LAC LA BICHE - On Nov. 23, Lac La Biche County residents had an opportunity to get a glimpse of the County’s roughly $70 million 2023 budget concept and offer feedback before it is approved this winter.
With several major capital projects, recreation improvements, and a long list of long and short-term goals ready to be tabled by County council in the next several weeks, it is important to include taxpayers in the conversation, said Zeeshan Hasan, the County’s manager of finance.
“Our goal was to get genuine feedback from the public and hear what they have to say and give them the opportunity to provide feedback before council makes decisions on things… I think we're getting that,” he said, during the budget open house held at the Bold Center.
The event saw roughly 15 guests stop by throughout the evening, engaging with several administrative departments and municipal officials. On Nov. 22, a budget town hall was held in Plamondon which saw nine residents participate.
Aiming for more
Large-scale capital projects include the $16 million Main Street Revitalization, which involves repairing aging underground utility infrastructure, new street lighting, bulb-out traffic controls, architectural designs, and aesthetic improvements throughout the downtown area. A new $27 million Aquatic Centre, an expansion to the Bold Center recreation facility, and the $4.6 McArthur Park improvements are the big tasks that are top of mind for council, said Hasan.
“Council has already approved some of the projects and the goal for 2023 is to continue building on those projects,” he said, as this year's theme is centered around “seeding for growth.”
After speaking with residents, Hasan says many people are hoping to see programs, recreation and infrastructure services levels, like snow removal, continue to be a priority. Hassan says the 2023 budget proposes that “all those service levels are being maintained” throughout the upcoming fiscal year.
Lengthy list of obligations
While large capital projects move forward, many small projects and services backdated from previous councils are a primary objective this year too, said County Mayor Paul Reutov.
“The vision is to finally accomplish all the projects that have been discussed over the last five or six years,” he says, referring to roadwork, water and sewer services, infrastructure services and social program commitments.
“You'll always have your roadways, your bridges, your schools, the healthcare, there is the shoreline, there's the waste management. Everything is still there. We're not taking anything off the table. We're just trying to be as efficient as possible and ramp up completion deadlines.”
And with the continued efforts to engage with residents on their vision through public budget events, Reutov says it is giving taxpayers insight into how complex the budget process is.
“So far everything is positive. I think people understand that the County’s got a big job. Budgets are always contentious.”
Getting residents engaged
While most residents did not attend the open house, a new online tool rolled out this fall is giving residents an opportunity to apply the roughly $76.8 million budget to the County's operations. The tool allows people to understand limitations and where funding priorities lie, said Jihad Moghrabi, the County’s communications manager.
“It teaches you about each of the county’s departments’ budgets and choices. So, you learn what each department’s budget is, you know what the issues they're facing are and also concerns… and the initiatives they're looking at,” from expanding services to projects within each department.
“It really gives you like a good holistic budget,” said Moghrabi.
With all the data collected from users who submitted their budget suggestions until Nov. 25, that data will be compiled and given to council, he explained.
“So, we get a really consistent set of feedback that we can share with Council… If they’re [council] seeing a common theme, they [council] can make some adjustments. They can take that into account.”
The service will continue to be available for residents to utilize for engagement past the Nov. 25 date, he added.
Finalizing the budget
Over the next several weeks, there will be a lot of deliberations and tough financial decisions to make, the County’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Dan Small said.
“Running the budget is no different than running your house. There are more things you want to do than the money you’ve got.”
The goal is to achieve a budget reflective of the community and council's vision to complete capital projects and create economic growth and social wellness in the County for years to come, said Small.
“Our budget year is January to December. So hopefully, on Dec. 13—or at least certainly in a meeting before Christmas —we will get the budget approved. We’ve been doing that for several years now.”