LETHBRIDGE - The $62-million Exhibition Park convention centre project led most of the debate during day three of 2018-2027 Capital Improvement Program (CIP) deliberations.
Lethbridge City Council, sitting as finance committee with Councillor Liz Iwaskiw as chair, is now about half way through drafting the first four years of the 10-year budget.
The public is encouraged to attend the remainder of the debates at City Hall, or watch them unfold online. The draft document with detailed project sheets (referenced below with project numbers) is available on the City of Lethbridge website.
Wednesday (May 17) marked the start of discussions for unfunded community projects (section D). Council members have roughly $62,622,000 in unrestricted funds to work with over the entire 10-year context, but $51,742,000 within the next four-year window that they will focus their energy on (shown in chart above).
There is some uncertainty, though, about future provincial funding after the next four years are up. Garth Sherwin, city manager, explained during the first meeting that the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) will be coming to an end around 2021.
That said, this draft CIP budget will be prepared under the assumption that a replacement program will be introduced by the provincial government in 2022-2027 at current funding levels. If MSI replacement "shadow funding" is used for projects in those years, a subsequent council will be responsible for approving and committing to those projects once an announcement for a replacement program has been made.
To get their third day of debates underway, finance committee first decided that it would begin with the Exhibition Park trade, convention centre and agriplex proposal (project D-51), then shift back to numerical order to deal with the rest of the 25 project sheets before them.
Since she is also employed by Exhibition Park, Councillor Bridget Mearns excused herself from the D-51 debate due to a conflict of interest.
Mayor Chris Spearman brought the first amendment forward, in what would turn out to be a more than three-hour long discussion. He proposed that the convention centre be removed from the project, noting that there may be other existing assets that could be re-developed for the same purpose at a greatly reduced cost. That motion was defeated 6-2, with a consensus among those that voted against the proposal that the convention centre is an important expansion that has been in the works for several years.
Councillor Jeff Carlson was next up with an amendment to move the entire Exhibition Park expansion project out by one year, with planning to then begin in 2019 and construction to follow in 2022. After City administration explained that it wouldn't be prudent to delay the planning process, the amendment was changed to state that planning stay in 2018, construction still be pushed to 2022 and that the City manager develop a funding strategy.
"I’ve been here for a while… I don’t recall ever putting two organizations – the Exhibition and the Performing Arts Centre (project D-50) – through the BS that I’m hearing… We have basically given them, in my opinion, lip service. How can you say it’s a great project… but let’s move it out of the four-year window and put it in 2022?" Councillor Joe Mauro expressed during debate before Councillor Carlson’s amendment would be voted on. He also sponsored the original finance committee resolution to include the Exhibition Park project in the draft CIP.
"We know that anything outside of the four-year window is basically smoke and mirrors because we (current Council members) may not be here. And I know, based on history, that anything in years five and on gets shuffled around, and usually its just a way of appeasing the people."
It was another unsuccessful amendment, though, being defeated with a split 4-4 vote.
Finance committee reconvened the meeting in the afternoon after a break with a third amendment from Councillor Jeff Coffman. Pointing out that $25-million had been committed to the D-51 project in the 2014-2023 CIP, he proposed that $23.9-million be allocated for 2021, another $33.9-million in 2022 “shadow funding” to cover the remaining construction cost, but that construction not move ahead until all funding was confirmed and that the City manager develop a funding strategy.
Councillor Coffman's amendment still wasn't enough to convince the majority of finance committee and was voted down, 4-4.
Mayor Spearman made one last effort, offering up to a one-per cent tax increase over four years in order to pay for the $62-million price tag. He explained that the increase would provide complete financial transparency, going on to say that residents should be prepared to pay for the project that continues to garner a great deal of public support and satisfies an overall community want.
Mixed opinions from Council members once again resulted in a 5-3 vote to defeat the amendment.
Discussion quickly shifted back to Councillor Mauro’s original resolution to include project D-51 in the draft CIP document. In somewhat of a surprise move, finance committee voted 4-4, meaning that the project may not be included in the 2018-2027 at all.
But as noted a number of times throughout the meeting, any project can be brought back to the table before the budget is forwarded on to Council for final approval next Tuesday (May 23).
The following four unfunded community projects were then approved before the meeting adjourned Wednesday (May 17) afternoon:
- $400,000 in 2018 for protective fencing along the eastern edge of Alexander Wilderness Park and southern boundary of Six Mile Coulee (project D-25);
- $310,000 in 2018 for parking lot upgrades at Galt Museum (project D-26);
- $5.2-million in "shadow funding" for a Galt Gardens reconstruction (project D-27), amended by Councillor Carlson to start in 2022 instead of 2018; and
- $2.3-million in 2018 for phase two of the Spitz Stadium grandstand (project D-29).
A $12.5-million Enmax Centre parking lot renewal (project D-24) and $1.6-million worth of median trees along University Drive (project D-28) will not be included in Lethbridge’s 2018-2027 CIP.
Council members will continue to debate the remaining 21 unfunded community projects on Thursday (May 18) from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
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