Budget Blues

On August 14, 2017 Council received a report from the late Lloyd Smith, our Director of Leisure Services on the condition of our public works building. For those of us in the room, it was startling. 

“A number of buildings located at the public works yard have not been maintained adequately over the last thirty years. In 2016, the Quonset building was decommissioned after engineers identified structural issues. These issues had been previously outlined in a report completed and supplied to the City in 1997 but were never addressed.” 

Fast forward to August 17, 2020 when Ken Oldenburger presented to Council about the state of our Records Management Assessment and suggested that Fernie  was one of the worst he’s ever seen, and that our records fall firmly in what he categorizes as ‘Sub Standard’ - bringing unreasonable financial and legal risk to the organization. 

What about our water source you ask? On March 15, 2021 we heard a detailed presentation about our Fairy Creek Source assessment, and the immediate need for investment to make sure we can continue to supply water to Fernie. 

Our Integrated Infrastructure Capital Plan Completion presentation on August 17, 2020 was designed to show Council how this plan will impact future budget spending. Moving through the process 
of asset management to shore up Fernie now, and into the future by informing Council on asset renewal, expansion and/or divestment. 

A key recommendation in this report is that after reviewing our road network and utilities with a 20-year horizon, we need to start funding investment for scheduled replacement of the identified infrastructure. The report highlights that current investment level is inadequate to fund the identified projects, and that infrastructure failure is a real risk. 

This year our budget communication anchored around the idea that due to years of organizational change, gaps in reporting and inconsistent processes, escalating cost drivers, a practice of funding operational expenditures from capital reserves (leading to insufficient investment in infrastructure) and amplified by the impact of COVID-19, the City of Fernie is in an extremely precarious situation. We were faced with nothing but impossible decisions which included -despite all of the need I’ve just listed- a reduction in our contribution to reserves. 

We looked everywhere to find a middle ground, a palatable solution going forward. One that we could be proud of and meet the needs of Fernie. Currently we contribute $640,000 a year towards arts and culture, and this year to balance the overwhelming need of the organization we considered a proposed funding cut that would see the Museum move from receiving $53,808 to receiving $43,046. Likewise, the Art Station moving from $45,372 to $36,298. 

The letter writing campaign started in earnest, imploring us to value art and culture. We value arts and culture, we do it annually to the tune of $640,000. This year though, after the third-party financial audit demonstrated years of unreliable financial information, we found ourselves in a very challenging situation, but that information apparently fell on deaf ears.

I naively waited for the asset management champions to start their own letter writing campaign, demanding that we set a tax rate that would not pass along the cost of necessary investment onto the next years’ budget at an increased cost. A pattern all too familiar to the city. Remember, we had our own public works building condemned. 

Right now, the budget is out the door, and adopted as of last night and I am left with a pit in my stomach. I have one goal this year, to keep talking about asset management and how important it is.

Council will spend this year reviewing service levels and how we navigate these competing needs, so please stay with us in conversation, this is your budget also. We are merely stewards of the assets that you own for a brief period of time.  

As my high school teacher Mr. Vallance famously says, “If you aren’t pissed off it’s because you aren’t paying attention.”

Photo by Vanessa Croome