MH aims for 7% tax levy increase
By Sue Tiffin
Published Feb. 21, 2019
The focus of the second round of budget discussions in Minden Hills looked at what exactly had to be cut to reduce the tax levy increase to a desired seven per cent from 17.64 per cent.
During a Jan. 24 meeting Mayor Brent Devolin said council was “going to have to make some tough decisions this year,” in order to reduce the preliminary tax levy increase. Council directed staff to aim for a levy increase between four per cent up to 10 per cent. Since the January meeting $842,949 in reductions have been made, for a 2019 draft budget net shortfall of $554,475 and a seven per cent increase over the 2018 tax levy.
At the Feb. 14 meeting, department heads met with council to discuss where cuts had been made.
Chief building official Colin McKnight listed an approximate cost of a yearly septic inspection program, which is still an unknown number until the project is awarded to a consultant. Councillor Bob Carter questioned how realistic the numbers were.
“This is a budget time, so we should be coming up with a number that is somewhat what we think it’s going to be as opposed to what we hope it’s going to be,” he said. “If we’re just going to put a number down and you know, three months from now you’re going to come to us after doing some more exploration and give us the real number, we should be kind of coming up with a somewhat real number now ... It just seems like we’re taking the lowest number we possibly can to fit into the budget so we can meet a goal as opposed to coming up with a more realistic number.”
“I guess my question is, is there anyone that believes that the number will be what you’re putting in or lower?” asked Carter.
“No, it’s definitely going to be more than this,” said McKnight.
“I want to have a realistic budget, not one that just meets a certain percentage ... and then three months later when we get the real number we can all act shocked,” said Carter.
Whether or not to cut a pay equity review, and to add an organizational review, elicited a lengthy discussion between councillors.
Carter questioned legislative requirements and noted he didn’t think the pay equity review should be removed.
Councillor Pam Sayne said she had been requesting an organizational review, which would entail a consultant reviewing the township’s department and management structure, for a few years now and recommended it be added to the budget.
Carter said that money should be going into the official plan instead to enable council to define the organization.
“I’m willing to say that the organizational review could be out of this year’s budget, because I think we need an official plan for the community to decide what the organization should be to meet our new plan, our new goals,” said Carter. “I would like us to have an official plan done first and then do the organizational review to help us set up the organization to meet that plan.”
Councillors discussed what a review might look like, and what the cost might be to do so.
“Councillor Sayne’s asked for this for a long time and I think we need to move on it,” said Deputy Mayor Lisa Schell. “Once we know what we’re looking for.”
“I’d just like to remind council, this is only the second department head session and you have so far put pretty much put everything back in,” said Lorrie Blanchard, CAO and treasurer. “So, something’s gotta go unless you want to go higher...”
Mark Coleman, director of community services, said his department had removed, among other changes, a tennis court project and repairs to the Village Green walkway from the budget.
Mayor Brent Devolin asked if it would be possible to replace the interlocking bricks along the Village Green that were crumbling. Coleman said that had been done twice over the past few years.
“The rate of deterioration is to the point that we can repair what we can but there’s still going to be 50 per cent of the walkway that’s up and down all over the place,” he said.
Emily Stonehouse, economic development, destination and marketing officer, said an André Lapine sculpture worth $28,000 would be deferred to next year.
Environmental and property operations staff are proposing a four per cent increase per year to user fees for the water system from 2019 to 2024, with a three per cent increase per following year, forecasting to 2040, and recommended that the remaining service life of fire hydrants is one year, meaning there is a higher risk of failure of those assets so a plan for replacements should be implemented immediately.
Interim fire chief Mike Bekking, detailed how the fire department had removed $50,000 from the budget. Staff doesn’t anticipate hiring a deputy chief before June 1, so wages and benefits were reduced to reflect that hire date. About $4,000 was saved by reducing the firefighter certification training to two firefighters and one instructor as opposed to three firefighters and two instructors, and $10,000 of contingency money for equipment as well as $3,000 of miscellaneous equipment was removed. Deputy chief training expenses were reduced as they are dependent on the qualifications of the new hire.
Roads superintendent Travis Wilson outlined his second draft of the roads department budget, noting some significant cuts. The roads department cut just over $421,000 from the first draft of the 2019 budget, which now sits at $3,664,020 and is, as usual, the most expensive portfolio in the budget.
The Sunnybrook Bridge rehabilitation that would include Ontario Structure Inspection Manual-recommended improvements on the vehicular bridge that crosses the Gull River at Minden’s downtown area has been deferred until 2020. The project included replacement of failing retaining walls, replacement of handrails, lighting improvements, barrier free sidewalks and replacement of the asphalt at a cost of $420,000.
Councillor Bob Carter asked about the level of urgency of repairing the bridge and of any detriment to pushing back a year.
“On this list, other than that bridge, what is it that you’ve taken out that in your professional opinion we really shouldn’t be taking out?”
“Everything?” said Wilson. When Carter asked him to name his favourite, Wilson noted the preventative maintenance of roads.
Reconstruction of IGA Road, Tennyson Road and Plantation Road – three roads noted to be in the poor condition and on a list of roads that receive the most complaints – have been deferred to 2020 budget deliberations. The rehabilitation of 1.1 kilometres of Plantation Road would have cost $125,300, the cost to rehabilitate 1.9 kilometres of Tennyson Road would have cost $240,000 and the reconstruction of 0.1 kilometres of IGA Road would have cost between $290,000 and $320,000, depending on the final design.
“Council should recognize that there are zero roads proposed for rehabilitation in 2019,” said Wilson in his report.
Resurfacing projects planned for 2019 include slurry seal on Ritchie Falls Road, Red Umbrella Road, Crooked House Road, Reynolds Road and Osprey Road, and single surface treatment with fog seal and minor base repairs on Rackety Trail Road, Little Bob Lake Road, Cox Farm Road, Minden Lake Road and Alfred Road.
“For all preventative maintenance, I have to stress to council, removing any of these from this program, you’re going to have the ones that are beyond point of repair and then you’ll have another Bobcaygeon Road or Tennyson Road. So spend the money now, and you’ll save it later. Otherwise you’re stuck with the 36 kilometres of really poor road that we have.”
With Infrastructure Ontario or whomever, is there a way that we can sort of work to fund Travis,” asked Carter. “One of our issues is big ticket items that we’ve got and we don’t obviously have the huge reserve fund, but is there a way that, if he is saying, it’s really important to do this and if you don’t do it it could cost you a lot more in the future ... is there a way we can say, let’s borrow the money and spread it out over a few years so we have a lesser impact annually on the budget, or is, and this is to prove that I’m really not an accountant, does that just keep, like building up credit card debt?”
Blanchard said she would follow-up with the government agency to look into options. A representative from IO is tentatively coming as a delegation to the next council meeting.
An ice pulverizer has been added to the roads budget since the first draft.
“Staff believe the purchase of a device to help break up ice from roads would be a valuable tool to have,” said Wilson in his report. “With more significant rain/thaw events, staff believe the ice pulverizer will be a great asset. Additionally to breaking ice, [it] can be utilized to smooth rough sections of loose top road during the summer season.”
Sayne told Wilson she didn’t like to see such a huge budget cut on roads after his work educating council on the importance of keeping on top of their maintenance.
“I’m not happy about these cuts to this budget,” she said. “The other part is that we have issues here that were brought to us by the public, that are not reflected in this. So we go through the whole year, the public brings us stuff, and then we don’t reflect it at budget time.”
She brought up the issue of parking at Devil’s Lake and public access of Bob Lake.
“It’s not something we’re even thinking about, as we do this budget, are all these things that came forward to us in the last year that people are requesting support with,” she said. “I think at budget time it’s time to take that information that we have for all the departments of what people are interested in and say, does that reflect in our budget in some way.”
“We put a target and a number that was midrange,” said Devolin. “...What do you sacrifice? I think each one of us has to consider our comfort level of what we’re willing to defend to the public of what is and isn’t out there. This is what seven per cent looks like and roads is a great example ... are there things about sustainability that some of us are not willing to forgo. I’m not answering for the rest of you, but I think in the second and third [draft], that’s probably where the most serious soul-searching about most of what we see here is whether we maybe have to settle for a number higher than we’d like, but whether it’s in our long term best interest and the best policy.”
Councillor Jean Neville said some properties owned by Minden Hills are vacant, but have to be maintained, and could potentially be sold.
“I have never seen a list of our properties that the municipality owns that we have hoarded away and might be quite considerable. We should maybe consider selling some of them off if we’re not using them. That too will increase our tax base if somebody builds a house on them.”
Sayne said there are some ways in which the township could be making buildings more energy efficient for savings, as well.
Carter requested that for the next meeting to discuss budget, staff offer clear examples of what impact cuts this year could have on next year.
“To know what the effects of these decisions are, because when you’re taking them without looking forward it’s a lot easier to make them and not feel guilty or nervous,” said Carter.
Last year’s tax increase in Minden Hills was 8.6 per cent. The next round of budget talks is scheduled for March 14.