County looking at breaking even with 2014 budget

‘This budget, the way it’s presented right now, shows a built in surplus” Charlie Cutforth

After Ponoka County councillors approved the 2014 budget, March 25, council is looking at breaking even for the upcoming budget year.

As councillors examined the budget line by line, they ended with an estimated $30.7 million in revenues and the same $30.7 million in expenditures. However, when it comes to approved donations, there’s always a chance every dollar won’t be granted, which is just one area a surplus could arise from.

Taxes

Council is estimating an increase in revenue from taxes this year. 2013 budget envisaged about $23.6 million, and when just over $24 million came in, it led to an estimated increase of $24.7 million.

County CAO Charlie Cutforth recommended council leave tax rates alone. Although he feels this can lead to fear of a hike in the future rather than council slowly increasing taxes, he says there’s no concern.

“This budget, the way it’s presented right now, shows a built in surplus,” he explained. Cutforth doesn’t see why, with 2013 reserves totaling more than $1 million, taxes would need to increase.

Revenue streams

One of the revenue streams Cutforth and the councillors are most concerned about is drilling permits, which is calculated by Alberta Municipal Affairs. After 2013 saw $700,833 coming in, council is budgeting for $600,000 to remain conservative. “This is the one that’s a risk from year to year,” Cutforth said.

Dust control is one of the biggest concerns for county residents and $30,000 is being allocated to manage problem. “Dust control is the biggest complaint we get, over anything else,” said Cutforth.

The plan remains that council will run one subsidized pass over county roads where private dust control is needed. If residents want another pass in front of their property, they’ll have to pay for the service themselves.

Cutforth added there are special cases where, if traffic from a corporate operation is kicking up a lot of dust, they’ll be asked to pay for the road to be done again, which they’re usually happy to do. If it’s county roadwork or something similar making extra dust, the county will do more dust control with its own funds.

After raking more in penalties and costs than estimated last year, the budget is jumping from $95,000 to $100,000 after $110,026 was collected via the two penalties the county levies per year on unpaid taxes. Cutforth says the penalties remain high to deter people from not paying. “We don’t want to be people’s bank.”

Programs and county dues

While it doesn’t look like MSI finding was cut back, several grants and funding programs are no longer available including the Gas Tax Rebate grant and the Summer Temporary Employment Program grant. The loss of these grants results in a  $489,100 reduction in funds for the county.

Alongside the increased dues and fees for the memberships and conventions the Ponoka County participates in such as Alberta Association of Municipal District and Counties, the per diems and benefits of councillors also increased.

Although it wasn’t made official at the budget meeting, council agreed that pulling out of their Central Alberta Economic Partnership (CAEP) membership is a likely course of action for the near future. “Let’s pull out of that. I’m not interested,” said Reeve Paul McLauchlin.

Cutforth feels the previous council was “embarrassed” into the membership after pressure put them in a mindset that they couldn’t turn down CAEP without first experiencing them.

Council felt central Alberta isn’t struggling as a whole and the membership money would be best spent jointly with the town to drive the Town of Ponoka and Ponoka County’s economic stability.

Donations

Donations in the budget were another item for lengthy discussion at the council. After intense exchanges, it was decided that, if plans could be produced showing other funding and the other conditions were met, $1 million will be available for the Rimbey AGRIM Centre to help get the building to a usable state.

During donation discussions, Coun. Doug Weir, who also sits on the PAECS board, brought up a request for the organization. PAECS wants to construct a covered walkway between the main building and the barn for high-end equestrian competitors and their horses. This was also deferred to 2015.

However, $15,000 is available to PAECS for an electronic sign to sit along Highway 2A, as long as conditions are met.

The request from the Rimbey Junior/Senior High School for their track and multi-use field project was left out of this year’s budget as Cutforth didn’t feel the project would move far enough along to warrant the donation.

Coun. Mark Matejka was concerned with the request for $2,000. “The direction or the need for that facility is in question.”

He also wanted to move cautiously with the $15,000 donation marked for the Klaglahachie Fine Arts Society, as it would be used for more seating in their main venue, the Ponoka United Church. Matejka was wary of funneling money into a private and denominational organization building.

The money will be granted on the condition matching the town donates matching funds.

Liberty Hall is also requesting another $200,000; council has, to date, funded them $140,000. Councillors decided they would commit to 25 per cent of the request but before a cheque would be cut, the hall would have to come up with the other $150,000.

The Ponoka Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters is receiving $10,000. However, in a new process, the money will be available to them through Ponoka FCSS rather than coming directly from the county so as to ensure better control and distribution of the funds.

Donations for Rimbey’s Speedway are being deferred to 2015 as council feels, since it’s already operating, it’s a lower priority for them at this time.