Update: This story has been updated from the printed version. The headline has also been changed, to clarify that the operating budget increase was not capped. There was a decision to set the baseline budget at a three per cent increase.
A new process to help keep taxes down and make decisions easier for council during 2020 budget deliberations is working well, says Coun. Allan Bisback.
After the difficulties faced by a new council deciding its first budget for 2019, in a shortened timeframe, something needed to be done to streamline the process, Bisback said.
The solution was to rely on the audit committee, replacing the long workshop sessions held for the 2019 budget, which involved all of council, with shorter, more frequent meetings, he says, only involving the councillors who chose to be on the committee.
Early in the 2020 budget discussions, Bisback moved a motion at the audit committee that the base operating budget increase be set at three per cent, to cover non-negotiable salary increases for staff. That was included in the committee minutes as a recommendation to council, and approved by council without discussion.
Requests from staff for additional items had to be accompanied by a detailed business case, he says, which were then agreed to or rejected by the audit committee. Those that are being recommended by the audit committee will go to council for approval.
While approval of those new items will bring the operating budget over the three per cent increase, there are also increased revenue streams yet to be discussed, such as an increase to user-pay fees.
Until those factors have been decided, “we don’t know what the final total will be, ” Bisback says.
All of that information is public — there are reports for each business case available online, says Bisback, so if taxpayers want to know what they’re paying for, the information is there for them to see.
The audit committee meetings, which include Coun. Stuart McCormack, the chair; and Couns. Gary Burroughs, John Wiens, Norm Arsenault and Bisback, have been open to the public. There will be one more meeting, Wednesday, Dec. 11 from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., before recommendations are presented at a special council meeting Monday, Dec. 16, at 6 p.m. At that time all councillors will have the opportunity to go over it, discuss it and if they wish, suggest changes.
There are some residents attending audit meetings, Bisback says, but the meetings are also live-streamed for greater public participation.
“I’m hoping council as a whole selected us as individuals to sit on the audit committee, given we have the experience and the time to do the job. We ask a lot of questions, and I feel we’re asking the right questions.”
It’s an “extremely important” process, he says, because “it sets up spending for next year.”
The use of Join the Conversation on the Town’s website is another way for residents to make their opinions about the budget known, and to provide an outlet for asking questions and receiving answers, says Bisback.
There have also been presentations made regarding discretionary grants, all “very visible,” and so far three presentations from organizations which have been switched from the discretionary grant process, to a line item on the budget — the Niagara Historical Society and Museum, which asked for an increase which the former council committed to over three years. The increase would be for $264,936 in the 2020 budget, up from about $210,000 for 2019, bringing it more in line with what other municipalities spend on their museums.
The Niagara District Airport presentation, made by CEO Dan Pilon, asked for a “status quo” amount, about $400 more than 2019, and Niagara College asked for $20,000 for a new greenhouse technology program. Those requests will be decided by council during budget discussions.
The NOTL Chamber of Commerce will make its presentation to council at the next council meeting, Dec. 9, says Bisback, and will likely involve a larger discussion of the role of the chamber and its relationship with the town.
Also likely to come up in future discussions, says Bisback, is whether removing those four organizations from the discretionary grant process, which is more visible to the public, to a line item on the budget, was the right decision.