While town councillors continue to struggle to find more savings before finalizing the Town’s 2020 budget, Niagara regional council has approved a budget that sets up an overall property tax increase of 5.92 per cent.
Not unlike town councillors’ efforts, regional councillors’ efforts were aimed at balancing the need to catch up with infrastructure improvements, keep up with the level of service delivery and have a budget that is sustainable for the future, says Gary Zalepa, regional councillor for Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The regional operating budget for 2020 has been approved with a tax levy of $392.6 million.
The operating budget supports a $375 million approved capital program for 2020.
The increase includes improvements to public transit and social services, and redevelopment for affordable housing and recreational facilities.
The Region has made health and social services a priority, despite the fact that the Province is no longer funding many of those programs, he says.
“We’re protecting the most vulnerable in society, spending on programs for the homeless, and projects affecting families with low incomes,” including a program through the YMCA that helps kids participate in activities that include sports, theatre and the arts.
The Region is “definitely doing some catch-up” when it comes to capital projects, says Zalepa, with different priorities than councils of past years. “There isn’t enough funding in reserve funds to meet capital needs in the 2020 budget,” he explains, pushing the Region to work at finding the right balance between funding capital projects and building reserves for a sustainable future.
“This council was struggling with tax rates, and keeping things affordable, and catching up with reserves for the long term,” he says.
“That’s been a big effort, and I think we’re on top of it.”
Water and wastewater rates will also increase, by a little more than five per cent, to cover infrastructure improvements that will ensure safe drinking water, he says, and meet provincial legislation.
And the cost of garbage collection, which is funded per household in NOTL, will increase by almost 10 per cent, reflecting a new contract for 2020, as costs for collection increase and a drop in revenue for recycled material.
Collection will decrease curbside to every other week, with a goal of reducing costs and improving waste diversion.
The new contract does not begin until next fall, when the new rates will kick in.
A separate levy of 1.4 per cent had already been approved for long-term care facilities, says Zalepa.
The Region uses the average property assessment of $277,044 to put the increase in perspective, meaning the average tax bill will increase by $86, for a total of $1,602, not necessarily the best way to explain the budget increase to taxpayers, he says.
Increases vary, according to “many moving parts,” including the regional tax rate, and assessment.
The main point he makes about the 2020 regional budget is that “it sets the stage for growth.”
Investments in infrastructure for GO Transit and other projects that will attract employers and jobs are critical, he says, and public transit is a big part of the puzzle needed to accomplish that.
Regional councillors had several workshops and sessions to discuss each portion of the budget before making their final decisions, he adds.
The public doesn’t necessarily see the effort that goes into a regional budget, says Zalepa.
“We had a really fulsome discussion. We were not taking this lightly. It’s been a huge amount of work and input to get to where we were at the stage to finally approve it.”
But in the end, he believes it’s a good budget for 2020 and the future.
“This budget is positioning the region for growth. We need to compete with other regions for jobs, and we need the infrastructure to attract employers and jobs. Without them we’d end up playing second fiddle to other regions in the province. The Niagara Region is putting the infrastructure in place for the future, to be ready to get through the next period of growth.”