Brandon budget focuses on wastewater treatment to ensure city can grow

The mayor southwestern Manitoba’s largest city says an investment of $20 million in wastewater management will help ensure the city’s growth doesn’t stagnate.

Brandon’s 2023 budget talks late last month focused on investing in infrastructure to fuel population growth that will ensure Brandon remains a stronger player in the province, Mayor Jeff Fawcett told CBC News in an interview. 

The budget includes a $125.4-million operating budget including utilities and a $138.7-million capital budget.

“We’ve been kind of living off the investments made by people in the ’50s and ’70s,” Fawcett said. “For Brandon to continue to grow … we have to do the same thing.

“Federally and provincially … we need them to know that we are in this game,” he said. “We are a growing part of a growing province.”

Council spent two days in January debating the final budget, with Ward 2 Rosser Coun. Kris Desjarlais being the only council member who voted to reject the budget.

Lift stations costs raise stink over debt ceiling

A major budget investment was $19.7 million for new wastewater sewers, including the city’s Southwest Lift Station Project. The project will only move forward if a borrowing bylaw is approved since nearly $30 million will be needed to complete the two-phase project. 

The two lift stations, which pump wastewater or sewage material from a lower elevation to a higher elevation, are needed to enhance the city’s existing south-end wastewater management, which is nearing capacity, Fawcett said.

Phase One of the project is expected to cost around $20 million to build the first lift station on 34th Street with upgrades to the existing south-end lift station. Phase Two will cost around $14.6 million for the construction of a second lift station on 18th Street.

Brandon’s director of finance, Tara Pearce, said at a council meeting the proposed $30-million loan would be repaid over 20 years at an interest rate of about 5.5 per cent, amounting to about $2.5 million in annual payments over the next 20 years.

There is the need to take the risk of developing these projects, Fawcett says, because there is about a year-and-half left of new builds left in the city without new infrastructure. He worries if they don’t pull the trigger developments in Brandon will ebb, driving up housing prices.

“A lot of … rural communities that they’re in the same boat as us,” he said. “They’re going to have to ante up to continue growth in their communities.”

The proposed lift stations would push the city dangerously close to the debt ceiling but, Fawcett says, as the community grows the debt ceiling grows in tandem.

A man in a toque with a beard stands in front of a water treatment plant.
Coun. Shaun Cameron says city council is well aware that Brandon’s debt ceiling is fast approaching. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Ward 4 University Coun. Shaun Cameron says council has been very cognitive that it is approaching its debt ceiling. 

More than 50,000 people call Brandon home, he says, and as a major urban centre of the province Brandon serves as a regional trading hub of close to 200,000 people. This is reflected in the investments being made in infrastructure such as the lift stations.

“I think from a provincial level we’re always interested in having the discussion in ways that there can be further investments in the city of Brandon,” he said. “I think a lot of times maybe the second city isn’t quite the way we [should] look, but looking at ourselves as a regional hub.”

Investing in the future

Having just passed a population of 50,000 people, the city is in an interesting position, according to Brandon University rural development professor Doug Ramsey. When cities reach this size it means there is a need to increase certain infrastructure to meet population demands and growth.

“We need to show ourselves, and we need to show the province that we’re willing to invest in our own city,” Ramsey said. “Brandon is at a turning point … the question is whether or not the infrastructure to support future development exists.”

Hard services such as the lift stations are critical for future growth, and if they are not built now, it only gets more costly in the future, Ramsey says. While there can be a “sticker shock” for projects people need to think about what they want their city to look like.

Brandon is respected as a regional hub in the province, he says, but a tax increase of only 1.6 per cent when the inflation rate is 6.2 per cent leaves the city in a weak position when asking for provincial funding because the community is not making the same investments.

As well, Ramsey says, the optics of the low tax rate look worse when the city has neared its debt ceiling and it comes time to borrow money for projects such as the lift stations. 

While it may be disheartening to see taxes rise by five per cent it can help avoid situations like hitting the debt ceiling or seeing cuts in other areas.

“I do have concerns that if we’re not funding what we have now properly and we are not in a position to invest even nominally in the future,” Ramsey said. “I don’t think that bodes well for the larger scene of Brandon’s growth in the future.”