Taking into consideration council budget requests and management adjustments, staff delivered an operating budget with a 9.48 per cent increase at a special meeting Monday, after considering assessment growth.
But despite the struggle to reduce the increase to that amount — it had started at about 22 per cent — at the end of the four-hour meeting, councillors agreed to “take a pause,” as suggested by Lord Mayor Betty Disero, and wait until they reconvene in January to approve it. They committed to looking for any possible further savings to reduce that number, although they all agreed it was tough to get to that point, and they have been diligent in looking at every line that represented an increase.
Council did, however, approve a $10,393,750 capital budget, which allows staff to move forward in the new year on some of the projects that are included in the 2020 budget.
With the budget as it stands now, although not approved, the operating levy is proposed to be $12,786,151. The impact is around $100 for an average home of $530,900 says Freeborn.
For those within an urban area who receive a storm levy charge, an additional 2.48 per cent increase of about $4.03 comes to a total of $119 extra in 2020.
The total increase over last year is $1,267,601, subject to change after further deliberation.
The audit committee, which has met five times from October until last Wednesday to go over the budget line by line, was recommending council approve the 2020 capital budget and operating budget, as presented, but there were discussions about savings in some areas, and about additions to the budget in others.
The audit committee comprises town staff, along with chair Stuart McCormack, and Couns. John Wiens, Gary Burroughs, Norm Arsenault and Allan Bisback.
Both the operating and capital budget was summarized Monday by Freeborn, who, after more than a year in the role of acting director of corporate services, was given that permanent position in October, as well as the title of treasurer.
Councillors applauded his diligence and long hours put in to arrive at a budget to meet the time table set out by council.
All discretionary grants were discussed at audit committee meetings, some approved and some rejected, with those recommendations still to be approved by council.
Similarly, every new project or addition to the budget requested from Town departments had to be accompanied by a detailed business case, which was then agreed to or rejected by the audit committee, who went through those cases line by line.
Bisback, in the final moments of the final audit committee meeting, encouraged all councillors to look at committee recommendations for discretionary grants. He said he is concerned that “in a year like this,” with a higher-than-usual recommended tax increase to forge a sustainable budget, he questions whether there should be any discretionary grants.
“We did our review, and I’m still concerned,” he told his colleagues on the committee.
Discretionary grants have been approved in principle, but Freeborn explained as they are part of the operating budget, they are still subject to change
The largest discretionary grants include $35,000 for the Shaw Festival Theatre; $10,000 for The Friends of Fort George; $5,000 for Music Niagara and the TD Niagara Jazz Festival; and $3,000 for Community Palliative Care; the Education Foundation of Ontario; the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre; and RiverBrink Art Museum. A request for $5,000 for Bravo Niagara! was withdrawn due to the receipt of another grant.
There were also lesser amounts recommended, for a total of $78,000.
In a summary to council, a staff report said about $1.77 million in capital projects has been deferred to 2021, while about $754,000 of funding was reallocated from other sources in an effort to achieve the final recommendations, including $650,000 from parking reserves.
“Despite correcting most funding discrepancies projected in 2020, the years thereafter will either require significant investment to maintain forecasted project requests, or more deferrals/cancellations will be required. This may risk the quality of existing service levels,” the budget report says.
One of the items discussed Monday was the cost of a new pool for St. Davids, which has risen to $5 million from the original projection of $3 million. Parks and recreation manager Kevin Turcotte told councillors Monday that the increase is due to some changes in design. The 2020 budget earmarks $100,000 for the pool, with a fundraising committee charged with raising a portion of the cost. He will be looking for grants to offset the increase in cost, but failing that, the design can be scaled back, he told councillors.
Another discussion arose concerning the Simcoe Park wading pool, with a line in the budget to turn it into a splash pad.
Couns. Clare Cameron and Gary Burroughs spoke passionately against the splash pad, saying a wading pool is much more appropriate for the historic park. Burroughs recalled his time on regional council when the issue of safety regulations for the wading pool first surfaced — the Province sets the regulations, and the Region enforces them.
Although there was a suggestion then to turn the wading pool into a splash pad, the public outcry convinced the Town to meet provincial regulations by providing life guards, at a cost of $25,000 a season, and emptying the water from the pool every night.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero, who was a councillor during the previous discussion, said at that time, people from the Old Town and other areas of NOTL were strongly opposed to removing it.
“To some people it became a symbol of our heritage,” she said, and keeping it symbolized preserving the history of the town.
Councillors voted Monday to leave the wading pool as it is, and continue funding the lifeguards, with Disero offering to talk to the Region about allowing it to remain that way.
Another discussion revolved around the need for an updated Town website. Cameron asked that some money from a $725,000 provincial fund, earmarked for modernization initiatives, be set aside for staff to work on the website.
About one/third of that grant has already been allocated, and she was concerned by the time the Town begins work on the website, the money will be spent.
There is a Deloitte service delivery review coming up, and some councillors felt it imperative to wait until that review is completed and recommendations made, in case the review suggests there are more important ways to spend the grant.
“I agree the website needs to be changed,” said McCormack. “I find searching on it a nightmare. But I don’t want to commit money before Deloitte tells us what we should spend the money on.”
Cameron asked that $100,000 be put aside as a “placeholder,” while waiting for the service delivery review to be complete, referring to the many residents and people who are interested in moving to town who have commented on the outdated website. “We’re starting to look like a bit of an embarrassment with our peers,” she said. “Not doing it is not an option.”
The majority of councillors agreed with her, noting the money is not coming from the taxpayers but the provincial grant.
The NOTL Chamber of Commerce came close to losing its funding of $118,000 for 2020, because councillors found a recent presentation by chamber president Eduardo Lafforgue lacking in the financial details they wanted to hear before approving the budget expense.
Although McCormack was set to withhold all funding, Bisback and others disagreed that this was the time to do that.
Admitting to being disappointed with the presentation, Bisback said, “maybe this is the year we do a reset,” rather than withholding the money. “I would like to understand better the services we’re funding.”
The hour-long workshop with Lafforgue and chamber board members last week was more about the chamber’s strategic plan than the expected budget discussion, councillors said, and after talking about simply refusing the money until that information is presented, councillors voted to give the chamber the funding it needs to finance the upcoming Icewine Festival, and defer the remainder until that discussion has been held in January.
Disero was one who voted to withhold the funding. As she mentioned during the workshop, she thinks it important to distinguish between the work the chamber does to support local businesses, and its marketing arm, NOTL Tourism. Chambers of commerce, she said, “are supposed to be self-sufficient and service their members. They made it clear they (the chamber and its tourism subsidiary) are one, and I don’t think they should be. That’s just my two cents.”
Regarding more than $1 million set aside for legal fees, Disero explained it’s not just to defend against one development, and some of the legal actions were launched by the previous council and councils before that.
If council decides not to defend their positions against inappropriate development, “we will lose total control of what happens in the council chamber, and in town,” she said.
The meeting ended with Disero saying although the projected increase, as it stands, is high, and she’s not sure what can be done to reduce it, “maybe we can take a pause, look at it and come back with more ideas.”
Councillors agreed to a deferment until January.