Gary Zalepa, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s regional councillor, has been appointed head of the budget committee.
It’s a big job for a first- time councillor, and he said he hesitated to accept. His reluctance was because as chair, his role in the discussions changes. He will play less of a part in hashing out details of the $950-million budget, but will have a greater responsibility in how information is organized and presented to regional council and the public, he says
“I decided to accept it. I’m really pleased and honoured to have the opportunity to be involved at this level.”
With a large percentage of first-time councillors at the regional table, they are all getting to know each other, and Zalepa says although his seat at the region is new, his past experience on Town council and other boards will stand him in good stead, and may have influenced his appointment as chair.
The committee has gathered six times in about two weeks, at meetings and workshops, and each time, steps are made toward finalizing the budget that will guide the region through 2019, said Zalepa.
Each meeting breaks the budget into small, manageable pieces — one meeting focused only on water and wastewater — that make it easier to move toward the final decisions. he said.
A 10-year capital budget has been approved by the committee, but must still pass muster by regional council when all final reports are expected to be presented for approval Feb. 28.
While the region has identified a cap of two per cent as an acceptable increase over last year, the $274 million capital budget, which includes the cost of some high-ticket items, is making that a challenge, said Zalepa.
It includes almost $14 million for public transit to replace aging buses and improve the integration of regional and municipal routes. Water and wastewater increases to improve infrastructure and meet provincial guidelines are also making that two percent look less likely, he said. The cost of decommissioning the NOTL sewage lagoons, estimated at $12 million, is included in the capital budget — the new wastewater treatment plant, Zalepa said, is going through testing procedures, and if all is well, could be open by March. Some of the cost of the capital budget, about $27 million, will be financed by debt.
Of the overall $950 million cost of running the region, about $400 million of that is for the public health department, which is financed by the Province, said Zalepa.
The remainder is the amount that must be raised by the Region.