At the Public Budget meeting on Monday evening, Director of Finance Kimberley Pope presented the second draft of the 2016 budget to Council members and twelve ratepayers in the audience. This draft resulted in a municipal tax increase of 7.22%. Decisions to date resulting in this increase were summarized, including the elimination of $1.4 million of OLG revenues from the Operating budget which occurred in 2013, the removal of OLG revenues for the township’s capital expenditures in 2015, and the allocation of 1/3 of the 2016 Asset Replacement reserve requirement from the municipal tax levy. Another source of budgetary pressure stems from a significant reduction in transfers from the province through the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund, amounts which have fallen by over $250,000 since 2010. Ms. Pope explained that the consolidated operating budget for the staff departments rose 1.7% in the 2016 draft, reflecting each department’s efforts to control expenses in face of increasing costs in service delivery.
When the floor was opened to the public, the discussion was dominated by three ratepayers expressing frustration over municipal tax rate increases over the past three years, asking when the ratepayers would see a tax freeze. Mayor McFadden asked the audience to identify specific budget items for removal to achieve that goal.
Complaints were lodged about the condition of the township roads, a claim which Mayor McFadden refuted, saying our roads are better than those in any other municipality because previous Councils spent OLG revenues to replace gravel surfaces with hard top on many municipal roads. The decision to pave these roads has increased the maintenance cost as many now require the application of a slurry seal, reflected in a $100,000 budget item. Other complaints about roads were raised, including the lack of ditching and mowing along roadsides. The mowing activities were suspended in the 2015 budget as a cost-saving measure, but have been re-introduced in the current budget in response to feedback from ratepayers. Mayor McFadden assured the audience that Council was focussed on establishing a budget that was sustainable, one that ensured the township “lived within its means”.
Councillor Belch explained the need to set aside sufficient funds to replace the current capital assets of $70 million in the township, many of which are near the end of their useful lives. One ratepayer expressed the view that the township was required to deliver only three critical services: roads, police and fire. The development of a new community centre was something the township could not afford. Mayor McFadden pointed out that none of the rate increase stemmed from this possible expenditure; a reserve for this and a new Fire Station will be funded from a portion of current and future casino revenues, as well as community fundraising efforts.
When pushed, several frustrated audience members identified two capital expenditures to eliminate: $145,000 for new curbs and repaving and $115,000 for decorative lighting, both along King Street. These expenditures are scheduled to occur after the replacement of sewer and water services to the street which will require it to be torn up for several weeks this summer. Councillor Huntley explained that the lights would need to be replaced within a few years, and replacing them at a time when construction was already underway made economic sense. The new lights operate with LED bulbs, and the project is subject to provincial incentives, and will pay for itself in five years through reduced hydro expense.
A review of the current list of the over 30 reserve funds identified a pool of $911,169 tagged as Lottery Funds. Intended as a flow-through account to direct casino revenues to specific projects, this account balance has accumulated over the years when projects did not use their entire allocation. At the suggestion of a ratepayer, Council agreed to remove $261,000 from this reserve to cover the two King Street projects, resulting in a reduction of the municipal levy increase to 3.32%, down from 7.22%.
The meeting ended with ratepayers satisfied that their municipal representatives appreciated and acted upon their concerns. The final budget will be approved at the next Council meeting on February 15.