April 28, 2021 meeting
The Leader attended (remotely) an M.D. of Opportunity council meeting last week for the first time – maybe not the first time ever, but certainly the first time in a very long time. The suggestion to attend and report on council meetings came from two people – one a council member and the other a person doing business in Wabasca. This was followed by an emailed invitation and Zoom link from the M.D.
Tax rate and budgets: looking at a substantial deficit
Council discussed the tax rate bylaw, along with the operating and capital budgets, but deferred decisions on all three. They’ll be dealt with in greater depth (and presumably motions made) at a meeting on May 6.
Making the presentation, chief financial officer Trina Mineault said with no mill rate change, tax revenue is projected to be $57.9 million. She added the M.D. is facing a $9.2 million deficit this year. That’s assuming taxes aren’t raised. The shortfall could be covered from reserves, which she said stand at around $54 million.
“It’s a substantial amount (the deficit),” she said, “but we will still be in a good financial position.”
At least one councillor wasn’t happy with the numbers.
“I hate to see that big of a deficit,” said Robin Guild. “I think we need to look long and hard at what we’re doing.”
Deputy reeve Everett Gottfried thought so too and suggested council dedicate a full meeting to the budget.
CAO Chad Tullis said on the capital projects side of things, there might be ways to reduce the budget. Around $7 million in projects have been approved, he said, but in a couple of cases no contract has been awarded. Those could be deferred. A cell tower is one example; another is a seniors’ facility in Calling Lake.
Calling Lake councillor Victor Gladue took exception to that idea.
“It’s needed in this community,” he said. “We did a lot of projects that are not needed. All the money shouldn’t be going to one community.”
Gladue didn’t say which community he meant, but Wabasca councillor Darlene Jackson responded by saying, “We can discuss this further on May 6.”
“Don’t give up on your seniors’ project,” offered councillor Guild.
Mill rate ratio
Oddly enough, the discussion was less about whether or not to raise taxes and more about whether mill rates should be adjusted to achieve a 5:1 ratio between the non-residential and residential classes of property. Apparently, that is the ratio mandated by the province, and Opportunity – although a lot closer than it once was – is at 5.7:1. Gottfried said as far as he is concerned, that is close enough and they should leave it be, until ordered to do otherwise. Calling Lake councillor Barry Schmidt agreed.
“Leave it at 5.7,” he said, “and quit raising people’s taxes.”
Raising taxes hadn’t been discussed, but a couple of the mill rate adjustment options before council probably would have had that effect, for one class of property or the other or maybe both.
The discussion will continue on May 6.
Expense claims motion shot down
This was councillor Guild’s item, added to the agenda at the start of the meeting. His particular concern, he told his colleagues, is that the M.D. policy allows too much leeway in claiming kilometres traveled to and from meetings. He gave two examples: 400 kms. is allowed (for expense claim purposes) for traveling to meetings in Edmonton.
“From my house to downtown Edmonton is 325 kilometres,” he said. The other example was Calgary, with a similarly generous allowance.
“I would like to see a new expense claim policy and that all claims are put on the website. It would keep us accountable to our ratepayers.”
Guild made a motion to that effect, which was defeated by a 7 – 4 vote. Leading the opposition was Gottfried, who said he felt Guild was “jumping the process” and it should be discussed first by the policy committee. He said he didn’t think the motion should be allowed, but Guild stuck with it and insisted.
Gottfried also pointed out that expense claims are already public and available by request.
Schmidt spoke up in favour of the idea of a policy change.
“The kilometres are way out of whack,” he said. “It’s got to be re-done.”
Gladue shared Gottfried’s view that the matter should be dealt with first by the policy committee.
Guild asked for a recorded vote. Here’s how it went: Opposed were Gottfried, Gladue, Jackson, Reeve Marcel Auger, Kevin Bigstone, Leo Alook and Roy Yellowknee. In favour were Guild, Schmidt, Louis Cardinal and Brendan Powell.
High cost of accommodating seniors
One item in the budget caught the eye of the deputy reeve, that being the price tag for running the new Keekenow seniors’ lodge.
“I find $7 million really high,” said councillor Gottfried.
Small facilities like this one tend to carry higher deficits he was told (by a member of administration whose name we didn’t catch). Salaries and wages are the biggest part of the cost. They tend to be higher than those in similar facilities in other parts of the province, as they are across the M.D. Adding to the high costs are COVID protocols, which require housekeeping staff to go into every room five times a day, instead of the usual once per day.
$2.4 million to finish off seniors’ lodge
The most interesting item in the presentation on the 2020 financial statements had to do with a transfer of $2.4 million dollars out of reserves. It’s for “final construction” on the Keekenow seniors’ facility, said the M.D.’s chief financial officer Trina Mineault.
“To finish off construction?” asked deputy reeve Everett Gottfried.
“Yes,” Mineault confirmed.
Council passed two motions – one to approve the 2020 audited financial statement and the other to approve the transfer as noted.
Sandy Lake councillor Kevin Bigstone brought up the issue of residents dumping garbage near a creek in or near his community.
“I hope that’s been addressed,” he said.
Tullis said staff are aware of it and have talked “about enforcement options.”
Good news from the hospital
Reeve Auger said he’d received good news just that morning about the hospital in Wabasca. It is “looking at upgrading the (ultrasound) machinery,” he said. A technician is in place, and AHS is footing the bill.
Vending machines in Calling Lake
Council heard a report from M.D. rec & culture coordinator Angela Lightning about a business owner who would like to set up vending machines in M.D. facilities in Calling Lake. Lightning’s recommendation was to charge $500 per location per year. As it happens, only one of the facilities is open at the moment, due to COVID.
Calling Lake councillor Barry Schmidt was the first to respond.
“I think $500 is a little too steep,” he said. “I think it should be less. You’re going to make the project fail before it starts.”
“If we change for one location, we’ll have to change for all,” said Wabasca councillor Darlene Jackson.
Calling Lake councillor Victor Gladue made the motion to proceed as recommended, adding “she can try it and see what happens. Be flexible on when she can start.”
The motion was carried.