Lethbridge News

Lethbridge City Council eyeing 144 service cuts & user fees to balance budget

If the city council wants to balance their budget without raising taxes in 2021 or 2022, they need to find over $15 million.

This past Monday, City of Lethbridge administration presented a draft 2021–2022 operating budget to city council, which was sitting as Finance Committee.

Finance Committee reviews the budget (including receiving presentations from city departments and organizations providing city services) then creates recommendations to city council for debate and approval at a later date.

The City of Lethbridge, according to Hailey Pinksen, the city’s treasurer, is in an “overall good financial position” for 2020. For example, 98.55% of property taxes had already been collected this year, as of 2 October, and the city had received one-time relief funding from the province to cover lost revenues and direct costs related to the pandemic.

However, it has various pressures on its budget for the next two years.

First, the city experiences the same pressures of inflation and population growth as other institutions in general.

Second, Alberta Municipal Affairs has yet to indicate what future operational funding to municipalities will look like in next year’s budget.

Finally, the city may have to draw from its reserves to fund incentive programmes, it may have difficulty meeting growth projections for property tax assessments, and it may incur low returns on investments coming to term soon with interest rates as low as they are.

Hailey Pinksen, the city’s treasurer, brought two options forward to city council as part of her presentation. Both options would see a tax break to city residents between 2020 and 2022:

Option A
Tax increase
Option B
Tax increase

Keep in mind, that there was a 0% increase to property taxes this year as well. And last year, city council directed administration to “maintain service levels but to absorb inflation and growth”. Which means if approved, this will be 4 years that the Lethbridge municipal budget isn’t accounting for population or inflation increases.

A third option is to do something else entirely, but it’d be up to council to decided what that looked like.

Of the two main options, the first would provide more flexibility to deal with future uncertainty and would have less of an impact on municipal services (not having to reduce services as much).

According sections 233 and 234 of the Municipal Government Act, municipal governments cannot run deficits, which means that the City of Lethbridge must find a way to deal with these budget shortfalls.

Here’s the financial impact each option would have on the municipal budget:

Option AOption B
Loss of dispatchup to $5.6up to $5.6
Referralsup to $0.5up to $0.5
Total impactup to $12.1up to $15.1
in millions $

“Loss of dispatch” refers to the transfer of emergency services dispatch to a centralized dispatch managed by the province; the cost is undetermined still, which is why it’s up to $5.6 million. “Referrals” includes community group fee for services, and city council is free to approve or reject these requests, which is why it’s up to $500,000.

This means that to cover the cost of the reduced property tax rates (and assuming no further pressures from the government or other sources), city council must find between $12.1 and $15.1 million to balance the budgets for 2021 and 2022.

Pinksen presented 144 budget initiatives for city council to consider as they try to find ways to cover this loss in revenue and increased expenses.

The initiatives are categorized as base adjustments; adjustments with low impact, medium impact, or high impact; and adjustments to funding for municipal boards and commissions.

Option AOption B
Base initiatives$1.9$1.9
Low-impact initiatives$4.0$4.0
Med–high initiatives/boardsup to $6.2up to $9.2
in millions $

So, if city council approves all of the base adjustment initiatives, all of the low-impact initiatives, and a combination of the medium- and high-impact initiatives and board and commission reductions, it could cover that shortfall.

Obviously, I can’t go through all 144 initiatives here, but I will highlight a few of them. You can read more about all the initiatives in the draft budget on the City of Lethbridge website.

Base adjustments

There were 23 base adjustment initiatives, which could be implemented with little to no impact on services levels. If implemented, the city could cut $1.839 million in 2021 and $1.896 million in 2022.

Sanitary Sewer Rehabilitation Program

This reduction could mean 10% fewer metres of gravity sewer rehabilitated by contract lining each year. However, the cost per metre has dropped over the past 5 years, so this reduction may have no measurable impact on service level to wastewater customers. It may even be a way to mitigate planned rate increases.

Cuts: $250,000 in both 2021 and 2022

In-Home Wastewater Services

Currently provided at no charge to homeowners, something that other municipalities charge for. This presumably is when the city comes out to clean wastewater pipe, often in older neighbourhoods, where roots from city boulevard trees penetrate the old, clay wastewater pipes. If implemented, resident would pay for the service.

Fees: $200,000 in 2021 and $250,000 in 2022

Community Lighting Maintenance

This would reduce proactive maintenance by 10% on streetlights and lighting in parks and along pathways. This means that burnouts will last longer and more often; although emergency repairs will still be done.

Cuts: $40,000 in both 2021 and 2022

Eliminate newspaper ads for public notices

The City of Lethbridge spent over $99,000 last year on print advertisements for public notices, such as rezoning applications. By using other advertising formats, the city can save about $1,000 per application, which it can then pass onto applicants.

Cuts: $73,000 in both 2021 and 2022

Low-impact initiatives

There were 18 low-impact initiatives, which would have minimal impact on the service level for each initiative. If they were all implemented, the city would see a cut of about $3.15 million in 2021 and $4.47 million in 2022.

Here are a few examples.

Reduction to Watermain Renewal Program

The city experiences about 3–4 watermain breaks over a 2 or 3-year period before the watermain is replaced or lined. This initiative would rehabilitate 18% fewer metres of watermains in the city. This could result in more failures and longer wait times until rehabilitation. It could also lead to a backlog of replacements.

A high-impact option would see a 49% reduction in spending on this programme. This option would affect in-house construction efficiency, as it would lower equipment utilization and increase hourly equipment rates.

Cuts: $370,000 in both 2021 and 2022 for the low-impact and $1.028 million for the high-impact.

Cancel Saturday cemetery internments

Lethbridge has offered internment services in city cemeteries Monday through Saturday since the 1990s. Industry practice is Monday through Friday but with surcharges for weekends and holidays. The initiative would be to eliminate a half-time position and to charge for Saturday internments, anywhere from $700–1400.

Cuts & fees: $65,000 in both 2021 and 2022

Cut back on cemetery grounds maintenance

This initiative comes in 3 parts:

  • Reduce flower planting spending to $3000 from $9000
  • Spend $10,000 less per year on grave and marker repairs
  • Spend $15,000 less per year on tree trimming

Cuts: $31,000 in both 2021 and 2022

Dryland mowing

The city would cut back from mowing 353 hectares of non-irrigated lands 3–4 times per year to just 1 time or not at all. These areas include turf along roadways and on buffers and fire breaks adjacent to residential properties and if implemented would have long brown grass and weeds for longer periods prior to being mowed. Priority would be based on fire prevention. 2.2 seasonal staff would be cut.

A high-impact option would see the city eliminating spring mowing, mowing will be only along perimeters and less frequently, and staff cuts would be 3, instead of 2.2.

Cuts: $52,500 in both 2021 and 2022 for the low-impact, $105,000 for the high-impact

Surface and boulevard repair

The parks department provides repair and restoration to public and private property following utility work, including repairs to water services, trenching, curb and sidewalk replacement programs. This initiative would cut 0.6 seasonal staff, increasing repair times and response times.

Cuts: $16,000 in both 2021 and 2022

Reduced services for public picnic shelter

This initiative would cut 1 seasonal staff from the parks department, which would increase the amount of time needed to clean picnic shelters between bookings. This, in turn, would reduce the number of bookings available in a year, as well as how far in advance users must book.

A medium-impact option would see 1.5 staff cut.

Cuts: $33,000 in both 2021 and 2022 for low-impact or $40,000 for medium-impact.

Paid parking at ENMAX Centre

If approved, paid parking at ENAMX Centre could be implemented within 4 months. No information was available on what the actual rates would be.

Fees: $391,700 in both 2021 and 2022.

Increased concession prices at ENMAX Centre

This initiative would replace unionized staff with 1 non-unionized person, who would roam the concessions and respond via radio when called by the concession lead. Menu pricing at concessions may need to rise by 10%.

Cuts & fees: $112,500 in both 2021 and 2022

Transit on Demand

If approved, Lethbridge Transit would take a year to implement a Transit on Demand trial period of 6–12 months. Riders in low ridership areas (or after 7:00 p.m.) would pre-book their bus, which would then pick them up at their location and deliver them to their destination, or meet up with a City Link, a circuitous route that covers a large portion of the city.

Cuts: $353,000 in 2022.

Medium-impact initiatives

There were 33 medium-impact initiatives, which would have moderate impact on the service level for each initiative. If they were all implemented, the city would see a cut of about $4.64 million in each of 2021 and 2022.

Here are some of them:

Reduce transit frequency to 1-hour service

If approved, this initiative would see transit reduced from 30-minute service to 60-minute service on weekdays before 7:00 a.m., between 11:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., and after 6:30 p.m., as well as on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.

Cuts: $1.1 million in both 2021 and 2022

Less snow removal in city parking lots

Currently, snow is plowed in the parking lots of city-owned facilities if it accumulates to 2 inches. This initiative would limit clearing to at least 3 inches of accumulation.

Cuts: $76,700 in 2021 and $76,800 in 2022.

Eliminate weed bylaw enforcement officer

The City of Lethbridge has a bylaw officer that is responsible for enforcing the Weed Bylaw, specifically regarding noxious weeds on public properties. It’s on a complaint basis, and the department receives up to 1,000 complaints a year. This initiative would eliminate that position. Because the bylaw officer has other duties, it could result in delays in responding to other bylaw complaints, conducting taxi inspections, and responding to rattlesnakes.

Cuts: $90,000 in both 2021 and 2022

Reduced park maintenance

This initiative would see reduction in several aspects of maintenance in city parks:

  • Less grass watering
  • Less frequent garbage collection
  • Mulch beds weeded and replaced less often
  • Dead shrubs will not all be replaced
  • Pathway edge mowing will be less frequent
  • Delayed replacement of damaged or worn assets (furniture, fencing, structures, etc)

Plus, the rental rates for city sports fields would be raised and 3 positions would be eliminated.

A high-impact option would reduce these services even more and would eliminate 10 staff instead of 3.

Cuts & fees: $203,500 in both 2021 and 2022 for the low impact and $497,500 for the high impact.

Reduced pest control

This initiative would cut 1–3 seasonal staff position, reducing the parks department’s ability to manage weeds, mosquitos, gophers and wasps in the city.

Cuts: $43,400–$86,500 in both 2021 and 2022

Reduced playground maintenance

The elimination of 1 parks seasonal position would result in fewer inspections of the 89 public and 33 school playgrounds in the city. It would also increase the time it takes to respond to repairs.

A high-impact option would see 1.5 positions eliminated and inspections would be reduced to the minimum allowed under safety standards.

Cuts: $33,800 in both 2021 and 2022 for the medium-impact and $63,000 for the high-impact.

Less coulee sloping monitoring

This initiative would cut the coulee sloping monitoring budget in half, which would result less tracking and inspections of sloping in the coulees near residential developments.

Cuts: $56,000 in both 2021 and 2022.

Less maintenance of sidewalks, pathways, and bridges

If approved, this initiative would reduce the maintenance of sidewalks, pathways, and bridges in the city by 5–10% from their current levels.

Cuts: $55,000–85,000 in both 2021 and 2022

Reduction in traffic operations and signals

This initiative would reduce service in several traffic responsibilities:

  • Fewer traffic studies (or smaller in scope)
  • Less street sign fabrication or installation
  • Less line painting
  • Less money spent on labour and equipment for
    • Traffic signals
    • Temporary traffic control

Cuts: $135,000 in both 2021 and 2022.

Less road maintenance

The city could see 5% less work done on pothole repair, utility patching, crack sealing, major road repairs, asphalt overlay, sidewalk repairs, and gravel road maintenance if this initiative is approved.

A high-impact option would see a 10% reduction in work done.

Cuts: $200,000 in both 2021 and 2022 for the medium-impact option and $400,000 for the high impact option

Less street sweeping

The city would cut half a position working in the street sweeping division. This may hinder the city’s ability to street sweep all residential neighbourhoods. If they can’t complete all neighbourhoods on budget, they would clean as many as they can, then complete the remainder the following year.

A high-impact option would cut street sweeping by 10%, meaning the city could complete maybe only 2/3 of the full residential cleaning schedule. Sweeping may be restricted to just sanding routes categorized as priority 1, 2, or 3.

Cuts: $85,000 in both 2021 and 2022 for the medium-impact option and $285,000 for the high-impact option

Less street snow removal

This initiative would reduce the snow watch personnel to 2 from 4 and reduce the labour, equipment, and material by 5% for ice control during winter weather.

A high-impact option would eliminate snow removal at all from some routes (such as 6 Avenue South and 13 Street). Instead of plowing snow into windrows and later hauling it to a snow dump site, crews would plow it to the right of the roadways, into parking lanes and boulevards and leaving it there it melt when warmer weather arrives.

Cuts: $190,000 for 2021 and 2022 for the medium-impact option and $455,000 for the high-impact option.

Less cleaning of ENMAX Centre

ENMAX Centre is one of the cleanest buildings in the Western Hockey League. If this initiative is implemented, total building cleaning for the junior hockey programming area will be only 4 times per yer. There will also be one fewer labourer for game day preparation and one fewer operator during the actual games. Hockey games will also see 3 fewer hostess and 4 fewer security personnel.

Cuts: $60,750 in both 2021 and 2022.

Eliminate spay–neuter grant funding

The city provides about $45,000 each year to the No Kill Animal Association, which uses the funding to provide a low-cost spay and neuter programme. This initiative would completely eliminate that.

Cuts: $45,000 in both 2021 and 2022

High-impact initiatives

There were 30 high-impact initiatives, which would have moderate impact on the service level for each initiative. If they were all implemented, the city would see a cut of about $7.44 million in 2021 and $7.54 million in 2022.

Here are some of them:

Closing recycling depots

This initiative would have the city’s recycling depots close 2 days a week, 7:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m.

  • Southside closed Sundays and Wednesdays
  • Northside closed Mondays and Thursdays
  • Westside closed Tuesdays and Fridays

There would be similar reduction in services to the yard waste sites, which are located at the recycling depots

  • Southside open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays
  • Northside open Wednesdays and Fridays
  • Westside open Sundays and Mondays

Hours would be 9–6 May–October and 10–5 November–April.

Cuts: $400,000 in both 2021 and 2022

Secondary suites charged for waste collection

Currently, homes with legal secondary suites don’t pay additional waste collection charges, even if they have multiple waste carts.

Fees: $13,186 in both 2021 and 2022

Only 6 free Saturday waste disposals

For nearly 20 years, the city has waived dumping fees for residents on Saturdays for the first 250 kg of waste they brought into the Waste & Recycling Centre. This reduced the amount of illegal dumping that had been occurring in the city. This initiative would limit residents to only 6 free dumpings a year, starting as early as the start of next year.

Related to this is reducing large item pick up for residents from twice a year to just once a year.

Cuts: $299,590 in both 2021 and 2022

Shutting down the dump on Saturdays

On a related note, another initiative is to just shut down the dump on Saturdays altogether. If they did this, the Free Saturdays programme would need to move to a weekday, which would affect weekday commercial traffic. Also, Saturday is the busiest day of the week, at about 1,000 loads per day, and accounts for about 15% of their operating hours.

A separate initiative would see operating hours reduced by 2 each day, about 18% of operating hours. That 18% would be even higher if this was combined with the initiative above.

Cuts: $454,000 in both 2021 and 2022, if combined

Further reductions in parks services

Several high-impact initiatives were brought forward that could affect city parks, including:

  • Reduced storm water retention pond maintenance
  • Less public tree pruning (including on city streets)
  • Slower response to graffitti cleanup
  • Longer snow removal times for city sidewalks
  • Reducing or eliminating seasonal displays at Brewery Gardens
  • Elimination of flower gardens and planters in the city
  • Remove decorative fountains in storm ponds

These reductions will result in the elimination of 7.5–11.35 staff.

Cuts: $339,500–618,500 in both 2021 and 2022

Increased recreation user fees

Various services managed by the Recreation & Culture department could see increased user fees. While no specifics were given, this department oversees such programmes as swimming pools and skating rinks.

Fees: $200,00 in both 2021 and 2022.

Programme reduction at Helen Schuler Nature Centre

This initiative would have the Helen Schuler Nature Centre realign and streamline programme offering to focus on programmes with higher revenue potential. Current programmes could see fee increases, and the centre may introduce more revenue-generating services.

Two separate initiatives would see a 12–20% reduction in print, online, and display materials the centre for information on local flora and fauna.

Another initiative would eliminate conservation programmes, such as coordinated and organized coulee clean-up, shoreline clean-up, invasive weed-pull blitz, and conservation ambassador programs. This would cut 0.3 staff positions.

Cuts & fees: $5,000–38,000 in both 2021 and 2022

Reduce security at downtown transit terminal

Under this initiative, security services at the downtown transit terminal could be cut in half, from 18 hours a day to just 9.

Cuts: $142,700 in both 2021 and 2022

Closure of Fritz Sick Pool & Civic Ice Centre

Fritz Sick is the oldest aquatic facility in the city. Usage is lower than other facilities, but the city also doesn’t offer swimming lessons at this facility.

Civic Ice Centre is the oldest ice facility in the city. When the curling portion was shut down several years ago, the intent was to close the building once a new ice centre opened, which project has been repeatedly pushed back in the capital improvement program.

Closing both facilities, along with the recent demolition of the former YMCA building, could facilitate progress on the Civic Commons master plans to develop the south end of this block.

Cuts: $622,959 in both 2021 and 2022

Closure of Westminster Pool

The Westminster Neighbourhood Association manages the pool on a fee-for-service basis. They report annual usage has been declining, especially after a renovated Henderson Pool opened.

The closure would not apply to the attached community hall, which is financially sustainable.

Cuts: $137,626 in 2021 and 2022

Again, these are only some of the 144 initiatives. There are too many to list here, and even the list I did provide is pretty long.

City Council is not obligated to implement all of these cuts, or even any of them, but it’s likely that they’ll implement some of them.

These cuts, if implemented, will be noticed. The public will notice the increase in uncleanliness of the city, increase in so-called undesirability of the city, increase in the inaccessibility of the city, and increase in the livability in the city in general.

But this is what happens when you run an already financially efficient operation but then experience reduced revenue but higher costs due to inflation and population growth.

City Council has some tough choices to make.

You can watch Pinksen’s presentation (and subsequent questions from city council) here. Her presentation begins around the 11:00 mark, and questions begin around the 25:00 mark.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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