Saskatchewan

Regina council dipping into reserves after special COVID-19 meeting

Regina city council's COVID-19 meeting Wednesday covered a wide variety of topics, but much of the debate centred around whether now is the time to dip into the city's reserve.

Council was split over whether this is the time to dip in to the city's so-called 'rainy-day fund'

'If there ever was an emergency, this is an emergency,' says Regina Mayor Michael Fougere, who supported dipping into the city's reserve fund. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

A special meeting of Regina city council on Wednesday focused on COVID-19 shortfalls, and ways the city might avoid a deficit. 

Council entered the meeting staring down a possible $20.7 million revenue shortfall by the end of September.

With many operations that make money for the city shuttered, the revenue shortfall was projected to sit around $7.7 million on April 30, rising to $12.1 million by June 30. Like many municipalities, Regina is able to borrow, but cannot run a deficit.

Councillors appproved plans to redistribute and reduce costs to stay afloat. 

"We have bridged that gap for the moment," said Mayor Michael Fougere.

"We're looking at $7.5 million from expense reductions and another 7.2 million on capital programs and other projects that are funded to offset operating costs, so we're good until the fall."

Part of those savings came from pushing some road work projects ahead to next construction season. Many projects involve significant underground work, and the city said both timing and COVID-19 restrictions were concerns for doing that work safely. 

Councillors covered a wide variety of topics, but much of the debate centred around whether now is the time to dip into the city's reserve funds.

A debate on whether to continue the city's usual spring street-sweeping program, for example, led to a decision to find money for that $400,000 program from the city's reserves.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Fougere said he was in favour of using that money. 

"If there ever was an emergency, this is an emergency," he said.

"Our revenues have fallen but more importantly, people … could be losing their homes, [they've] lost their jobs, businesses [are] closing, [there's] a significant downturn in the economy — and we owe it to our residents to look at every possible opportunity to find savings, and not put pressure on taxpayers at all."

Fougere was asked how the city will replenish that money. 

"Using reserves can be really helpful to not cut services, but also [to] not put stress on the other services we're delivering. So no decision on that one yet, but the focus is not so much to replenish, it's simply to provide that service and not put stress on taxpayers."

The Regina Exhibition Association Limited, or REAL, is responsible for operating Mosaic Stadium. With the CFL sidelined and no other rentals right now, the city-owned not-for-profit was given further borrowing power to continue operations. (Cory Coleman/CBC)

Councillors also decided to wait for more information before making decisions on two requests. One came from the city's chamber of commerce, which asked for non-residential property tax to be reduced by 25 per cent this year.

The second was from the three unions whose members work for the city. They're asking for a supplemental unemployment benefit for all city employees.

The chamber's request will depend on a report from city administration, set for July. The request from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 588 and Canadian Union of Public Employees locals 21 and 7 will also be considered later, with more information coming to council in May. 

The Regina Exhibition Association Limited, or REAL, was given further borrowing power to enable it to continue operations.

It reported that in a worst-case-scenario, another $3.8 million in borrowing power from its credit could keep it running through the end of the year. The city-owned not-for-profit says it normally operates at a loss between January and May and makes up for that during summer and fall events and activities.

The company is responsible for operating Mosaic Stadium, but while the CFL is sidelined, there will be no Roughrider games, nor any other of its usual rentals to draw in cash.

Council agreed to allow REAL to use another $3.8 million of its credit to continue paying its staff and maintaining its facilities. 

The city is also hoping for more revenue to come down the line from the federal government, in terms of increasing what municipalities receive from the gas tax. 

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