Lots of carving to do on MH budget
By Chad Ingram
The first round of 2020 Minden Hills budget discussions was a lengthy one during a Dec. 12 meeting, and staff will bring back revised and reduced budget reports at a subsequent meeting.
The budget process in Minden Hills involves department heads bringing their ideal budgets, essentially wish lists, before council, and then council making reductions from there through a series of meetings. The tax levy increase in the first draft budget is 34 per cent over last year, a figure that will come down drastically through the budgeting process.
“I don’t think a number can get beyond double digits, I think that’s totally out of the game,” said Mayor Brent Devolin. “Anyone disagree with that?”
No members of council did.
“I think that’s as far as we can go without getting shot daily on the street,” said Devolin, whose ideal target seemed to be around seven per cent.
“I would like to be between five and six,” said Councillor Bob Carter.
The tax levy increase in Minden Hills for 2019 was 6.4 per cent, equating to a residential tax rate increase of just more than three per cent.
Most of the township’s 2020 departmental draft budgets included large increases over 2019, some in the range of 20 per cent, public works at 46 per cent, and the chief building officer’s department at 70 per cent.
As a report from CBO Colin McKnight indicated, the increase in his department is largely because of increased staffing related to the township’s septic re-inspection program, as well as investigating regulations on short-term rental accommodations and increased legal costs. The department’s draft budget for the first round was nearly $420,000, an increase of some $173,000.
By far the largest portion of the budget goes to public works, where the increase in the draft was 46 per cent over last, or an increase of more than $2.1 million, from $4.5 million to a draft total of more than $6.6 million. Because of the expense and large number of projects, it’s the department where council does a great deal of financial trimming during the budget process.
Public works director Travis Wilson cautioned council about the implications of deferring too many projects for too long. Wilson used the example of the reconstruction of IGA Road, which has been shovel-ready and on the books for a number of years now.
“This is a project that we defer, and we defer,” Wilson said, adding that eventually, the township could wind up with a lengthy list of items that all need to completed around the same time.
“The list that I have right now becomes twice as long in a couple more years,” Wilson said.
In the economic development, destination and marketing department, which includes the operation of the Minden Hills Cultural Centre, there was a draft budget increase of 22 per cent, or a nearly $123,000 increase over 2019. As economic development, destination and marketing officer Emily Stonehouse told members of council, a major capital expense will be the installation of a new HVAC system at the cultural centre, considered important to adequately preserve its collection of Andre Lapine paintings. It’s anticipated the system will cost $50,000. The implementation of a community improvement plan is also planned for the township in 2020. A community improvement plan allows council, through a bylaw, to establish a physical area wherein the township can offer financial incentives to private property owners – both residential and commercial – for physical improvements to their properties.
Carter wondered if council was going to make cuts to the department’s draft budget, “what is it in your total budget that would get impacted first by that?”
Stonehouse said that improvements to the building, including the HVAC system, would take priority, and that there could be some wiggle room on the community improvement plan.
“And I’ll be the first to admit we don’t know how successful that will be within our community at this time,” Stonehouse said, explaining there has not been overwhelming interest from business owners and residents so far.
In the community services department, its draft budget contained an increase of 26 per cent, or a $255,000 increase over last year, for a draft total of more than $1.2 million.
“The majority ($195,000) of this increase is associated with the proposed staffing plan to improve parks and cemetery maintenance as well as the increase in operational demands with the new larger community/centre arena coming online in June 2020,” read a report from outgoing community services director Mark Coleman. Coleman is leaving the township, taking a job as community services director with the Municipality of Brockton, which is scheduled to begin on Jan. 6.
Carter asked Coleman if there was something the municipality should be doing differently when it came to the maintenance of its cemeteries, and Coleman said that some municipalities wholly contract out the maintenance of the cemeteries they own.
Councillor Pam Sayne said council needed to keep many of the township’s already financially struggling residents in mind when contemplating the level by which taxes would increase.
“We have a tax base here of people whose incomes aren’t going to be increasing and some of them are even going down, compared to what we’re going up,” Sayne said.
Devolin, who stressed a few times during the meeting that tax increases, in actual dollar figures, are not usually as bad as they sound in percentages, suggested that the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus again begin advocating with the province to dedicate a one per cent HST increase to Ontario’s municipalities.
Deputy Mayor Lisa Schell said given all the requirements before council, she didn’t see how an increase of less than five per cent would be possible.
“Just based on the arena, and new staffing that’s required ... and other departments as well, I don’t see how that’s possible unless we start cutting staff before the building’s even finished,” Schell said. “We’d all love to go below five, but realistically, I don’t think that’s possible. I’d love to say zero, but it’s not realistic, if we want to continue growing.”
Ultimately, council instructed treasurer and chief administrative officer Lorrie Blanchard to aim in the vicinity of a six per cent increase for the second round of budget discussions.