More community engagement and financial accountability key topics at City Finance Committee meeting

By Lara Fominoff @LaraFominoff on Twitter
March 13, 2018 - 1:37pm

LETHBRIDGE - Members of the Lethbridge Finance Committee met Monday (March 13) afternoon to listen to a presentation from new City Treasurer Hailey Pinksen about a proposed 2019-2022 Operating Budget process overview.

But what occurred at the meeting was, according to some committee members, something that hadn't happened in a long time.

Several committee members asked Pinksen and Interim City Manager Kathy Hopkins whether City Council could be more involved in the budget process, citing not only their own concerns, but concerns they heard from citizens about how exactly money is spent at City Hall.

Chair Joe Mauro says the overall sentiment now is that things can be done differently.

"There's a sense that you know, we're kind of removed from it and we're not really engaged. It's really interesting because when we're part of our strategic plan, the thing that we're talking about now is how can we do things different? We need to change. Even Council... the residents, the citizens - they're demanding more."

The goal of Monday’s overview process was to provide council with some of the information required to approve the next 2019-2022 Operating Budget in December.

But there are a few steps that need to be taken in the next several months before that can occur.

According to Pinksen and Hopkins, 60 per cent of that budget is spent on staffing and service levels for things like parks, administrative services, transportation and police, fire and EMS services.

City Administration is currently in an information gathering process and will be seeking input from the Finance Committee - which will eventually make recommendations to City Council, about where efficiencies can be made, and whether to increase or decrease the $400 million budget.

Mayor Chris Spearman noted that Lethbridge citizens are paying significantly more taxes than other medium sized cities, and it was imperative that council take a fresh look at the budget; not to simply rely on the yearly property tax increase as a "given."

However, he also noted that more information and tools need to be made available to them from City Administration and that it would be reckless to simply impose reductions.

Councillor Ryan Parker also added that for many years, there has been very little debate about any aspect of the Operating Budget, asking whether it was a council budget, or an administrative budget that council simply endorses.

Interim City Manager Kathy Hopkins encouraged questions and posed several them herself, including: how does administration respect council's right to challenge the budget and is there a better way?

She also noted that it was the community's obligation to challenge council and administration, and that there must be a process that not only allows for it but encourages it.

Mauro said he wasn't surprised by what he heard at the meeting.

"Pretty much what we do is budget. The CIP (Capital Improvement Program) and the Operating Budget...I think there seems to be a will by council and by even, you know, administration. There's new people in administration and the ultimate goal is that we all try and become more accountable, right from council. Right from the senior leadership team. And more efficient and more effective."

He emphasized that some services provided 10 or 20 years ago, are different now, while there are other services the public is requesting and expecting.

"It's going to be an interesting process, and I think Finance Committee is wanting to be more engaged, and I think this is the first step."

"During our strategic plan, we started to throw things out more, and I think administration heard," Mauro explained.

"We realized we're not small, little Lethbridge anymore. We need to all rethink on what we do, what we're here for. What services we're providing, cause we totally get that we can't keep dipping into the taxpayer's pocket... we're going to try and address that."

The Strategic Plan first needs to be completed according to Mauro, then administration will have time to investigate whether budget cycles can or should change and what tools can be given to the Finance Committee and City Council to help them decided how to proceed with steps towards approving the Operating Budget.

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