Budget 2024: RMWB council approves $611.4 million budget, tight revenues ahead

“This is the first budget cycle I’ve sat through in a decade where we’re actually talking about money we don’t have,” said Councillor Keith McGrath.

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Council had a sobering four days debating the 2024 budget as councillors grappled with a tight cash flow that is expected to narrow in the near future. The 2024 budget is $611.4 million. Operations makes up $474 million and $137.6 million will go to reserves for capital. The capital budget is $170.4 million with funding from grants, capital reserves and expected 2024 revenues.

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The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) has no debt, but the meeting was filled with warnings to be stingy with the public purse.

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CAO Henry Hunter said administration is planning a “high-level asset management plan” which will identify what needs to be set aside to maintain the RMWB’s current assets.

“I honestly believe it’s going to be a shock for a number of people around this room,” said Hunter. “I would advise against adding new infrastructure unless we really, really, really need it.”

Council was told that the budget’s multiyear projects are worth more than $518 million and need $422 million during the next five years to complete. Work on these projects began years ago when they were approved by previous councils.

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Laurie Farquharson, the RMWB’s chief financial officer, said project funding requests ahead of the meeting totalled $297 million. Requests were trimmed down to $124.2 million.

Mayor Sandy Bowman proposed a motion to pause multiple minor capital projects from the budget worth $4.8 million. He called them “wants, not needs.” The motion passed unanimously.

Councillor Allan Grandison said more capital projects should be reviewed because they were approved when the RMWB’s revenues were stronger. Grandison and Councillor Keith McGrath were both worried about the RMWB’s long-term revenues.

“This is the first budget cycle I’ve sat through in a decade where we’re actually talking about money we don’t have,” said McGrath.

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Councillors and administration review the 2024 budget on December 14, 2023. Image supplied by George Kyriacoullis of the RMWB
Councillors and administration review the 2024 budget on December 14, 2023. Image supplied by George Kyriacoullis of the RMWB

Council approves major projects across RMWB

The RMWB’s largest projects were approved by previous administrations. The two biggest are in the rural hamlets south of Fort McMurray.

Asphalt roads and roadside drainage will cost $3.5 million in the 2024 budget and $16.2 million until 2029. The RMWB has already spent $104.2 million. Bringing running water and sewage services to the same communities will cost $6.3 million in 2024 and $25.8 million between 2025 and 2029. The RMWB has already spent $165 million on the project.

Fort McMurray’s largest project is $33.8 million for flood mitigation. About $13 million has already been spent on the current flood mitigation project. Another $103.9 million is needed to finish the project by 2028.

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The federal and provincial governments have contributed a combined $20 million. Bowman and administration hope to secure more funding, and administration has applied for a $40 million grant from the federal government.

The section covering Riedel Street to Longboat Landing will be the last to finish. An interim barrier will be used in the meantime. The remaining flood barriers will be finished by 2026.

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Council and administration review the 2024 budget on December 14, 2023. Image supplied by George Kyriacoullis of the RMWB

The Northside Twin Arenas, which will cost $20 million next year. The arena will cost the municipality $50 million to build by 2025. The project was paused after the 2016 Horse River Wildfire.

Councillors added smaller projects to the budget or asked administration to review funding of new projects in 2024.

Councillor Stu Wigle successfully pitched administration study a community hall in Saprae Creek. Wigle said the Fort McMurray International Airport has been proposed, but the building is not designed for services such as childcare. He also wondered if Vista Ridge could be expanded to serve this purpose.

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Councillor Kendrick Cardinal successfully added a new vehicle for animal control officers in Fort Chipewyan. The community got more than 500 calls in 2023, but Cardinal said the SUV in the community is not designed for this purpose. He also proposed administration study a recycling program or facility in Fort Chipewyan.

Highlights of the 2024 budget include:

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