Regional district sets course for financial shift

Rural areas will begin to pick up a greater share of the costs for projects

“Financial.”

That’s how Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen chair Dan Ashton simply summed up the biggest changes the board would see in the upcoming year.

“There are some dramatic changes coming forward in the budget process for municipalities and rural areas,” said Ashton.

For almost three years the RDOS has been working on a project that tracks the time of employees. More specifically, it tracks how much time individual employees are spending in each community and municipality.

“That will produce a big swing in how much general governance is allocated between the municipalities and the rural areas,” said Ashton.

“We have been improving this process over the last couple of years and it is actually coming forward this year.”

He said that will  lead to a dramatic swing in municipal contributions, with rural areas picking up a substantial amount of the time utilized at the regional district. “That in turn should translate into savings for the municipalities.”

Ashton said he foresees this as the biggest issue in 2012 and the years ahead.

“This time tracker issue may cause some consternation for some of the rural directors, especially some of the new directors coming in and having to look at the new budget process,” said Ashton.

Warren Everton, manager of finance with the RDOS, said there are 134 individual services offered in the regional district office.

“We spend most of our time really dealing with rural services versus municipal. There is not much we offer municipalities except the board, decision making, legal and that kind of stuff. The time tracking should take some of the pressure off the municipalities. They really shouldn’t be paying for as much of the general work as the rural areas because most of that work is concentrated on the rural areas,” said Everton.

“Every regional district struggles with this general governance and how to allocate that out. The participating municipalities have their own structure, staff, costs of running their council and all the business of their municipalities. How much should they pay for the sort of duplication of the regional district?”

The time tracking software was created by the RDOS information services department where employees compute their time bi-weekly. With three years of data in hand already, the RDOS hopes to project the budget a little better.

“The board really pushed for some way to track the time, and if there is one service area that needs a ton of work because it has a big project, it should pay for the staff time involved. That was a board strategy and we have developed the software to do that,” said Everton.

The design isn’t without its pitfalls. Should one area need to use a large amount of staff time through no fault of its own, for example if it is mandated by an institution or senior government, they will still be charged for it.

There are several large projects underway for the coming year including a new wastewater treatment plant in Okanagan Falls, water issues on the West Bench and a possible lawsuit in Naramata over the old packing plant property. Michael Brydon, director for West Bench (Area F), said like all organizations, the RDOS has to allocate its overhead.

“Penticton got a raw deal under the old allocation scheme because its assessed values are 43 per cent of the region’s total, even though the city uses relatively few RDOS services,” said Brydon.

The director points out that in 2011 Penticton’s share of the overall regional tax requisition was just under 13 per cent, and changes to the way in which general government is allocated means Penticton’s share will be just over nine per cent in 2012. But, he said, keep in mind that the general government/overhead budget is not that large.

“Of course the reduction in payments by Penticton will be made up by increased charges for managerial staff time to the rural areas. We will all see a fairly substantial increase in our taxes in Area F due to the allocation changes,” said Brydon. “But fair is fair. We should not expect the municipalities in the RDOS to subsidize rural areas.”

He said this logic cuts both ways, and there are some areas, such as 911 dispatch, in which an activity-based costing approach would see costs transferred from the rural areas to the municipalities.