Sackville mayor denies calling anyone a liar during heated exchange at town council

Merlin Estabrooks questions Mayor Higham at Monday’s town council meeting

It was a dramatic moment at Monday’s town council meeting when Sackville resident Merlin Estabrooks confronted Mayor John Higham during the public question period.

“I’d like to know why you called me a liar,” Estabrooks asked.

“You said that I made false statements, which would make me a liar and I’d like to know where you got your facts,” the former deputy mayor added.

“I never mentioned any names whatsoever, I never called anybody a liar,” Higham replied, referring to statements he made during a council meeting on November 12th when he apologized for not calling public attention to what he called a “fabricated event.”

The event he mentioned happened more than a year ago, on September 4, 2018, in the lobby outside the council chamber and was recorded by the town’s surveillance cameras.

Merlin Estabrooks and resident Percy Best were talking to Pierre Plourde, a consultant with Crandall Engineering, about the Lorne Street flood control project when town manager Jamie Burke came out of the council chamber and joined their conversation.

The surveillance video, which Warktimes has seen, does not include sound, but Estabrooks says that Burke interrupted their conversation to tell them they could not talk to Plourde unless they paid for his time.

Note: Estabrooks and Best have sharply criticized the Lorne Street project saying that instead of spending money on expensive water retention ponds, the town should rely on deeper ditches to carry storm water to an aboiteau behind the Armtec plant and across the marshes to the Carters Brook area in West Sackville.

Estabrooks calls for apology

Estabrooks demanded an apology from Burke at the next council meeting on September 10, 2018 describing his behaviour in interrupting the conversation as “very rude and ignorant.”

At that meeting, Higham defended Burke.

Mayor John Higham defends Jamie Burke

“I believe Mr. Burke was doing what he understood was his job,” he said. “The contractor was not supposed to be providing information about the specific contract except to council.”

The mayor suggested that since the consultant was billing for his time, the town would have to pay a lot of extra money if residents had the right to talk to him.

“We have 55-hundred people in this town,” Higham added, “if they all said, ‘I have the right to talk to that contractor,’ and they have the right to bill you, well, we’d have to double or triple the contract costs.”

Public reporting of incident

Both Warktimes and the Sackville Tribune-Post reported Estabrooks’s demand for an apology and the Tribune also published a letter-to-the-editor in October 2018 criticizing the mayor for defending Burke.

To read the reports from Warktimes and the Tribune-Post click here and here. To read the letter-to-the-editor, click here.

In November, more than a year after the letter was published, Mayor Higham said its description of what happened outside the council chamber was “fabricated and false” even though the letter writer repeated what Estabrooks had said about the incident when he demanded an apology.

Higham suggested that a review conducted by Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken concluded that Burke had not acted rudely.

“The [surveillance] tape showed a quiet, private, respectful conversation among the four,” Higham said. “Nothing remotely close to what was publicly alleged and the only possible conclusion was that this was fabricated.”

Mayor promises meeting

Merlin Estabrooks wondered why the mayor was raising the matter more than a year later and when Estabrooks said he would like to see the surveillance video again, Higham readily agreed.

“We could arrange for that,” he said. “I think there are some in the community that would like to see that,” he added. “We can do that, we can show the public the tape.”

He also promised that at a future meeting, Deputy Mayor Aiken would report on his investigation and then Estabrooks would be given a chance to respond.

Although Aiken’s conclusions were never reported publicly, he did e-mail Warktimes last week to say that after he and CAO Handrahan independently viewed the surveillance video and interviewed everyone involved in the disputed conversation, they decided that the complaints against Burke were unjustified.

“In concluding this, Phil and I did not draw any conclusions about, discuss, or make any statements about the veracity of those involved,” Aiken wrote. “We just recognized that people’s accounts of events in any situation differ. We never concluded anyone was lying, just that they were inaccurate.”

Video surveillance in Town Hall

Notice on Town Hall door suggests the area outside the entrance is under surveillance, not inside the building

During the public question period at the end of Monday’s council meeting, Sackville resident Brian Lane wondered about the presence of surveillance cameras in the town hall.

“I’m sure there’s probably a lot of people who aren’t aware that when they’re in this lobby that there is surveillance,” he said.

(In 2014, New Brunswick’s privacy commissioner said signs should be posted in areas under surveillance, but there are no signs at the entrance to the lobby outside the council chamber or in the lobby itself.)

CAO Handrahan said the cameras are there “for the safety and security of our building.”

Lane also asked whether showing the surveillance footage publicly would violate the town’s privacy policy.

Handrahan replied that the town is governed by the provincial Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (RTIPPA).

Mayor Higham then promised to check RTIPPA to see if the surveillance video could be shown to the public.

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Sackville councillors vote 5-2 to approve the 2020 town budget while rejecting higher pay for themselves

Councillor Bruce Phinney

Sackville Town Council passed its 2020 budget Monday night after two councillors failed in their attempt to eliminate $144,000 allocated for certain capital projects and spend that money on “recreational infrastructure” instead.

Councillors Shawn Mesheau and Bruce Phinney moved and seconded a motion to eliminate $80,000 for a dog park; $55,000 for improved trails and bridges in the main Waterfowl Park as well as in the Lund extension to it and $9,000 for resurfacing a pickle ball court.

“A lot of things on this budget are wants, not needs,” Phinney said, adding that it would not be “fiscally responsible” to approve these capital projects.

He acknowledged that each of them would still have to be brought back to council in the new year for final approval.

“But I don’t want people in the public thinking that I’m in agreement with these here things that are put on this budget at the present time,” Phinney said.

Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken spoke against amending the budget after all the work that had gone into it.

“We had a whole series of meetings earlier in the fall assigning priorities to various things; we looked at [the] response from the public about priorities,” he said, adding that town staff had also spent “considerable time” drafting the budget.

Aiken said he could not support replacing the budget allocations for specific capital projects with spending on undefined “infrastructure stuff.”

Councillor Michael Tower agreed. He suggested that even though most councillors seem to be against an $80,000 dog park, council will get its chance to scale down that project or eliminate it entirely when it comes up for approval in the new year.

After the debate, Deputy Mayor Aiken and Councillors Tower, O’Neil, Black and Evans voted against amending the budget with only Councillors Mesheau and Phinney voting in favour.

The $11.3 million 2020 budget maintains town services with no increase in the property tax rate or in municipal fees and no need for borrowing to finance $1.2 million in general capital projects. However, the town will still need to borrow $462,000 for capital improvements to its water and sewer systems.

To view the final budget documents, click here.

Council debates proposed pay raise

Councillor Joyce O’Neil

Meantime, Councillor Joyce O’Neil proposed that town staff be directed to change the bylaw setting the salaries of the mayor, deputy mayor and councillors to make up for their loss of income resulting from a tax change that took effect last January.

That’s when the federal government eliminated an allowance that enabled municipal office holders to escape paying taxes on up to a third of their salaries.

The tax-free allowances, in place since 1953, covered work-related expenses that did not have to be accounted for.

O’Neil proposed that to make up for the loss of income, the mayor’s salary be raised from $14,656 to $17,700; the deputy mayor’s from $8,676 to $10,500 and that councillors’ pay go from $7,699 to $9,300.

Councillor Phinney, who seconded O’Neil’s motion, said the federal change meant the mayor and council were earning less money and paying more taxes.

“I don’t know anybody who wants to pay more taxes,” he said. “What we’re doing is just putting back in place what our salary was before the change and I think that’s only fair.”

Evans opposes raise

Councillor Bill Evans reads statement opposing pay raises

Councillor Bill Evans read a statement opposing pay increases on the grounds that since everyone pays taxes on their whole income, it’s not fair for elected officials to get special treatment.

“We have enjoyed a perk that none of our citizens have enjoyed and now we’re going to lose that perk and we’ll have to pay tax the same way everybody else does,” Evans said.

He added that no one on council makes a living from the salaries they receive.

“This is a part-time job, a sideline. We support ourselves by other means,” he said. 

“Where is the evidence to support the case that paying councillors more would be better for the municipality as a whole? What problem are we trying to fix?” he asked.

“Our job as councillors is to look after the town’s cookie jar and I don’t think that helping ourselves to the cookies is fair to the people who elected us,” Evans concluded.

To read a transcript of Evans’s statement, click here.

No one other than Phinney and Evans commented on Councillor O’Neil’s motion and when Mayor Higham called the vote, O’Neil herself along with Councillors Phinney and Mesheau supported it.

Deputy Mayor Aiken along with Councillors Evans, Black and Tower voted against giving themselves higher pay.

Councillor Allison Butcher was absent.

Amherst council voted for raise

Sackville Town Council’s rejection of a pay raise stands in sharp contrast to Amherst Town Council’s majority vote in favour of one last February.

The  Amherst News quotes Mayor David Kogon as saying that the raise was meant to replace income lost because of the federal tax changes.

The newspaper reports that after the vote, Amherst councillors’ pay went from $21,542 to $25,050; the deputy mayor’s pay went from $24,375 to $27,723, while the mayor’s increased from $36,447 to $41,178.

To read the full report, click here.

To read coverage of Sackville Town Council’s discussion of the pay raise issue in September, click here.

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Mt. A. news: Faculty strike moves a step closer; university seeks to tap into town’s expertise on water

Contract negotiations between Mount Allison University and its 196 full and part-time professors and librarians reached an impasse on November 27th as three months of conciliation talks ended.

The conciliation officer has now made a report to the provincial minister of post-secondary education who is expected to decide within a few days whether to appoint a conciliation board.

Judging from their most recent statements, university administrators and the Mount Allison Faculty Association (MAFA) appear to be far apart on the terms of a new collective agreement.

In October, MAFA held a non-binding straw vote with 94% in favour of job action, including a strike, to support the union.

“The main issues under negotiation in this round include faculty and librarian complement, workload, equity and human rights, including disability accommodation, and compensation and benefits for full-time and part-time members,” a MAFA news release says.

To read MAFA’s October release and the one it issued last week when conciliation talks ended, click here and here.

Meantime, university administrators describe the contracts with full and part-time faculty as “mature collective agreements,” adding:

“The full-time faculty collective agreement has been in place for 35 years, while the first part-time collective agreement was signed 15 years ago. As such, we believe that negotiations should focus on a relatively small number of core subjects of interest to one or both parties.”

The administration goes on to say that the union had approximately 90 contract proposals on the table as of October 24th.

“At this stage of the process, such a large number of active requests for changes poses a practical impediment to constructive negotiations,” the university says.

To read all of the administration’s bargaining updates, click here.

Mount Allison faculty and librarians were on strike for three weeks in January/February of 2014.

Mt. A. seeks partnership on water

Robert Inglis, Mount Allison University

Meantime, Mount Allison is seeking the town’s help in regulating and testing its water distribution system.

“We have a need on campus related to our water system — regulations, testing and work related to that,” Robert Inglis, the university’s vice-president of finance told Sackville Town Council last week.

“As you probably know,” he added, “we have a significant water distribution system on campus and it ties into the town’s water distribution because that’s where we get our water from.”

Inglis served notice that the university’s facilities department would be approaching the town’s public works staff with ideas for working together so that the university can meet more stringent government regulations on the quality of its drinking water.

“We’re not looking for the town to pick up costs and risks that they don’t otherwise have,” Inglis said, adding that taking advantage of town staff expertise could provide an opportunity that might benefit both the university and the town.

“If not, so be it, we will meet our obligations,” he said.

When asked later for more details about the kind partnership he was referring to, Inglis responded that the university is not proposing that the town take over its water system.

He said, for example, that Mt. A. could pay town staff to conduct the testing that’s required when water is shut off to a building during renovations and then, turned back on again.

“This could be a win/win, in our view, for both our organizations, but of course the town would need to see benefits for them.”

Mt. A’s annual report

Chart shows that 60% of Mt. A. students come from outside of New Brunswick

Inglis raised the possibility of a partnership with the town on water quality during his annual report to Sackville Town Council last week.

Among other things, he mentioned that with its 500 full-time employees, the university has a significant economic impact in southeastern New Brunswick.

He said that as of October 1st, Mt. A. had 2,167 full-time students.

Figures from the Association for Atlantic Universities show this is a gain from last year of 71 students for an overall increase in full-time enrollment of 3.4%.

Inglis acknowledged that in spite of this year’s increase, Mt. A., along with other smaller universities, continues to face challenges in recruiting students.

Meantime, he said Mount Allison is planning extensive renovations to its 50-year-old R.P. Bell Library, but hasn’t worked out yet how it will continue to provide library services while the project is underway.

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Sackville climate strike targets consumerism, big stores and Canada’s new environment minister

Climate strikers marching down Main St. to the main post office

About 55 members of the Sackville Youth Climate Change Coalition gathered at Mount Allison University today before marching down Main Street to Sackville’s main post office where they mailed a letter to the federal minister of the environment as well as letters and holiday greeting cards to several big stores.

Grade 9 student Quinn MacAskill, who helped organize the rally, told her fellow climate strikers that in keeping with the holiday season, the theme of today’s march was related to consumerism.

Quinn MacAskill

“Youth may not be able to vote for our political leaders,” she said, “but we can vote with our dollar.”

She urged the strikers to buy more locally produced products to reduce carbon emissions.

“There’s a big difference between buying a highly packaged candy bar made with palm oil from a big box store, than buying a fair trade, sustainably made chocolate bar from a small local store,” she added.

MacAskill also argued that many big companies are heavy polluters that “hold way too much power in our governments.”

To read the complete text of her speech, click here.

The coalition’s letter to Jonathan Wilkinson, the new minister of the environment, calls on the federal government to honour its commitment in Thursday’s Speech from the Throne to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner if possible.

It also calls on the government to reject all new fossil fuel projects; make the transition to a 100% renewable energy economy; uphold and advocate the rights of environmental migrants; and, hold large corporations to the same greenhouse gas emission targets that Canada sets for itself.

The letter asks Wilkinson to reply by February 1st. “We want to know that you’re listening,” it ends.

To read the complete letter, click here.

Letters to big stores

Student strikers mailing their letters

The student strikers also mailed letters and greeting cards to big stores such as Costco, Walmart, Lululemon, Roots Canada, Tim Hortons and Loblaws asking for the details of “a concrete plan for what your company is going to do to reduce its carbon emissions in the very near future so that we may hold you accountable.”

The letter warns that if the coalition does not receive a response by February 1st, the students “will make that known to the public.”

The letters contain copies of a parody of the Dr. Seuss poem, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas written by Weylin Lee Smith, a first-year Mount Allison University student.

To read the letter and the Grinch parody, click here.

After the rally, Quinn MacAskill acknowledged that fewer students participated this time than at the four other Sackville rallies held this year.

“Even if this one might have been smaller than some of the other ones, it’s still a sustaining, continuing movement,” she said.

“It’s not just one or two big events.”

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Sackville Town Council gets advice on making proposed dog park, trails, public art, etc. more climate-friendly

Dr. Richard Elliot is one of 27 members of the Mayor’s Roundtable on Climate Change

For the first time, Sackville Town Council is getting advice from an outside group on how to ensure that next year’s capital projects help lessen the negative effects of climate change.

A working group of professionals and academics on the 27-member Mayor’s Roundtable on Climate Change has submitted a number of preliminary suggestions.

One recommends using next year’s proposed $25,000 public art installation to raise public awareness about how climate change threatens Sackville “and the urgency of taking action now.”

Another suggests that the $15,000 allocated to improve the Lund property in the Waterfowl Park should be used to create trails that are as narrow as possible to avoid cutting down too many trees.

Richard Elliot, a retired wildlife biologist affiliated with the federal department of environment and climate change, said after Tuesday’s council meeting that he’s pleased town staff and councillors seem to be taking the roundtable’s recommendations seriously.

“We’re viewing the town’s capital projects through a climate-change lens,” Elliot said referring to the roundtable’s wide range of objectives.

Those objectives include seeking ways of using as little energy as possible, incorporating natural landscape features into project designs, using environmentally-appropriate materials such as wood approved by the Forest Stewardship Council and, maximizing the number of healthy trees in Sackville to help store more carbon, mitigate flooding and moderate temperatures.

Climate-friendly dog park

The roundtable working group’s list of specific recommendations includes designing a dog park “that incorporates existing ground cover, including trees, woods and fields” on town property “as close as possible to the town centre to minimize the amount of driving and thus fossil fuel consumption undertaken by dog owners to get to the park.” (Current plans call for an $80,000 dog park six-and-a-half kilometres from the downtown.)

The working group also recommends that the town think carefully about the environmental impact of its proposed $575,000 emergency generator at the Civic Centre where residents could take shelter when the town loses power during winter storms.

“We recognize the importance of having a warming facility in our community,” the roundtable writes in its recommendations to council. “Given the high costs of the proposed generator, we encourage town staff to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives such as sharing such facilities with Mount Allison University.”

The roundtable goes on to recommend that before purchasing the diesel generator, the town weigh its environmental effects against the cost of alternate fuel sources with potentially lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Road resurfacing

The roundtable criticizes the town’s plan to use $367,359 in federal gas tax funding next year for fixing local roads.

“We consider that the imaginative arguments to support the use of gas tax funding to finance the resurfacing of roads — to reduce gasoline use associated with acceleration and braking on rough roads — are misguided and inappropriate,” the roundtable writes.

“We urge the Town to find alternate ways to finance road resurfacing, beginning in 2021, and to redirect the gas tax funding to community initiatives to help mitigate impacts of climate change.”

‘Solar Fund’

The roundtable report also encourages the town to move toward the increased use of efficient energy alternatives including solar power.

“We recommend setting aside any funds not used in 2020 in a ‘solar fund,’ to serve as a reserve fund specifically to invest in solar panels as a supplementary energy source for town buildings,” the report says.

Origins of roundtable

The town established the Mayor’s Roundtable on Climate Change in response to hundreds of student strikers who marched on town hall in March demanding action.

On April 8th, town council passed a resolution promising, among other things, to “establish a roundtable on climate change, comprised of various community stakeholders, with a mandate to provide advice and guidance on climate change initiatives as part of the town’s annual priority planning and budget process.”

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Mayor Higham called the roundtable an experiment.

“Obviously, we’re getting some really good advice that future councils might want to consider,” he said.

“The only thing we know we’re doing right away is we’re going to have a public forum,” Higham said, adding that the forum will allow members of the roundtable to hear from residents and community groups on what needs to be done to lessen the effects of climate change.

“[The forum] would give us some kind of blueprint over where we might want to go,” the mayor concluded.

Note: The report from the roundtable’s working group entitled “2020 Town of Sackville Capital Projects — Viewed Through a Climate Change Lens” is dated November 25, 2019. The copy of the report that the town sent to The New Wark Times does not include the names of the members of the working group who made the recommendations about capital projects. The Town Clerk explained in an e-mail: “We have not had an opportunity to reach out to the participants who created the report and therefore their names have been blacked out.”

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Sackville hires head-hunting firm to recruit new town manager

Councillor Bill Evans

Sackville Town Council has hired a big Halifax-based, recruitment firm to search for someone to replace Phil Handrahan, the town’s chief administrative officer whose resignation takes effect in late February.

During its meeting Monday night, council passed a motion put forward by Councillor Bill Evans awarding the contract to KBRS – Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette.

The firm will be paid $25,000 plus advertising costs and other expenses.  The CAO position carries a salary range of $96,367 to $128,489.

Evans said the personnel committee reviewed nine proposals from executive recruitment firms before choosing KBRS.

“There were a number of good candidates, but we achieved consensus on this one,” Evans added before council passed his motion unanimously.

Search will cost more than last one

It appears that the search for a new CAO will cost considerably more than it did in 2012 when council awarded the contract to Municipal Human Resources Inc.

According to a report in the Sackville Tribune-Post published on October 17, 2012, the smaller New Brunswick firm — which also submitted a proposal this time around — was awarded a contract for $8,759 plus travel expenses which amounts to $9,791 plus expenses in 2019 dollars.

CAO Phil Handrahan is leaving in February

After that search, Phil Handrahan, a 30-year senior administrator with the city of Charlottetown, was appointed Sackville’s CAO in March 2013, taking up his duties in late May of that year.

KBRS, which helped Mount Allison University search for its new president in 2017/18, describes itself as “the largest search firm” in Atlantic Canada.

“Today our team of professionals is 60-strong across offices in Halifax, Toronto, Edmonton, Moncton and St. John’s,” the KBRS website says.

“While we remain independently owned in Atlantic Canada, we are also a part of Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge – Canada’s leading human capital company and a global leader in talent mobility, with 300 offices in more than 60 countries.”

Big vs. small

While KBRS points to what seem like the obvious advantages of a large staff and a broad-range of connections, smaller search firms, such as Toronto-based Dean Executive Search, criticize their larger rivals for the conflicts-of-interest that, they claim, can arise when head hunters work for multiple clients in similar fields.

The natural friction between competing firms, however, could explain the criticism a smaller one might level at a larger rival.

Jerome Young, a contributor to the U.S.-based Forbes business magazine, wrote in 2014 that there is merit to the argument that larger firms aren’t always the better choice. However, it’s worth noting that the magazine identified Young as a recruiter himself.

For statistics about Canada’s $15 billion recruitment industry, click here.

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Sackville treasurer presents 1st draft of 2020 budget with no tax increases and no borrowing for $1.5 million in general capital projects

Treasurer Michael Beal

Sackville’s treasurer has presented an $11.3 million budget for next year that balances the books and maintains public services without tax increases.

And, for the first time ever, there is no requirement for borrowing to pay for $1.5 million in general capital projects although the town would still need to borrow $462,000 for improvements to its water and sewage systems.

“We will be able to do all general capital [projects] without any borrowing and that includes the fire department,” Michael Beal said as he presented the first draft of his 2020 budget to Sackville Town Council on Monday night.

Beal cautioned that the budget could change as he receives more financial information from the province, but at the same time, he seemed confident that the town is on the right track.

Growth in tax base

The treasurer estimates that the town’s property tax base has grown by just over 3% thanks, in part, to the new Terra Beata frozen food storage plant in the industrial park. It alone boosted the commercial tax base by $5 million.

Beal noted that nearly 90% of the town’s revenues come from property taxes so the increase in the tax base is significant.

Electrical generators

One of the biggest general capital projects that town staff are recommending involves installing a $575,000 emergency electrical generator at the Civic Centre where town residents can take shelter when their power goes out during winter storms.

Last year’s budget allocated $286,000 for the generator with the remaining $289,000 coming from this year’s capital budget.

Beal says the generator should be installed this summer and be ready for the winter of 2021.

Town Engineer Dwayne Acton

Town staff are also recommending the purchase of an $80,000 portable generator that would be used to provide back-up power to the public works building, especially during emergencies.

Town Engineer Dwayne Acton added that the portable generator could also be used during power failures at the town’s lift stations to prevent sewage from backing up into people’s homes.

Acton also presented staff recommendations for $293,000 in road work on Milner Lane and at the end of Wright Street as well as installation of sidewalks, curbs and storm sewers on Cattail Ridge up to Robson Avenue.

Other capital project recommendations include $35,000 to install flashing lights at crosswalks, $40,000 in sidewalk renewals, $40,000 for two new bridges in the Waterfowl Park and $80,000 for a Beach Hill dog park.

The treasurer noted that staff recommend deferring some capital projects until next year including paving the gravel parking lots at the Civic Centre ($56,000) and Lilas Fawcett Park ($59,000).

Beal said staff recommend that instead of spending $15,000 on upgrading the skate park this year, the town appoint a users’ committee to come up with suggestions for new equipment and other improvements that could be included in the 2021 budget.

To read the complete list of capital project recommendations, click here.

Second draft

Beal invited councillors to study the draft budget between now and their next budget meeting on December 3rd.

He said he hoped that once he has more financial information from the province, he’ll be able to put together an updated, second draft.

Councillor Joyce O’Neil

Councillor Joyce O’Neil weighed in with her own recommendation just before Monday’s meeting adjourned.

“I just can’t see $80,000 for a dog park when there’s so many other things that that money could be spent for,” she said, noting that while most of that money would be used for fencing, there would be a need for additional spending on such things as water, lighting and parking.

“Different people in the public have talked to me on it,” O’Neil said. “On their behalf, I agree with them, $80,000 plus just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Beal replied that ultimately council will have to decide whether to approve the staff recommendations for capital projects including the dog park.

“That does not have to be completely decided during budget allocations because if budget is allocated and not spent, it can be put in the reserve fund for future planning,” he said.

To view the first draft of the 2020 budget documents, click here.

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