Black Diamond Town council has approved a small increase in next year’s operating costs to cover raises for staff and growing expenses as it moves into budget deliberations.
On Nov. 15, councillors agreed to both a wage and operating expense increase to exceed no more than one per cent over 2016 following discussions about the Town’s 2018 operational spending guidelines.
Much of the discussion centred around the importance of retaining staff with incentives.
Coun. Ted Bain said he supports a raise for Town employees, who he described as the most important asset of any organization.
“I think we should take a very serious look at making sure we take care of our people,” he said.
Some councillors recommended other ways besides a wage increase to show appreciation for employees.
Coun. Jackie Stickel suggested either a one-time payment or a change in benefits.
“I think they need something, but exactly what to give them I’m not sure,” she said. “I know we’re looking at a flat percentage increase here, but I think there are more options out there.”
Coun. Daryl Lalonde suggested giving staff more holiday time rather than a pay increase.
“You don’t want to lose your qualified staff, but at the same time you can’t just keep throwing money at people,” he said. “My wage hasn’t gone up, but my costs have.”
Chief Administrative Officer Sharlene Brown said offering staff more vacation time or time off still equates to dollars.
“If we give somebody a free day off or increased vacation time we have to accrue that vacation time,” she said. “Right now we have departments that have been running on two or three people. How can we give them vacation time? If they are not here, who do you call? We don’t have backups.”
While discussing overall operating costs, Brown said administration researched numerous sources to determine cost of living projections for 2018, which she said ranged from 1.8 to 2.2 per cent increase. In addition, she said October’s Consumer Price Index indicated a 1.3 per cent increase, while the Conference Board of Canada expects a two per cent increase on all public sector employees.
As for utilities, Brown said natural gas is expected to increase by 50 cents per gigajoule, equating to about a three per cent incline, while the electricity rate is forecasted to remain constant, other than carbon tax adjustments, due to the Town’s existing wholesale rates.
Mayor Ruth Goodwin said she supports a maximum one per cent increase in the operating budget and is confident council can make cuts to keep costs as low as possible.
“I do think we can find some cost cutting measures when we sit down at the table and have a conversation about the budget,” she said. “There are a few things we can make adjustments to.”
Deputy Mayor Brian Marconi, the only one who didn’t support the increase, said he opposes traditional incremental budgeting.
“It’s the standard of ‘I will take last year’s budget and add one per cent and it’s done,’” he said. “Don’t do things the way you’ve always done them because they are going to be too costly in the long run and you can’t afford to keep doing it.”
Marconi said when council approved a maximum one per cent increase for the Town’s operating budget in the fall of 2016, there were some areas where that one per cent was surpassed.
“If we are going to ask for a percentage of some sort, everybody has to understand that’s the maximum,” he said. “You can’t go over. You can beat it if you want but it’s got to be held.”
Marconi said he would like the Town’s different departments to search for inefficiencies and cost savings, rather than continuing with the same spending trends.
If the Town continues to operate at an increase each year, he said it could impede some people’s ability to continue living in the small community of just over 2,700 people.
“We’ve got seniors on fixed incomes that are at a loss as to what to do because things keep going up on them,” he said. “When I was campaigning people were saying, ‘If taxes go up in the next year or two I have to think about moving out of town.’”