Regina city council approves plan to make up projected $20.7 million shortfall

Regina city council has approved a plan to make up for a $20.7-million shortfall projected by the end of September due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a special city council meeting Wednesday, Mayor Michael Fougere said the city is living in extraordinary times and is making its way through “uncharted waters” with no shoreline in sight in many ways.

“This is a hit-and-miss art on how we continue to provide services,” he said.

The plan, approved Wednesday with just a couple of minor amendments, includes a variety of cost-saving measures recommended by city administration to stem the strong tide of COVID-19.

It includes a postponement of nine projects totalling $6.4 million under the Residential Road Renewal Program that are already four to six weeks behind schedule due to the pandemic and would be challenging to complete while respecting social distancing guidelines.

The expansion of transit routes to the airport and Westerra development as well as the on-demand transit pilot will be delayed until August. The summer and spring U-pass transit program University of Regina students will be delayed until May 2021.

Approximately $7.4 million in “expense reduction measures” was also approved, which includes everything from a hiring freeze except for essential workers to the option of dipping into the Winter Road Maintenance Program reserve fund.

Administration also looked to reduce the spring street sweeping program by focusing on arterial and collector roads, not residential roads, but council agreed to maintain the program in full, using reserve funds to pay the difference.
So far, it is the only item in the plan that will use reserve funds, but some council members believe the city should be relying more on reserves and less on cutting services.

“We owe it to our residents to look at every possible opportunity to find savings and not put pressure on taxpayers at all,” said Fougere.

Others, like Ward 8 Coun. Mike O’Donnell, agreed council should not resort to increasing taxes, but cautioned using reserves.

“This is the start of this process, not the end of this process and I think if we start going after reserves right now, we would leave ourselves short,” he said.

Reduction in services
Some services will be temporarily stopped in order to cut costs, including mosquito, Dutch elm disease, cankerworm, gopher, aphid, and spurge control programs. Only spot spraying for cankerworms will be done as well as monitoring only for mosquitos and Dutch elm disease.

Most of the city’s usual park and green space maintenance, save for athletic fields until they can be used again, will proceed as normal.

The Provincial Capital Commission is able to provide the city with 80 per cent of the plant materials needed by the city to do its usual flower pots and other horticulture work throughout the city, but administration said it will refrain from planting in areas that are closed to members of the public, like City Hall and Mosaic Stadium.

Calls for help deferred by council
Two written submissions were read into the record during Wednesday’s meeting that called on the city to provide more financial support to businesses and laid off city workers.

On behalf of the Regina & District Chamber of Commerce, CEO John Hopkins asked the city to consider providing relief to non-residential property owners through a 25-per-cent reduction in the municipal portion of property taxes in 2020.

Administration will come back to council with a report in July outlining the implications of the request, which it said is plenty of time to address the concern before property taxes come due at the end of September as well as see what supports the federal and provincial governments might be able to provide instead.

Three unions representing city workers also asked council to provide all laid off employees with a Supplemental Unemployment Benefit Program to help make up for lost wages. Administration will come back to council by the end of May with a report for consideration.

City manager Chris Holden was also granted emergency powers, which gives him delegated authority to make certain quick decisions, for example entering into funding agreements with the province in order to access important financial assistance in a timely manner. Council retains the right to cancel or amend any decisions made by Holden under this authority.

This will handle the revenue gap we have for the moment,” said Fougere.

Regina Leader-Post / April 15, 2020