COLUMN: Budget: It’s that time of year again

These days while you’re huddled around the closest source of heat, your city council is huddled around board tables.

These days while you’re huddled around the closest source of heat, your city council is huddled around board tables, sometimes generating our own heat.

It’s budget time! As we pour over spreadsheets, provided by our financial officer Colin McClure, we are reminded in detail how our city operates. And, as you would expect, there is occasional heated debate about funding priorities and approaches.

This year has been a fairly pleasurable budget process. And that’s because our city finances are in solid shape.

Our reserve funds are strong. We are steadily upgrading our infrastructure, and were able to reduce the increase in water and sewer fees below the projected level.

We had unexpected revenues last year, leaving us at year end with some funds to invest in reserves (we don’t just spend windfalls).

We didn’t, as in previous years, face a year-over-year budget shortfall and have to look for places to skinny up budgets.

Continuous improvement is the city’s goal, and with the leadership of city manager Kevin Cormack, staff is constantly looking for ways to serve our citizens better and more efficiently.

Our budget process includes presentations from various departments about the past year’s work and plans for the coming year. Sometimes these get lengthy and detailed, but that’s a reflection of our enthusiastic team. They love their work and just can’t stop talking about it — from the sewage treatment plant to the fire department to information technology.

This week, we heard from Nelson Hydro. Every year the utility transfers a dividend to the city’s operational budget — in 2014 it will grow to $2.5 million. Consider that we will only collect about $8.8 million in property taxes, and you see how critical that dividend is.

The Hydro plant and the power lines are being well maintained, to serve us for a long time, and new opportunities for further projects (and revenues) are being explored.

Hydro has also sponsored a couple exciting initiatives. One is EcoSave, and as coordinator Carmen Proctor told us, the home retrofit program’s goal of 100 participants was well-exceeded.

More than 400 people registered, and more than 100 have proceeded all the way through the final assessment to qualify for rebates and achieve ongoing energy savings.

The coming year, Carmen will continue to promote EcoSave for homes and seek ways to assist businesses and multi-family buildings as well.

And, not to be outdone in the creative thinking department, Carmen is researching the idea of a Solar Community Garden.

Rather than individuals incurring the expense of installing a solar panel, a garden would allow them to buy or lease a panel and earn a credit on their energy use based on the energy generated by “their” solar panel.

Also under Hydro’s purview is the work of Fiona Galbraith, our corporate energy coordinator.  Fiona has overseen a lot of work in city-owned buildings, to upgrade equipment and reduce emissions and energy costs.

By the end of 2014, Fiona estimates we will have reduced GHG emissions by 27 per cent compared to 2007. That’s a significant achievement, for which we are being recognized nationally, and is equivalent to taking 50 cars off the road.

And if GHG reduction doesn’t excite you, how about an annual energy savings of $120,000? That’s how it’s supposed to work — do the right thing and get rewarded!

As always, the city will host an open house and information session about the financial plan.

Come and find out how your taxes are spent, learn about innovative initiatives, tell us what we’re missing, and give us your ideas on priorities or how we can serve you better.  That event is Thursday, February 27, so watch for details.

Remember when you pay taxes and fees, they don’t go into a black hole where corrupt politicians make crazy spending decisions (at least not in Nelson). Your taxes buy services and invest in your community.

Are we getting it right?

 

Donna MacDonald is a Nelson City Councillor. She shares this space with her colleagues around the table.

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