City Councillor Offers Insight on Brandon’s Rollback Budget

It was great news to start the year for Brandonites. The rare occurrence of an annual budget mostly void of any glaring inflation. The timing couldn’t have been any better for most folks who endured an overall dismal 2020. For those of you wondering how City Council arrive at such a satisfactory prudent financial point, Spark News decided to conduct a Q & A with one of Brandon’s newest city council members to get the inside info.

Shaun Cameron was voted in as The University Ward Councillor in the 2018 civic election. The seat was left vacant by Jeff Harwood who, after a long run in the ward, decided not to run. That particular election recorded low voter turnout as Rick Chrest went unchallenged and waltzed into his second term as Mayor of Brandon. According to reports, unofficial voter turnout was 16.86 percent with just over 6,000 ballots cast. Can you say stats quo? But that’s another story for another time.

Cameron was also appointed Acting Deputy mayor in November of last year. He’s a father of two young girls and has always been a major proponent for the betterment of Brandon. He brings a wealth of public service experience to his position from serving as a Board Member for the Art Gallery of South Western Manitoba, Brandon Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation, Assiniboine Community College Foundation, Brandon General Museum & Archives Board, Co-Chair of The Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee and Chair of Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium Board of Governors. He also owns and operates his own production company which is fitting since he spent many years at CKX-TV on the production side of things. He combined that media experience with many years as a Brandon Sun columnist. His current occupation is Secretary of the Board of Governors with Assiniboine Community College.

With a multitude of things going on in his life, we are pleased he found the time to oblige us with this Q & A session.

Spark News: Thanks again for agreeing to participate in my piece on reviewing the budget. First off, congrats to you and your cohorts for bringing the budget in slightly below the previous year. I’m guessing the City’s annual budget isn’t usually decreased from year to year. How many times has this happened in the past 10 years?

 

Shaun Cameron: That is a great question. In looking back, this is the first time in quite some time a rollback budget has been presented. There were a few years earlier in the 2000s where budgets were at or close to 0% but did present with some small form of increase. This budget was achieved through a couple of measures. First and foremost, the administration presents a budget to the council indicating where they see priorities in the community. From there, through a very consultative process, the council and administration come together for a number of meetings over months leading up to the final budget process. This is the third budget I have been a part of as the representative for the University ward, and I feel there is plenty for our residents to be excited about with this budget.

 

How much of a factor was COVID in this year’s budget process?

I would say for all members of the council the pandemic weighed heavily on our minds going into this budget. Our community and residents have faced tremendous challenges throughout 2020, so the council went into budget being very aware that we wanted to ensure we could provide some form of relief while still ensuring we grow services and amenities in our community that can be celebrated when the pandemic is over.

 

How is the budget process started?

The budget day is actually only the last couple hundred feet of the race. City administration begins working on budget plans for the coming year generally around June or July of the previous year, and the council gets our first look at the proposal by early fall for the coming year. From there a series of meetings are held with each department going over the particular priorities for the council and our residents. Each budget is its own unique document so it is not something that can be overly formulaic. It takes some finessing and works from both council and administration to come to a position where we feel we can meet the expectations of our residents.

 

Does each member of council present the most pressing issues from their respective ward and then you prioritize from that point on. Based on the constituents in your ward, what are the main concerns regarding upgrades?

Definitely. I think you can see with the budget though that many of the items we present are items that benefit the city as a whole. Our neighborhoods and areas are so intertwined that items like traffic, streets, and roads, infrastructure, amenities and recreation, all come to bear. That is the beauty of a city like Brandon, we don’t often have to plan for items that are solely neighborhood specific as our neighborhoods interact so readily, and most of what is brought forward are items that benefit all residents.

As for items that were important to the University ward; infrastructure, drainage issues, and back lane maintenance were three items I took into the budget process as priorities. I’m pleased council also noted these as priorities for their areas and we were able to secure some historic investments for all three needs.

 

How would you rate the city’s overall infrastructure and where are upgrades required in that regard?

Our city, much like any city throughout Canada is facing an infrastructure deficit. Infrastructure is incredibly expensive and often needs partnership from other levels of government, but in all reality is one of the areas of greatest need. I think this has been a hallmark of this council is to look at areas that improve our city through “nuts and bolts” improvements. These types of projects are not often “sexy” projects but are necessary to ensure the quality of life in our community.

What are the overall top five areas Brandon needs to concentrate on for upgrades?

In no particular order as far as importance, I think the areas of greatest need would be drainage, streets and roads infrastructure, becoming a more active transportation friendly city, parks sustainability, and recreation.

 

There’ve been a couple of community centers and water parks that have had upgrades within the past few years, did any of those types of facilities make it onto the agenda this time around?

The community centres remain an integral area of need in our community. For far too long these centres have deteriorated due to starved funding and slow movement to upgrades. The budget this time around saw a continued focus on funding for centres, as well as finding solutions for centres like Park Community Centre and South End Community Centre. Both structures are evidence of what can happen when lack of investment leads to larger issues. I look forward to our city continuing on consultation as to the highest and best use for both spaces.

What is the standard amount allocated to each community center by the city each year?

The community centres access their funding through a body called the Central Council of Community Centres. The city provides funding ranging from $50,000- $160,000 (has ranged over the years) to the Central Council of Community Centres to meet and divide up among the centres for projects deemed suitable by the group. As a result, some centres may receive more than others in any given year based on the needs that are presented at that time. The community centres are tremendously well served by the volunteers, so it is a small part we as a council can do to ensure that the basic necessities are met in these centres.

 

Surplus, how does that get divided out when needed?

The city does end up some years with a surplus. How surpluses are handled is they basically offset potential increases in the following year. As a council, we approach the role that the monies have been collected by the residents and for whatever reason, in a given year (vacancies, lower costs, etc.) those funds were not exhausted. By using it against any potential increases the next year, or allocation to projects or reserves for projects, it lowers the burden on ratepayers, while not taxing them again and utilizing the funds in a way that will lower the overall tax ask of residents or business.

The outdoor field house and multi-sport complex was named as one of the areas where funds needed to be allocated. What is the timeline for construction on that facility from start to finish? Also, where would I find more info on that particular project? Is there a page on the city website?

Council has long felt this was a priority. It has taken longer I think than anyone would have hoped to get to this point, but I think we have a solid plan in place to finally see the ground turn and the project move forward. Ultimately the project would be a multi-million dollar facility that we hope will increase people coming to Brandon for events and the like. As for timelines, the city plans to begin work this summer which will address any potential drainage concerns, and then from there, it is ultimately based on how long the tendering process takes, timelines from the construction industry, etc. One bonus of this project is the city did a great deal of consultative work on this facility already, and we have documents like the Recreation Master Plan to guide us through what the need of the facility will be. In many cases, those items would take years on their own, so having both those consultative documents complete expedites us to the phase we are in now. There is still some way to go, but my hope is we see some play on the first phases of field construction very soon, with work to follow from there.

For anyone wishing to find out more about the project, they can keep an eye on the City of Brandon’s parks and recreation page where updates will continue to be brought forward throughout the project.