Town councillors are making every effort to pass a 2019 budget at a reasonable tax rate, with several discussions during workshops and council meetings held over a three-month period to look for cost savings and increased revenue sources.
Councillors have targeted an increase of no more than 4.5 per cent, and along with Town staff have been struggling to get there, said Lord Mayor Betty Disero Tuesday.
With two open houses for public input coming up this week, she hoped to have a definite answer by Thursday.
By next Monday, she said, she expects a budget will be presented that will be ready for committee approval.
Town treasurer Kyle Freeborn said the current draft is at 5.1 per cent tax increase over last year. The hike for a typical residential assessment of $483,000 would amount to about $50 (for the Town’s portion only). “We are confident that council will make steps towards 4.5 per cent,” he said.
At council’s target of 4.5 per cent the change is approximately $45 for that same residential assessment, he said.
For an assessment of $750,000 the change is approximately $69, and for an assessment of $1,000,000 the change is approximately $92.
Council is struggling, said Disero, because it inherited a problem that has been growing for years, making it a challenge to come up with a sustainable budget. “It’s not a one-year fix.”
This council will work toward building a capital reserve that has been depleted in the past to the point that she’s looking further down the road to future terms of councils, and hoping they won’t have to deal with the same issue.
Staff salaries are also out of line with other municipalities, and maintenance in some areas has not been kept up, she said.
“We can’t blame the last term of council. It’s happened over a number of years,” said Disero.
Most members of this term of council “although brilliant,” have not worked in the public sector, and needed to get a handle on how it works, which includes paying for services that are not self-sustainable, such as libraries and museums. “The private sector doesn’t do that.”
A 2.7 per cent increase to keep up with the consumer index was approved for most user fees, but there were other asks of the Town that exceeded that.
“Whatever we do to build the community is paid for by the taxpayer,” she said. “That’s the challenge.”
But councillors have been “dedicated and hard-working, and took the time we needed to get it done, without laying off staff or cutting services drastically.”
Along with Town staff, she said, “It was a collective, team effort.”
Over the next year, council will continue to look at the budget “to see what we can do better for next year. Feb. 11 will be the beginning of the process for next yer. We won’t be in such a crunch.”
At the last council meeting in January, representatives from several organizations in town spoke about the level of Town funding they require, pleading their cases for increased or at least stabilized funding for services they provide, to see them through the coming year. A final decision on those requests is expected next week.
Allan Bisback and Norm Arsenault were the two councillors looking at the discretionary grants and making recommendations to council.
They were working with a grant budget of $100,000, and the requests submitted totalled more than $200,000, said Arsenault, so difficult decisions needed to be made.
Of 17 organizations that asked for a portion of the discretionary grant budget, all were approved to receive some funding, but not at the level requested.
Royal Oak Community School was one such organization. The school had asked for $26,000 for initiatives such as a program that would be extended to all local children, including a day camp during teachers’ professional development days, and events that would bring students from all NOTL schools together. Instead a $5,000 grant was approved.
Council also approved a motion by Disero to look at other ways to offer the school financial support, including lowering the school’s rent for use of the former hospital building, now town-owned, on Wellington Street.
Greg Mendulin, vice-president of external relations at Niagara College, is asking the town for $20,000 for new equipment for the college. He laid out numbers that show the growth of the institute, with 11,000 full-time and 15,000 part-time students, 1,300 teachers, five degree programs and more than 100 accredited courses. He spoke of the long history of global engagement, with 4,500 international students in Niagara and several world-wide programs adding to the success of the college.
Student success at hands-on learning of important skills is paramount, he said, and provides value to the town through support for small and medium businesses in NOTL. The college’s response to the needs of local businesses is what differentiates it from other institutes, he added.
Two campuses boast 130 programs, with the NOTL site, celebrating its 20th anniversary, offering a teaching winery, brewery, greenhouse, distillery, and the first cannabis program in Canada, which he said has garnered international attention.
NC and its staff and students add $800 million in annual income to the Niagara regional economy, but is dependent on government for funding, Mendulin said.
The province gives the college $450,000 annually for instructional equipment, when what the college needs is about $2 million, resulting in a “never-ending” attempt to close the funding gap.
That’s why the partnership with the Town and its annual $20,000 financial support is so important, he said. “This gap needs to be funded by community partners.”
Coun. Clare Cameron brought to council’s attention NC’s annual report, which lauds the college for being a “huge financial success among Ontario colleges” with a $13 million surplus for 2017-2018. She asked Mendulin what value the Town’s $20,000 financial assistance would have to the college, given the greater amounts received from upper levels of government.
The surplus is a new development for the college, he said, and is chiefly due to “an explosion of international students.”
Most Ontario colleges have seen this influx, he said, which has buoyed NC’s financial situation.
That money has been earmarked for improvements such as paving parking lots, new roofing and improved HVAC systems. The surplus is not expected to be repeated, he said.
The $20,000 requested from the Town will help fund new equipment, such as that required for the culinary lab, and expanded learning spaces.
Amy Klassen, acting managing director of the Niagara Historical Museum, was also at council to address the need for Town funding, with a request for $209,790, about $50,000 more than last year.
In addition to outlining everything the museum does in a year to require operations funding from the Town each year, Klassen’s request for the $50,000 extra was explained by her announcement about the appearance of the Canadian Snowbirds as the historical society’s major fundraiser, scheduled for Sept. 11, which is expected to attract 3,000 spectators or more. It will go toward the expansion project.
She also addressed a recent comment at council regarding the society’s reserves of $120,000.
Reserve funds have been accumulated from fundraising efforts over several years, to maintain a cushion for capital expenditures, special projects and operations in the event of lost revenue, she said. “If, for example, the roof was to blow off, we would need the funds to fix it.”
Some of the reserve is earmarked for expansion plans, she said, which are estimated at $7 million.
“Over the past few years, this town has started to see what can happen when built heritage and cultural landscapes are lost or under threat. We want to make sure that this doesn’t happen for our material culture. It is why the museum has worked hard to gain support through many years of government cuts, changing standards and evolving trends,” said Klassen.
History is a driving force in town, and one of the reasons people choose it as a tourist destination.
The museum has “arguably the most important historical collection in the province,” and promotes, stores and exhibits NOTL’s artifacts, including more than 30,000 town documents, with about 200 new items being added with year, all of which must be protected, she said.
Last year, the museum expanded its outreach programs. A year-long exhibition on the First World War Polish training camp earned recognition in the Polish community., she said. The museum received an award from a Polish-American organization and was included in a documentary from Poland.
Through a grant from the Niagara Region, the museum produced a series of pop-up exhibits, and there was also a First World War display at the Shaw Festival’s Studio Theatre, and an exhibit at the Chamber of Commerce with fun facts about NOTL, Klassen said.
Klassen detailed the many popular programs that will be ongoing through 2019: a month-long lecture series on art and fashion; a month-long discussion group, the Famous and Infamous; walking tours in the summer, neighbourhood walks, a heritage festival, the Kid Curators summer camp and participation in several community events.
The Niagara District Airport is also asking for a budget increase.
Interim chief executive officer Dan Pilon spoke to council about the airport accomplishments during 2018, and detailed some of its challenges in 2019, including wages, extensive rehabilitation to one of the runways and other capital projects for safety and sustainability. Some expected revenue for 2019 has been lost, but there important capital projects to be funded, he said.
The airport is looking for a $32,264 for operating costs, and $23,915 toward capital projects from NOTL this year. The airport also receives funding from St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, and its total budget would mean a contribution of $3.21 per person from each of the three municipalities, he said.
Each of the requests is expected to be decided by the Feb. 4 committee meeting, with final approval of the budget Feb. 11.