Council looking at ways to trim operating budget

Duane Hicks

Faced with a tough budget this year, town council and administration gave the go-ahead to some initiatives while also discussing possible cutbacks in the 2009 operating budget during a special four-hour meeting here Monday.
Council deferred possible reductions in summer hours for recreation facilities and at the Sorting Gap Marina, sending the matter back to the Community Services executive committee for review.
Trimming back hours, such as opening the marina later in the day and closing the Memorial Sports Centre on weekends (times when neither facility is busy during the summer months), would save the town several thousand dollars, Community Services manager George Bell noted.
Bell said summer hours always has been an issue at the Memorial Sports Centre, and that closing the doors at 7 p.m. on Fridays and re-opening Monday mornings during June through August would save about $3,500 in staff wages.
“The numbers during the summer are very, very low. Our staff spend most of their time reading a book,” Bell remarked, though admitting there are a few “hardcore” Sportsplex members who want to use the facility in the summer—and the town thus far has accommodated them.
Right now, the Sportsplex is open weekends until June 21, and thereafter just open for four hours Sunday afternoons in July and August.
Mayor Roy Avis disagreed with the notion of closing on the weekends during the summer, noting people buy annual memberships and should be able to use them year-round no matter what.
He added that before he would consider cutting hours at a facility people pay to use, the town should take a good look at other cost-savings among the “soft services,” such as reducing museum hours in the winter.
While not specifically referring to reducing hours at the Sportsplex, Coun. Ken Perry said that during a tight budget year, the town should look at finding savings wherever it can.
“As we go through the budget process, we know things are tight,” he noted. “I think we all believe things are going to get a little tighter in the next few years, certainly in the next few months.
“If we don’t start making some small cuts now, and continue those a little bit at a time . . . when the hammer falls, it’s going to be one fell swoop,” he warned. “And I don’t think we should do that to people.”
Councillors also deferred the possibility of eliminating remuneration for the board members and secretary of the Police Services Board (PSB), referring it to the Community Services executive committee for its recommendation.
“In Community Services, we have over 20 boards and committees, with this board being the only one where members receive remuneration,” noted Bell. “I realize it’s not a lot of money, but in keeping with promoting volunteerism consistency, I thought we might want to take a look at that.”
Cutting the remuneration would save the town $7,000.
Budget requests
While reviewing requests related to the operating budget Monday, council agreed to a “Meals on Wheels” funding request of $14,000 (this is $500 more than last year).
Council also agreed to a $7,500 marketing fee-for-service for the Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce, and to continue to support “Project Petunia” by watering flower baskets and planters as an in-kind service.
But Mayor Avis requested they defer a request for $2,500 to help hire an intern to research a destination marketing fee for Fort Frances until they could get input from economic development office Geoff Gillon.
The mayor said he saw the Chamber initiative as tying into marketing strategy, and wondered if the town’s share of the funding would qualify under the umbrella of a partnership the town has with the Rainy River Future Development Corp., whereby FedNor kicks in 50 percent of the dollars for marketing purposes.
Treasurer Laurie Witherspoon said it is possible that would not apply as the destination marketing study is a Chamber venture, not a town one.
Coun. Perry, who is the town rep on the Chamber of Commerce board, also noted the intern already is being partially paid for through FedNor and the town’s deal with the RRFDC may not apply.
Fleet management
Mayor and council did agree Monday they should continue to make annual contributions to reserve funds for fleet and building replacement.
For 2009, the town will set aside $127,000 for vehicles and another $48,000 for building replacement. Based on a review of the town’s assets, these funds are built up in anticipation of having to eventually replace vehicles and fix buildings in years to come.
“This is going to really help us down the road,” said Coun. Paul Ryan, adding most of the equipment is very expensive and council has to put money away now to replace them in order to avoid “rate shock” to the taxpayers.
“We have to have essential services, and this is part of it—the rolling stock,” he noted.
Coun. Perry agreed this council has to keep up annual contributions to its rolling stock, and hopefully encourage the next council to keep up the practise.
At the beginning of Monday’s meeting, the operating forecast showed a deficit of $32,251. This was after administration went over the budget line by line, reducing the shortfall from $223,000 as last reported in late December.
This $32,251 would amount to a residential tax increase of about 0.3 percent. But with the addition of $175,000 for the contribution to rolling stock, that figure has increased to 2.3 percent.
In related news, Witherspoon said it remains to be seen whether the 2008 budget will end up with a surplus or a deficit, but she’s quite certain that if it shows a surplus, “it’s not going to be much.”
“We have been budgeting very tight,” she remarked. “2007’s surplus was $23,000 and I don’t see 2008 being much different.”
The next special committee of the whole meeting on the 2009 budget is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 2.