Behind on budget due to their finance department lacking permanent leadership, the City of Merritt is heading into the annual budgeting process full force in the coming months. At this point in the year, many B.C. municipalities have firmed up their budget significantly ahead of final adoption in May, but Merritt City Council just had its first budget meeting last week.

During a Committee of the Whole meeting on Wednesday (Mar. 15), councillors had their first look at the 2023 budget.

“Staff is preparing the budget including all contracted increases and the costs required to maintain current service levels, while meeting all legislated requirements and standards,” said Sheila Thiessen, the city’s former CFO and current finance contractor, in a presentation to council.

“Council will be presented with this budget as the base, and then be provided with supplemental items for consideration. These supplemental items will either be for service level enhancements, new services, and projects.”

The new budget will set the city’s spending and income for the year, including the property tax rate, infrastructure projects, city services such as bylaw, and the city’s contribution towards emergency services such as RCMP. 

Thiessen identified a number of challenges council could face while creating the new budget, including the rising cost of construction and increased requirements for water and sewer operator certification for the city’s aging infrastructure. The new budget must be adopted by council before May 15, and is part of the city’s larger 2023-2027 financial plan. 

Merritt Mayor Mike Goetz told the Herald that while he believes the budget process will be an intensive one, city council will have no problem adopting it before the deadline. He noted that current delays are caused by the city’s lack of a full-time financial department head.

“We have been unable to fill the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) chair full time,” said Goetz.

“We’ve been doing this with a part time [CFO], Norm Thomson has been coming in from Kamloops to help us, but he is not a full-time employee, and it’s been one of the harder portfolios to fill.”

Despite several interviews for the job, city staff have been unable to fill the still-vacant CFO position. Council is moving ahead with the position unfilled, with the Mayor confident at his mostly-new council’s ability to pass a balanced budget.

“We’ll be pulling some long Saturdays to get this done, but we will get this done before the deadline, no problem,” said Goetz, noting that he expects council to have seven to 10 additional budget meetings.

Goetz also noted that while it’s too early to tell what next year’s municipal property tax rate could be, he hopes to limit any potential increases as much as possible. The budget, including the tax rate, will go to public consultation before it is passed by council. Thiessen noted in her presentation that form that the required public input will take is still being discussed.