It’s budget season, the time of year when municipal councils place things onto and push things off of the proverbial table, deciding what will be implemented for the upcoming year and what will be deferred or scrapped altogether, all while attempting to keep property tax increases at a level that is palatable to residents.
While budget meetings are often long, dry and some might say mind-numbingly boring, they are of course incredibly important. They are the meat and potatoes of municipal politics. They underscore the perennial challenge faced by all municipal governments – providing the necessary services residents require, evolving the community through amenities that residents want, and doing both of these things in a way that is financially sustainable over the long haul. As I’ve written countless times in this space, while there are lesser forms of municipal revenue, the property tax is the central revenue-generating tool for local governments, meaning they exist in a framework of great financial constraint, since so much of the money they use to operate comes directly from the pockets of their property taxpayers.
There are varying approaches to the budgeting process. At the upper tier of Haliburton County, for example, a zero-based budgeting approach is employed. This means reviewing each of the items that are included in any account, and deciding if they are really necessary. It is essentially building a budget from the ground up.
In the Township of Minden Hills, a different approach to budgeting is taken. A wide net is cast, department heads essentially submitting their wish lists for the year, and then councillors get out their butcher knives, trimming fat where they see fit throughout rounds of budget talks. Starting budget discussions this year with a tax levy increase of more than 17 per cent in the first draft, councillors are now in the process of whittling that increase down to a target of seven per cent.
Certainly, council’s decision to proceed with the $12.5-million arena project will put a pinch on the Minden Hills budget in this fiscal year and many to come. A number of items are being deferred to 2020 budget discussions. Among these items are more than $1 million worth of roads projects including $305,000 for the reconstruction of IGA Road, $365,000 for the rehabilitation of Tennyson and Plantation Roads, and $400,000 for work on the Sunnybrook Bridge in downtown Minden.
Budgets are not simply lists of spending items. They are a tightrope act, balancing the needs and wants of residents with financial prudence. They are also a statement by municipal councils on their priorities.