There are more discussions to be had, more decisions to be made, and more cuts set to happen before city councillors officially set the property tax rate for 2017 — but after an all-day workshop on Feb. 25, the broad strokes of budget discussions are beginning to paint a picture of the year ahead for the City of Merritt.

Although no decisions were technically finalized at Saturday’s workshop, councillors spent hours debating the merit of items included in the draft budget — ‘red-flagging’ some items for discussion at a later date, while outright defeating others.

“Nothing is written in stone yet. There is obviously some stuff [city council] defeated — there is little chance of that coming back to the table,” said Sheila Thiessen, director of finance for the City of Merritt. “But the other stuff, once they look at the whole picture all together, they might decide they need to pair down even further.”

Following Saturday’s all-day session, Mayor Neil Menard expressed confidence that the city would be able to keep the property tax increase to under two per cent this year.

“We’re not committed to anything. Once all the numbers are in, we’ll make that decision,” said Menard. “But we’re all fairly confident — if it has to be done — it’s not going to go beyond two per cent.”

Thiessen said it would certainly be possible to keep the increase under two per cent while funding a number of different infrastructure investments and capital projects — but the nuts and bolts as to how that budget would be balanced would still have to be worked out.

“We have surpluses that we can pull in to help keep it under two per cent. I will be compiling all of that. That will be part of March 7’s discussion, whether we do cuts or how we manage to keep it under two per cent — maybe [we’ll] use some surplus,” said Thiessen.

Final Grant in Aid requests reviewed

Saturday’s workshop also gave the opportunity to four groups to make an appeal to council for cash from the city’s Grant in Aid program — after the groups’ initial applications were deferred at an earlier budget meeting in January.

While the requests will be finalized at a regularly scheduled council meeting sometime in the near future, councillors approved recommendations to give each group at least some of the funds they requested.

Council recommended that the City of Merritt make a $3,000 contribution to the local Chamber of Commerce, qualifying the city as a corporate sponsor of the business advocacy group.

As a corporate sponsor of the group, the city’s logo will appear on publications and newsletters from the chamber, among other advertising benefits.

The Merritt Mountain Bike Association was looking for $10,000 to help fund the development of more trails around the Nicola Valley. Council partially approved the grant for $5,000 with a recommendation that the group look for funding through the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, as the areas that would be developed for trails fell outside Merritt’s city limits.

The Nicola Valley Rodeo Association (NVRA) was also looking for $10,000 from the city — a request approved by council — in order to bolster their efforts to attract sponsors to the annual pro rodeo.

Ally Thompson, who presented to council on behalf of the NVRA, noted that the organization is looking to host some high profile rodeos in Merritt, including the BC High School rodeo championships, and the Canadian Finals in 2018.

Finally, the Nicola Valley Skating Club’s request for $4,400 to offset the cost of paying for a qualified coach from Logan Lake was approved by council.

With over $50,000 now accounted for under the Grant in Aid and Community Initiative programs, $26,762 remains in the fund for extraordinary grant requests throughout the year, explained Thiessen.

Three items dropped from draft budget after meeting

While the budgeting process continues at the next scheduled budget meeting on March 7, several items dropped at Saturday’s meeting likely won’t make it to the floor in March.

Councillors voted against approving a request from United Way for $20,000. The organization was seeking repayment for renovations that United Way did to the city-owned property known as the fireside centre in Spirit Square, when ASK Wellness was the tenant in the building.

As ASK has now vacated the building, United Way was looking to recoup some of their investment, explained Menard.

“When we put out a request for proposal for people to rent from us, normally, as part of the contract, if they want to make any changes or additions to the facility, that’s their responsibility,” said Menard. “I was surprised they asked in the first place — but it’s like this: if you don’t ask, you’re not going to find out. They found out, and the answer is no.”

Another $20,000 item was dropped from the budget, after councillors expressed some doubt that installing lights at the tennis courts would be a wise investment in a city where the majority of tennis-playing goes on in the summer when it is light out until late anyway.

Lastly, a motion to pay for a vehicle for the city’s building inspector never even made it to the floor in council chambers on Saturday, meaning council is unlikely to pursue the idea any further, explained Thiessen.

While a couple items were dropped from the draft budget, others were red-flagged for further review after the finance department had a chance to create a variety of scenarios involving budget cuts and increases to the tax rate for councillors to weigh.

“The red-flagged ones will come up at another budget meeting — they might not come up on the seventh because we have other things to cover off then, but the red-flagged items will come up later once we have a better idea of where we are with what [council’s] total of things they approved,” said Thiessen.

Other items were approved by council without being especially contentious. Council voted in favour of increasing the funding to the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives, from $35,000 a year to $50,000 a year. The increase was necessary after the society lost a major family sponsor last year, explained Coun. Mike Goetz.

Council also signalled that Cranna Crescent may be in line for resurfacing in 2018, after earmarking some funds for a design study in 2017’s budget.

“That’s been on the books for a long time, and it needs to be done,” said Menard. “The preliminary work will be done this year, and hopefully that’ll be done next year.”

A $15,000-fund was set aside for community groups to apply for, under the auspices of celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Finally, Menard mentioned that a personal priority for him would be to look at the possibility of building a columbarium — a structure where urns containing ashes can be stored — at the Pine Ridge Cemetery.

“I think most of council was pretty satisfied with the meeting,” said Menard. “It’s always one of those things where everyone doesn’t get what they’re looking for, but I think we did a good job and got a lot done.”