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Banff taxes rising in 2014

Banff residents will see close to a four per cent overall tax increase this year. At a meeting on Monday (Jan. 27), council approved a $30.

Banff residents will see close to a four per cent overall tax increase this year.

At a meeting on Monday (Jan. 27), council approved a $30.6 million operating budget for 2014, which includes 11 new staff positions, five of which are full-time positions costing about $365,000 in additional wages and benefits.

Mayor Karen Sorensen said there has been a hiring squeeze for many years, but now that Banff’s economy is recovering there is more of an appetite on council for additional staffing positions to help maintain or increase services to the community.

“In the last few years we have increased our facilities and we have increased our responsibilities, and we were doing all that without increasing our staff,” she said.

“We continue to look very carefully at new positions, but increasing positions was a necessity in order to continue with our current levels of service or increase some levels of service.”

The 3.88 per cent tax increase amounts to an approximate overall tax increase of $139 on an average residential property valued at $650,000, while an average commercial property valued at $3.5 million would see an overall annual tax increase of about $2,800.

“I am very supportive of this budget and I believe taxpayers get great value for their tax dollars,” said Sorensen. “I think 3.88 is a reasonable tax increase. That’s about $11.76 per month on the average home. We’re still fairly considered in the middle of the road within the province in terms of what our taxes are.”

The number of full-time employees at the Town of Banff will jump from 114 to 119, term and seasonal positions increases from 11 to 14 and casual positions go from 60 to 63. Of those 60, 30 are volunteer fire fighters. The Town also has three part-time positions.

Council approved $34,000 to help fund a fire prevention officer, which involves restructuring of the fire department, and $82,700 for the finance department, which will see the addition of a finance clerk position and reclassification of the existing finance officer position.

In addition, $86,200 has been approved to look after Banff’s urban forest, including $56,000 for wages for a full-time position. An additional $40,000 is in the budget to allow for the continuation of seasonal labourers.

Another $57,100 has been approved for maintenance positions at the Fenlands and $57,100 for a maintenance position to look after the Town’s facilities, a department that has not seen an increase in its three full-time positions since 1997.

Council also approved continuation of a part-time engineering coordinator as a term position to meet demands of the busy department, but that position is paid for out of Banff’s capital reserves. There’s also $8,953 to help with a volunteer support position.

Canada Day also got a $10,000 boost to help with the July 1 celebrations and there’s $15,200 for the expansion of the Friday night Get Out Youth project to after school hours on other days of the week.

Council has set aside $6,000 to help pay for track-setting at Tunnel Mountain and $40,000 to develop a master plan for recreation services and programs, which will come from the budget stabilization reserve.

Councillors Ted Christensen and Grant Canning were unsuccessful in their attempts to convince their colleagues to cut some of the staffing positions or programs from the operating budget.

Coun. Canning did not support the urban forester position or the facilities maintenance position. He also voted against expansion of the Get Out Youth program, questioning whether the after-school program should be a municipal responsibility.

“In some cases, I feel an increase in service level is important and in others I’m content to maintain the existing service level for another year with the possibility of revisiting next year,” he said.

“This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the value of those positions or the responsibilities they will have, similar to the challenges we face in our capital budget, it means I don’t think we can do everything we want right now, which inevitably leads to making some difficult decisions.”

Most of council threw its whole-hearted support behind the urban forester position.

“Our urban forest is a $57.8 million asset and we haven’t been investing in a regular maintenance program,” said Coun. Chip Olver. “Because it’s so easy to say, ‘leave the forest alone and let it grow,’ we haven’t been taking the necessary steps to look after it.”

It appears Banff Lake Louise Hotel Motel Association (BLLHMA), an organization with a representative that sat through almost every meeting for service review and budget, can live with the tax increase.

Darren Reeder, BLLHMA’s executive director, said this was the most comprehensive budget process the town has ever undertaken; some really tough questions were asked and department heads came prepared with answers.

He said from a business perspective, the group would like to see more detail on wages and benefits with future budget processes.

“This is the town’s largest cost centre and we are interested in better understanding how total FTE counts change from year-to-year and how much of total staff costs are directly supported through taxes, and how much relates to grants,” he said.

Reeder said a service level review provided a 360 degree view on municipal operations – what departments do, what council’s expectations are and what it will take to deliver the desired results. This made a lot of sense to us.

He said BLLHMA sees tremendous value in the Benchmarking Initiative in terms of relating the performance of people and assets to municipalities of a comparable size. “Measuring costs in absolute terms is only helpful when there is baseline data to look at,” said Reeder.

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