By Tim Kalinowski on July 30, 2021.
A seemingly straightforward decision on whether or not to raise Parks funding in the City of Lethbridge went a bit sideways as city council engaged in a philosophical debate about operational spending priorities.
The lengthy discussion during Tuesday’s council meeting was prompted by a motion introduced by Coun. Blaine Hyggen to increase Parks funding in 2021 by $100,000 and $404,000 in 2022.
Hyggen introduced the motion in response to about 100 complaints he says councillors have received from the public about the unsightliness of drought-stricken parks in some regions and weed-infested boulevards and other areas.
City council voted last fall to cut $500,000 from the Parks budget in 2021 and 2022 in order to fund a zero per cent residential property tax increase for residents.
Parks manager Dave Ellis warned residents back in June the budget cut would mean there would be more weeds and potentially unwatered areas in the city this summer due to the cutbacks.
Coun. Rob Miyashiro expressed his skepticism of the entire motion suggesting Hyggen was politically motivated in bringing it forth on the eve of a municipal election.
He was ruled out of order by Mayor Chris Spearman.
Miyashiro then suggested the majority of complaints he seemed to be seeing were due to the effects of drought and not to a lack of maintenance funding.
Coun. Ryan Parker responded he had heard the same complaints as Coun. Hyggen, and he was of the opinion council had “made a mistake” in taking away the Parks funding last year, and should move to restore it.
Councillors Belinda Crowson and Jeffrey Coffman both opposed the motion stating council made a conscious decision last fall to cut back on Parks funding to provide tax relief to Lethbridge residents. That all councillors, they said, knew full well that by making cuts in Parks and other areas of City operations to fund a zero per cent tax increase there would be consequences to service delivery for residents.
Coffman said he would prefer to see Parks thinking about the effects of climate change on the city, and coming up with new strategies to maintain parks in more arid conditions in the future. He said the budget cut received last fall should be seen as a challenge to Parks staff to think about doing things differently.
Coun. Jeffrey Carlson said he had concerns about allocating reserve monies to fund Parks operations for the next two years if the motion passed. He was reminded by Coun. Parker that the City does this all the time when it comes to things like snow removal and other seasonably variable operations.
Carlson also stated he was reluctant to allocate monies for Parks next year without knowing what the weather conditions would be like. He would prefer the next council deal with the issue when it has a better assessment of the conditions next year.
Coun. Miyashiro concurred and called for the motion to be split in two. A separate vote on the $100,000 in funding for this year and the $404,000 suggested for next year.
On the first part of the motion, city council voted 5-4 to increase Parks funding by $100,000 for this year to deal primarily with weed control in city boulevards and other public spaces, particularly foxtails. These funds will come from City reserves and have no further tax impact on residents.
Miyashiro, Coffman, Crowson and Spearman were opposed.
The second part of the motion, an additional $404,000 in Parks funding for 2022, was defeated 6-3 with only Mauro, Hyggen and Parker in favour.
Coun. Blaine Hyggen said he was surprised by the fierceness of the debate, but he would take the $100,000 as a win for residents this year.
“I think it is a great start to try to get our parks back to where they can be enjoyed by families,” he said. “And one of the biggest parts that was in discussion was foxtail. If we can get rid of some of this concern many people have been reaching out to me (about) that’s important. Hopefully this funding does mitigate some of those concerns.”
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