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Mayor Monthly Column April 15 2016

Understanding City Finances 

The last several weeks have been all about numbers. From the federal budget to the newly released provincial budget and our own City of Lethbridge financial statements, there are a lot of numbers to take in and understand. It's City Council's job to consider how all of these budgets work together and how they will impact the residents of Lethbridge. 

On March 22, Prime Minister Trudeau and his Liberal government released their first federal budget. There had been mention of additional funding for Alberta due to the economic down turn in our province. Although the budget didn't specifically address this, there was some new funding announced that might impact the City of Lethbridge. We will be looking closely at the new infrastructure money, particularly in the areas of affordable housing and transit. 

I met with Federal Infrastructure Minister, Amarjeet Sohi at the end of March. This was a great opportunity to express the needs of our community and to have our voice heard. I was able to leave him with a list of the infrastructure projects needed and lobby for support from the federal government to help move some of these important projects forward.  

I am encouraged by some of the areas of focus in the new federal budget including funding support for post-secondary education, Indigenous communities and innovation. 

With the release of our provincial budget just yesterday, we will be reviewing the implications for Lethbridge and how we can best advocate for provincial funding in our community. Although we know the drop in oil prices has hit some Alberta communities harder than ours, I am committed to making sure the needs of Lethbridge are understood and will seek the funding we need to help us continue to grow our diverse economy. 

At our April 11 Finance Committee meeting, Council reviewed the City's 2015 Unaudited Financial Statements. I am pleased to say savings and efficiencies over the last year helped the City of Lethbridge finish the 2015 budget year solidly in a surplus position while still providing valuable service to our growing community. This report reflects the first year of our four-year operating budget and places us in a strong financial position for the remaining three years of this budget cycle.

The City's financial statements show a $2-million corporate surplus in tax-funded operations, and a $3.6-million surplus in utility-funded operations. We can credit some of this to outside factors such as lower than expected transit fuel costs, a milder winter which saved on snow removal and street sweeping costs and higher than expected growth in the residential and commercial tax base. Key factors in the utility surplus are a $1.6-million water utility surplus due to higher than normal water sales during last year's hot, dry spring and summer as well as a $1.1-million wastewater utility surplus due to higher-than-usual sewage loading from commercial and regional customers.

We can also attribute savings to efficiencies implemented by the City of Lethbridge. I would like to highlight a few examples of ways in which costs are being reduced.

The City had already budgeted for a $1-million saving in energy costs from the conversion of street lights to LED technology, but the actual saving in 2015 was more than $1.3 million. Our animal shelter recently made improvements that helped prevent outbreaks of contagious illness amongst the animals, reducing costs for supplies and veterinary fees. Our transit department worked hard to increase ridership over the last year with new electronic tools to make riding transit easier. They also made adjustments to create efficiencies in Transit staff scheduling. Both of these improvements have made a positive impact on department costs.

One of City Council's strategic objectives is to demonstrate financial stewardship, and we're pleased to see efficiencies and savings that maximize value for taxpayers. You can view the Finance Committee agenda and the proceedings of the meeting at www.lethbridge.ca/agendasandminutes. Questions were asked by members of Council about City debt levels, the process of internal versus external borrowing and many other topics which may be of interest to rate payers. The 2015 audited financial statements will be presented to City Council for consideration at our upcoming council meeting on Monday, April 18.

Another important number we look at this time of year is our census. The census is an official count of the number of people living in Lethbridge. Our census information is used by the City of Lethbridge and our provincial and federal governments. Decisions regarding future transportation networks, the locations of schools, parks, utilities and fire halls are all based on statistics collected in the municipal census. In addition, many provincial and federal grants are awarded on a per capita basis so having accurate, up-to-date data means we can maximize the funding available. 

Our annual census started on April 1 and asks just four quick questions that will take you less than a minute to complete. Census takers have dropped off a white card to all households that contains a Personal Identification Number (PIN). Once you have this card, you can go online and complete the census survey at www.lethbridge.ca/census. Census takers are also knocking on doors to those that have not entered their information online. Please take the time to complete this t important task for our city.  

A reminder to all residents that your property assessment and tax notices will arrive in May. Understanding property assessment can be complicated so we encourage you to visit www.lethbridge.ca for more information. A presentation on the property tax process was also made at our April 11, Finance Committee meeting.  

This week we celebrated National Volunteer Week and I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to the thousands of volunteers who make Lethbridge such an amazing place to live. In particular, I would like to recognize all those to have stepped up to support the new Syrian refugees in our community. At the City we support all residents in need and I am confident our community will continue to make Lethbridge a welcoming and inclusive city.

Mayor Chris Spearman
April 15, 2016