Budget time is a time of heightened anxiety for those who serve on municipal councils. No matter what a council does there are going to be complaints; either a council is spending too much, or they aren’t providing enough funding for this, or for that. Budgets can be a no-win endeavour for members of council.
Over the more than a dozen years of covering Meaford’s council, it hasn’t mattered whether the rate increase at the end of budget deliberations is two percent or eight percent, there have been complaints, and there has been frustration and anger directed at councillors and sometimes municipal staff.
There are always a number of ratepayers who are convinced that there should be no tax rate increase at all, or that the tax rate should be reduced, but the reality is both of those options would prove to be problematic.
In previous years I have written that, at the very least, we should expect municipal tax rates to increase in order to keep pace with inflation. In some years that might mean a minimum rate increase of one percent, however some years can bring higher than normal inflation, and that is what we are experiencing now.
That Meaford’s Council and staff have managed to cobble together a budget that requires a blended rate increase of 4.2 percent for 2022 is actually impressive, given that the latest inflation rate for Ontario is reported to be five percent. Over the past two years of this pandemic we have seen inflation on the rise, and in 2021 each month the rate of inflation grew at a rate not seen in decades. And the financial experts tell us that we can expect inflation to continue to remain high for the foreseeable future.
Nobody likes to pay more, and there is no doubt in my mind that our members of council will get an earful from a handful of angry ratepayers convinced that they already pay too much, and that rates should be going down, not up.
With inflation hovering around five percent, I wonder if the same folks take the time to contact the CEOs of corporations like grocery chains, or tire manufacturers, or any number of companies that produce goods that we consume who have had to pass along the inflationary prices to their customers. Sadly, the CEOs rarely hear from the everyday Joe, but members of council certainly do.
The draft budgets approved by Council are pretty free of fat to trim. Councillor Steve Bartley told his fellow members of council that, after scouring the budget looking for areas to trim, unless we want to start eliminating projects that are already long overdue for completion, there is nothing he could find to be cut.
As has been discussed many times over the years, if we want lower tax rates, we must decide what service cuts we can live with, and in all my years covering this council, nobody has ever stood up to share what services this municipality could live without. Everybody wants to pay less, but it seems that nobody wants to give up any services. For members of Council this must be frustrating.
Meaford’s Council has unanimously approved the draft budgets for 2022, and the statutory public budget meeting will be held on Monday, January 31, with the hope that Council will give final approval to the budgets in February.
Given the global, national, and provincial reality of the moment, a 4.2 percent rate increase, while maintaining our service levels, not to mention the inclusion of more than $9.5 million in capital and infrastructure projects, in a year when inflation is approaching all time highs, is an achievement, though that certainly doesn’t soften the blow.
We have all noticed that our grocery bills have skyrocketed, the cost of fuel for our vehicles has been on a steady increase along with most every product and service, and those inflationary pressures impact a municipal corporation just as they impact our personal household budgets, and that is a reality we must face.
This is also the final budget for this term of council, and with a municipal election coming later this year, you know that those on Council who will be seeking reelection would want this year’s rate increase to be as low as possible in order to butter up voters, and this year’s increase is as low as Council and staff could achieve, election year or not.
It could be worse. Some of our neighbouring municipalities are facing rate increases of more than six percent in 2022, so again, Meaford’s budget given the pandemic and global inflation is an achievement indeed.