The Town is lagging behind in capital investments, and there are decisions to be made on how to catch up, Lord Mayor Betty Disero told councillors Monday, laying out her personal vision for possible future improvements.
She explained she wanted to talk about council’s legacy, and spoke of some of the accomplishments made to date, but she’s concerned about capital costs over the next 10 years and how they will be funded.
Disero said the Region is asking about upgrades to projects it has planned for Niagara-on-the-Lake, suggesting the Town could budget for more upscale designs on the future roundabout at Glendale Avenue and York Road, which could be attractive plantings rather than concrete, and also more attractive light standards for that intersection and in St. Davids.
But those come at a cost to the Town, so decisions have to be made about whether to approve the upgrades and how to pay for them, she said.
There are other capital programs that need to be funded, with the Town falling further behind every year, she said.
An average of $1 million a year is required just to handle repairs and replacements for Town facilities, “or they will start to deteriorate and crumble.”
She showed a rendering of some improvements that could be made to update Queen Street, sprucing up its appearance but also making it safer. The Town has had lawsuits over falls from uneven sidewalks, and she fell twice while walking it herself, she said.
She also showed drawings of what Virgil could look like — coloured brick, pretty light standards and more flowers to give it more of a village ambience, and support its businesses, but as she emphasized, it will all cost money — another $1 million just for Virgil.
Disero involved Regional Coun. Gary Zalepa in her presentation to talk about bringing in experts, or drawing on those in the community, to look at how to increase parking spaces in the Old Town, and use new technology to make it more effective, including giving residents something a little more sophisticated than parking permits to stick on windshields. “It’s not 1980 anymore,” he said.
“I think we have a real opportunity here,” he added, offering to do whatever he can to help through the Region.
“So how do we pay for it?” asked Disero, referring to her vision. Raising taxes for 18,000 residents isn’t an option, user fees may help but there is already a shortfall of $600,000 for community centre operations, and although fundraising is an option, there are several competing campaigns planned, she said.
“We can borrow it, but why would I want to leave a debt behind?” said Disero. “I don’t think borrowing money is a good idea.”
Her answer to the dilemma is a municipal accommodation tax (MAT) to fund capital programs over the coming years, with half of it going to a tourism entity to administer and the other half staying with the Town. Disero has talked with the City of Burlington, and with other tourism organizations that had some recommendations about how to make a MAT work effectively for the municipality and the local tourism industry.
“If there is any other way to raise money to afford these goals, I’m in,” she said
She feels if created carefully, using the suggestions she has been given, NOTL could become a model for other municipalities considering a MAT, and asked council to be “visionary, and look at what we can do in the next 10 to 20 years.”
Coun. Allan Bisback, who was very involved in helping to set this year’s budget, said he was excited by the presentation and the possibility of looking to the future.
“We get too bogged down on day-to-day stuff,” he said.
Others, including Couns. Wendy Cheropita and Gary Burroughs, were more cautious about endorsing a vision they haven’t had a chance to consider.
The Town needs to “rally our tourism partners together,” said Cheropita, who reminded council the business community felt they weren’t consulted on the last round of MAT discussions which took place recently.
But Disero wasn’t looking for endorsement of her vision, and reminded them she was just trying to “start the conversation,” ending the discussion with an agreement to hold a visioning session with councillors.