Outgoing Chief Financial Officer Corien Becker spent five months in Powell River on an interim basis keeping watch over the city’s finances. She has enjoyed her time overseeing the city’s financial department. Info and Pic Creds: City of Powell River.
Powell River’s outgoing interim chief financial officer (CFO) figures the city is in solid fiscal shape.
Corien Becker, having spent five months in Powell River before heading to Mission to become secretary-treasurer of the school district there, said she came to a municipality that she would describe as “in a good place,” with the additional benefit of a “dream city council.”
“They (council) are a group of people that work together collaboratively, discussing their issues and being totally respectful toward staff,” Becker said. “As a result, I could be creative and fully take on the role of CFO.”
“I’ve been able to bring my skills into the background and contribute to the organization. I like to think I’m making a positive contribution to make things better. I really found this organization, and the leadership of this organization, allowed me to do that.”
Becker said her background in municipal employment is in finance, and as chief administrative officer (CAO), so she was able to understand what council and the CAO needed. She was able to tailor reports and recommendations coming from the finance office so it met their objectives.
Becker said there is a stack of work to get through before she leaves and the incoming CFO will not be short of tasks. The financial end of the City of Powell River, however, is on a good track.
Heading into the future, ensuring the tax base is able to support the city’s services will be important. Adjustments will need to be made. For example, there is a change in demographics as more retirees are moving to Powell River. For the most part they bring a portion of income with them and contribute to the economics of the community, but they also are consumers of health care services.
Another adjustment will be working toward having the financial resources for some significant capital projects that have been identified in Powell River. Long-term reserve fund planning will be essential.
“We have massive infrastructure projects sitting out there to be done,” Becker said. “At some point you have to start saving for that.” Projects such as the Haslam Lake water main replacement, the new fire hall and liquid waste management have been earmarked, in addition to the new library.
“There are a lot of big ticket items there,” Becker said.
To plan for the long-term, the city will have to determine how to save for the projects, how to pay for them, what kinds of grants are needed to support these projects, and what kinds of debt funding can support them.
“I can see it being a project for the new CFO, mapping out the long-term financial plan for the community,” Becker said.
There have been efforts to put a more collaborative budget process in place, encouraging pubic input. In addition, there has been movement toward altering the budget documentation process so financial documents are more readable for the layperson, rather than having them try and decipher a spreadsheet covered with numbers.
“I describe the budget documentation process as translating the accountant’s spreadsheet into terms that everyone can understand regarding what is happening from a budget perspective,” Becker said.
The city is generally in good financial shape, according to the outgoing CFO. For example, she said the recent report highlighting the annual audit of the city’s books showed one of the items – net financial assets – being in a positive position. There are also municipalities that are in a negative position because they have more debt than receivables and cash in the bank.
“Neither is right or wrong, but when I see we are in a positive net financial asset position, considering that we have tight taxes, it tells me the city is not in a place of not being able to manage financial activities,” Becker said. “It is a healthy enough organization that it is not going to be compromised in the future. There is currently not a lot of long-term debt, although this will change with the acquisition of the library. It is still not going to make this a negative position in the short term, however.”
Becker said the objective of maintaining the tax revenue at basically a zero per cent increase for existing ratepayers has the potential of making Powell River’s financial situation tight. With council having pledged to hold the line on residential tax increases for a four-year term, growth beyond the existing tax base is what would provide additional revenue.
If the status quo is maintained, Becker said at some point it will come down to what services the city continues to provide and what services have to drop off the table because they can no longer be afforded if there is a zero tax increase.
In terms of a current snapshot, Becker said when she took a look at local tax rates and compared them to other jurisdictions, Powell River is in line with what other municipalities are collecting. Taxes may be toward the high end for the residential taxpayers, but overall it “wasn’t alarming, either way.”
“It was in the middle of the pack, where it should be,” she said. “When you do the comparisons it helps you know whether you are on the right track or not. Everything I saw says the municipality is on the right track.”
City councillors expressed appreciation for Becker’s contribution between the departure of former CFO Shehzad Somji late last year, and incoming CFO Kathleen Day, at the Thursday, May 26 finance committee meeting.
“Thank you so much,” said Councillor Russell Brewer, chair of the finance committee. “It has been a pleasure.”
Councillor Maggie Hathaway said Becker had brought forward many new and innovative ideas. Just the process of simplifying documentation has made her job easier, Hathaway said.