City of Fernie city hall. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)

Fernie budget meeting tonight

City council will be discussing community feedback to the proposed budget tonight

City of Fernie Mayor and Council will be mulling over community feedback to the budget proposal revealed two weeks ago, with a special meeting of council tonight (Thursday April 8).

Within the meeting documents, staff have reported that of 60 feedback forms and emails received, just over half (31) expressed concern about cuts in partner funding, while seven indicated support for a higher tax increase.

At a council meeting on March 23, Fernie’s elected officials supported tackling a $546,755 budget deficit by raising taxes by 4 percent, giving operating partners a 20 percent operating grant cut and reducing payments into reserves.

The proposed cuts to operating partners drew the most attention through community consultation.

As proposed, the Seniors Drop-In Centre, Fernie Museum and Fernie Arts Council would see their operating grants with the city reduced by 20 percent. The Seniors Drop-In Centre would receive only $24,000, instead of the previous amount of $30,000.

In a letter to the city, Jim Booth and Nici Blackwell, who are respectively the president and treasurer of the Senior Citizens Club of Fernie and District (which operates the Seniors Drop-In Centre) said that they felt the 20 percent cut to the centre was “a deep cut that will seriously impact our ability to continue the level of programming that was offered prior to the pandemic.”

Booth and Blackwell said that the decision to cut funds from their own, and other community groups was done without enough input from those groups.

“These are not arbitrary numbers to the community groups. These numbers equate to a decrease in days that the Centre is open, a decrease in programming, a potential increase in annual membership fees, rental costs, and cafe prices,” they wrote.

The Fernie Chamber of Commerce, which operates the Visitor Information Centre through an operating grant from the city that was locked in via a long-term contract (and therefore received no cuts), came out batting for community groups that were not shielded from cuts, with chamber president Anita Palmer writing that the decision to cut their funding more than three months into an operating year was unfair, and put those groups in a vulnerable position.

“With more information and deliberation, longer term funding cuts to these groups may well be the direction you head in. But there needs to be much more discussion on this to make an informed decision and decent notice given to these groups.”

Palmer and the chamber also said the discussion around community groups might as well be thrown open, if the city did not consider them to be ‘core services.’

“For example, if this council truly believes an art gallery is not a core municipal service – why do you own that building? And what would you do with that building if that group who currently operates it on your behalf was forced to step away due to lack of funding?”

Returning to general feedback from the public, interestingly, while seven supported a greater than 4 percent tax increase, only three were opposed. Other options presented to council had been lower tax rates paired with deeper cuts to community groups, and significantly higher tax rates while leaving community groups (and payments to reserves) relatively untouched.

There were a few suggestions seemingly out of left field, with two respondents recommending the city reduce street lighting, another suggesting the RCMP budget be reduced, and another taking aim at the fire department, suggesting they have their budget reduced.

The special meeting of council to discuss community feedback will take place tonight at 6 p.m., and will be open on Zoom and streamed on the city’s Facebook page.

READ MORE: Preliminary budget: 4 percent tax increase on the cards for Fernie
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