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Editorial: The city continues to make fiscal progress, but work remains

An opinion piece on the city's financial statements, which paint a picture of the progress, or lack thereof, that Estevan has made when it comes to money.
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An opinion piece on audited financial statements for Estevan.

It’s one of the most important documents that Estevan city council receives each year.

Council went over the audited financial statements at Monday night’s meeting. Each year, this document paints a picture of the progress, or lack thereof, that Estevan has made when it comes to money.

There will always be complaints about how a municipality, or any other level of government, rakes in taxes and manages those dollars. Give people a chance to look at the books in greater detail, and they’ll no doubt find areas that raise questions marks and spending they think is wasteful. They’ll want to know why so much money is being spent in certain areas.

This is one of those documents that maybe won’t get a lot of attention from the public unless it’s doom and gloom, or unless there is something else truly noteworthy. Number crunchers enjoy it, but you shouldn’t have to be an accountant to breeze through it or care.

The number the city likes to toss around each year is net debt – the excess of total liabilities over all assets. According to the document, as of Dec. 31 of last year, that number was a shade under $12 million, compared to $16.77 million at the end of 2021.

Most people will look at long-term debt ($13.5 million last year), and long-term debt does account for the bulk of nearly $23.8 million in liabilities for the city.

This document also gives a look at the city’s revenues, the taxes receivable, the amount of cash it currently has, the expenses for each department, and even the wages for the mayor and the six council members for the past 12 months.

It was noted earlier this year when council approved $2 million in long-term debt (while continuing to pay down $4 million in debt) that the city’s goal is to pay down its debt by 2030. With the looming economic uncertainty facing our community, this is a commendable objective. Whether it’s attainable isn’t known.

While the city can plan for the future, including capital needs, something unforeseen could come up in the next few years that would scuttle the financial goals.

Still, the lower the debt the better. The debt expense could be spent to improve residents’ quality of life, such as sports and recreation, or it could be used for road repairs. Or the future council could lower taxes and make us more competitive in attracting businesses to Estevan.

The city should promote the work it’s done on the finances every chance it gets. Just a decade ago, the long-term debt and the net debt were a big problem. A net debt of under $12 million would have seemed like an impossibility.

Since 2017, when property taxes soared for multiple reasons, including one that was completely beyond the city’s control, the city has managed to keep tax increases to a minimum or to non-existent levels. That was particularly impressive this year, when other municipalities had to approve considerable property tax increases to keep pace with inflation. The city held the line on the municipal share of property taxes.

Council won’t be able to pull off zero per cent property tax increases forever, but they deserve credit for not having an increase this year, especially from those who think any property tax increase (or utility rate hike) shouldn’t happen.

It would also be nice to get a blast from the past and have the accounts appear in the agenda of every council meeting. This document was part of the agenda 20 years ago, and it showed in detail how much is being spent and where it is being spent.

But when you take a look at the audited financial statements of 10 years ago, and compare them with those of today, you can see the improvements that the city and council have made when it comes to balancing the books.

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