WESTLOCK – The Town of Westlock plans on spending $6,903,256 on capital projects and purchases in 2023, with the lion’s share dedicated to carry-over projects including $2.678M for the municipality’s new public works shop and cold storage facility and $1.475M for the continued rehab of 108th Street.
Following a 25-minute-plus presentation at their Feb. 13 meeting, town councillors unanimously approved the municipality’s 2023-2028 capital budget, a document that counts $5,203,556 in projects from last year like the new shop, 108th Street work and $600,000 to demolish Jubilee Arena and pave over the site, plus $1,699,700 in new spends ranging from $190,000 for a handful of new trucks, a tractor and trailer, to $84,000 to add camping spots to Mountie Park, $120,000 for an emergency lighting generator for the Rotary Spirit Centre (RSC), $37,000 to replace the wet sauna with a dry sauna at the aquatic centre and $423,000 worth of upgrades to Heritage Building — a project that’s contingent on a $200,000 provincial grant. The request for decision (RFD) to council notes federal and provincial grants account for $3.15M of the funding, with the rest, $3.75M, covered by restricted and unrestricted reserve dollars.
With the operating budget now passed, CAO Simone Wiley said administration will have the municipality’s operating budget in front of council March 13, followed by the tax rate bylaw on March 27.
In a follow-up interview Feb. 17, mayor Ralph Leriger said over the last handful of years the town’s capital budget “has focused on infrastructure informed by the asset management plan and fleet replacement informed by that plan” but also “some fun stuff focused on citizen wellbeing like the new Polymanth Playground and the Wibit at the pool.”
“And over the years we’ve funded those projects three ways — a combination of reserves, borrowing of some type and grants, mainly MSI Capital and the federal gas tax,” said Leriger. “So, this year’s plan reflects our carryover, the big projects like the town shop and 108th Street and then the need to build back our reserve accounts to fund road repair projects in the future. We’ve achieved our zero per cent tax increases over the past two years by putting less into reserves and that’s a slippery slope so now we’ve got to rebuild those accounts.”
The RFD to council notes a 54 per cent reduction in Municipal Sustainability Initiative Capital Grant funding from average levels of $1.18M in the past five years, to $541,000 for 2023, as a “significant challenge” for the municipality to fund future projects.
“The reduction of support from the province has required that the town put more time between capital road projects or find other sources of funding to meet the costs and minimize borrowing needs,” reads the RFD in part.
It also notes the province has announced a new program for 2024, but it will not be at the same levels as the previous program and the funding formula has yet to be announced.
“We’ll cross that bridge … jump off that bridge when we get to it,” added Leriger.
Going forward, the document counts $20M worth of planned work between now and 2028, with $4.25M worth of projects, including the replacement of the curling rink’s ice plant and revitalization of the East Glen Playground, in 2024.
On tap for 2023
Although the top spends in the budget are holdovers, one of the exciting 2023 projects is $250,000 for Whissellville Natural Accessibility Infrastructure, a plan that will see fish introduced to the storm water park on the north side of town.
Community services director Gerry Murphy said they plan on dredging the pond and will stock it with fish, plus add some floating docks “so we can get out in the water a bit.” Murphy noted that if the park takes off with residents as they hope, they’ll also look at expanding parking at the site.
“The vision for the pond is for it to be multi-seasonal — skating in the winter and fishing in the summer,” said Murphy. “Dredging it will also increase its capacity to take water and help with overland flooding.”
Another of the large spends will be $110,000 on new asset management software, with Wiley calling the purchase “the next logical step in our asset management journey and will bring everything together.”
“We have a lot of data and most of it lives in our GIS system but as we expand and grow and we get more data, the problem is how do we pull that out to actually use it. So, the software integrates the financial side of things with an inventory side of things … all of the data needs to exist in one place and talk to each other,” she said.
Town finance director Julia Seppola said the software comes with an annual $21,000 licensing fee, which she remembered specifically as it cost “more than what we paid for the financial software” but noted the initial cost includes training and implementation. Although there might be some sticker shock, councillors were completely behind the purchase noting the need for the municipality to continue embracing “data driven” decisions.
“Ten, 20 years from now and maybe less than that, a councillor will sit in this chair and see a data-driven capital budget. I think the return on investment is that if we’re to save $1 million on a project that we didn’t need to do because the data says it’s within its lifespan, you’ve paid for 50 years of software at $21,00 a year,” said Coun. Murtaza Jamaly.
Another project of note is an $84,000 spend to add eight camping stalls and upgrade electrical servicing at some of the sites at Mountie Park, while Jamaly also noted the $423,000 Heritage Building project just builds on past work there to make the facility “a showcase in our community.”
“It’s worth noting that of all recreational spending that we do, this is actually an investment because Mountie Park is our largest revenue source in terms of revenue versus expenditures. So, an expansion of Mountie Park actually helps us pay for other services because it is profitable,” said Jamaly.
“And it will likely remain so because campgrounds are at a premium in our area,” added Leriger.