July 20th, 2024

SPC gives support to BRZ budget

By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on March 15, 2024.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDabeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

The Economic and Finance Standing Policy Committee of city council will recommend that the 2024 Downtown Lethbridge Revitalization Zone budget be approved.

The SPC consists of the mayor and all council members.

The BRZ has proposed a five per cent increase on its budget from 2023 for a total of $250,215. With City expenses included, the requested budget amounts to $266,798.47.

Sarah Amies, executive director of the BRZ, told the SPC that the budget was increased in 2023 for the first time in 12 years.

In response to a question from councillor Jenn Schmidt-Rempel about any concerns of the BRZ board about the increase, Amies said “the board discussed it and we decided that an increase of about five per cent this year was a reasonable increase. We based it on consumer price increase and the cost of inflation,” Amies added.

“As we all know, inflation is really hitting everybody hard. All costs are rising so we do feel we need the additional revenue to continue doing the work we do,” added Amies.

In response to a second question from Schmidt-Rempel about business health in the downtown core, Amies said “I think for the most part, and if you look at the Brighter Together survey through EDL and the Downtown Business Revitalization Zone, I feel for the most part that there is a level of optimism amongst the business community.

“Feedback that I’m receiving is varied but I would suggest that the majority of folks I speak to, business owners especially, are pleased with the efforts of the BRZ, love Festival Square, love the initiatives, really, really keen on things like the Clean Sweep Program which is funded through the City and I would suggest that, by and large, although we are dealing obviously with a lot of issues – social issues, that kind of thing – by and large we’re trying to keep our head above water and look at the positive,” Amies added.

A “fairly unscientific count” that was done recently showed 93 per cent occupancy at street level downtown, said Amies, adding she’d have to do more research to get the exact total.

Councillor Belinda Crowson asked if the Clean Sweep program is achieving what it’s intended to do and if its budget is appropriate.

Amies said the program is definitely achieving its intended purpose. One foreman, she said, starts at 5:30 a.m. doing a sweep before people come to work.

In terms of funding, “we’re managing certainly, however, costs are going up. Even the cost of things like garbage bags which we use regularly and numerously. So when we get to our next budget cycle, certainly we’ll be going into some negotiation, presumably with the City.”

Amies told the SPC an issue came up last year when it was brought up that the BRZ wasn’t paying Clean Sweep crew members – who she pointed out are stipend volunteers, not employees – the $15 an hour provincial minimum wage.

“That remittance for them was raised to $15. There were jobs that being done for $10, other jobs for $12 and the remainder for $15 so that has certainly put some stress on our budget because we’re having to pay between 18 and 25 people that much more money.”

That stipend for Clean Sweep volunteers was passed by council last year, Amies pointed out, with no increase to the BRZ’s overall budget.

“So that has become a bit of a pinch point for us.”

Acting Mayor John Middleton-Hope brought up the identification and reporting of graffiti and how it fits into the City’s graffiti abatement model.

The BRZ has established a graffiti reporting form on its website, said Amies, and has reports coming in but staff also drive around checking for graffiti and acting on it as they can.

The BRZ has removed more than 100 examples of graffiti this year, she said.

In response to a question from councillor Mark Campbell about concerns the BRZ levy is not doing anything to enhance the downtown, Amies said “I would have to disagree respectfully with those folks because every day down in the office we are so busy with our advocacy efforts. Our support and promotion in particular we have a really, really dedicated hard-working team. Our door is always open, we reach out to our membership with newsletters and through social media. We do a lot of initiatives to bring folks into the downtown.”

She invited people with concerns to visit the office to talk with the BRZ how it can serve its membership.

Councillor Jeff Carlson said the requested budget increase “seems fairly minimal” and wondered if there were discussions with the board about smaller or larger increases “to either accomplish more or refocus.”

He added he sometimes hears comments on the levy and that it’s a “very small budget that seems to accomplish a lot.”

Amies said the budget was raised “quite radically” 20 per cent in 2023 because the BRZ was falling “so incredibly behind in comparison to other similarly sized cities and the revenues their BIAS and BRZs receive. So the 20 per cent went through with absolutely no opposition,from my perspective anyway.”

In 2024, the BRZ thought with that increase and given how people people are struggling as much as the BRZ, to be fair and empathetic to its membership that it relay to them the BRZ understands their struggles and would keep the increase this year “based on the consumer price index and other markers like that,” she said.

“This year what we did was raise the minimum tax within the larger levy,” said Amies, adding “we are being strategic and we’re doing it slowly because the last thing we want is people standing up and saying this is ridiculous.

“I would like more and more people to be in agreement with the fact that we do need to raise the levies slowly and gently over the years in order to be able to keep pace, in order to be able to do the good job we want to do,” Amies said.

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