments on past borrowing to cover the cots of capital projects. According to the 2018 financial plan presentation, these three expenses categories accounted for 76 per cent of the projected spending of $31,549,798. These numbers will probably remain much the same in this year’s budget, which means, if mayor and council don’t want to increase spending, that they will have to make up for a likely $1.2 million drop in Vale’s grant-in-lieu contribution, from a discretionary spending budget of approximately $7.6 million, along with just under a million dollars that was socked away into reserves last year, from a combination of a portion of Vale’s $4.8 million grant-in-lieu for 2018 and a reduction of about $470,000 in operating expenses. Since the likely, though not yet confirmed, reduction in Vale’s grant-in-lieu equals about 14 per cent of last year’s spending after employees, RCMP and debenture payments were accounted for, it is little wonder that some councillors are questioning whether the city can afford to subsidize transit services to the extent that is has in the past moving forward.

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It seems unlikely that the mayor and council will be able to present a financial plan, probably sometime late in April, without some kind of a property tax increase, while also cutting back some spending, which will offer taxpayers the unappealing combination of getting less for more. But without discovering some new source of revenue – provincial and federal government grants made up 15 per cent of projected 2018 revenues – it may be preferable to getting the same while paying much more. It will be interesting to see how the city deals with less money to play with – a 2018 provincial grant of $150,000 towards the community safety officer will probably also disappear – at the same time as unexpected new expenses, such as how to fund the construction of a new pool. But whatever the upcoming city budget looks like, Mayor Colleen Smook and the now-eight councillors who work with her can be forgiven if the first half of their first year holding the reins of power has felt a bit like a trial by fire.

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