Arrowsmith View Market drew people to Port Alberni’s Uptown area throughout the spring and summer in 2019. Costs to upgrade the area have gone up, and city council has asked department heads to justify spending for the proposed 2020 budget. (MIKE YOUDS/ Special to the News)

BUDGET 2020: City of Port Alberni department heads asked to justify costs

Faulty firefighter breathing gear, ballooning Uptown costs, train marketing all questioned

BY MIKE YOUDS

Special to the News

Proposed upgrades to Third Avenue have ballooned by $500,000 according to an engineering estimate, just one of the projected capital costs Port Alberni city council is scrutinizing in the 2020 city budget.

The budget review will continue into February as council searches for ways to minimize the impact on taxpayers. As it stands, the draft financial plan proposes expenditures of $24.5 million, supported through an average property tax increase of 5.2 percent or $103 on the average home.

The tax hit could go higher unless savings can be found, council heard in a committee of the whole meeting Monday, Jan. 20. A three-hour grilling of department heads was not enough to mayor and council that its five-year financial plan is ready for prime time, trimmed of any capital costs deemed non-essential.

“This a living, working document,” cautioned Tim Pley, chief administrative officer. “It’s not meant to be etched in stone.”

Monday’s go-round was based on a lengthy list of questions submitted by councillors as they look for ways to reduce capital expenditures. Items cited for consideration ran a gamut of departmental priorities, included faulty breathing apparatus for firefighters and accident extraction equipment needing replacement, aging fleet vehicles, computer connectivity and routine maintenance of Echo Centre pool, duly noted as the oldest continually operated, non-retrofitted public swimming pool in Canada.

Pley told councillors that they will have more information in hand on the Third Avenue revitalization costs in time for their next meeting Jan. 27. The project was originally estimated to cost $400,000 and now sits at $900,000, although as much as 60 percent could come from the B.C. Active Transportation Infrastructure program.

Should the city be unsuccessful in obtaining grant funding, council would have the opportunity to reconsider the project, narrow its scope or allocate funds from reserve, Pley said.

Fire Chief Mike Owens was asked to justify projected equipment costs, including replacement of Fire Engine No. 1, approaching 30 years of service. Owens said the city could be at risk of having its insurance rating downgraded if it doesn’t replace the engine, one item in the department’s projected $995,000 capital costs. Cost of replacing a 2007 pickup was also questioned.

“Certainly, we don’t want to get to the point with emergency vehicles that are owned by the city, where we’re sitting by the side of the road with the hood up when we should be attending an emergency,” Owens said.

Other firefighting equipment, specifically self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), was considered too vital to cut. Units purchased in 2013 continue to have issues, Owens said. Replacement cost: $198,000.

“I don’t want to spend the money, but on the other hand, if we lost one firefighter …,” said Councillor Ron Paulson. “You can’t put a cost on lives.”

An additional $20,000 requested to cover a marketing contract for Alberni Pacific Railway brought Ken Rutherford of the Industrial Heritage Society to the mike. Rutherford explained that getting the train back in operation next summer requires a focus on marketing, skills the train manager won’t have.

Mayor Sharie Minions wondered why the society hasn’t tapped into grants instead of relying solely on city taxpayers.

“It is a tough position,” Rutherford said, holding out hope for an operating surplus should the passenger numbers support it. “And I don’t know what the definitive is. It’s the best we can do.”

The projected cost of a facelift for the Harbour Quay clocktower has also increased to $250,000 from $150,000 since it was first proposed last year. Pley said they have since learned that lead-based paint on the tower would require use of a shroud to protect the public.

Other priorities, including $150,000 for a city welcome sign and the relocation of the public works yard, were vetted as well.

The next budget meeting takes place Feb. 3 with opportunities for public input continuing until March 20. Final budget adoption is set for mid-April.

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