With 2023 now in our rear view mirrors, a new year is unfolding before us. A new year is often a time for hope. Hope for a better year ahead, hope for improvement, hope for growth and prosperity.
As one year ends we tend to reflect upon the year that has been. We recall our successes along with our failures, we review the ups and downs, and we often set goals for improvement in the year to come.
As hopeful as many of us are with the arrival of a new year, when a new year begins, our trials and tribulations from the year prior follow along like a shadow, a reminder that we can’t escape what has been, only work to improve what will be.
The shadows following Meaford’s council into the new year include the proposed pumped storage facility, which has cast a shadow on this municipality for the past four years, a continued wave of new development proposals, and the reality that there are never enough resources to meet everyone’s needs and wants.
As council gets back to work after the holiday season break, their primary focus between now and March will be the 2024 municipal budgets. The draft budgets will be presented to council during their January 15 meeting, and then the fun begins.
From speaking with members of council, it is clear that the coming budget season is a time of heightened anxiety, knowing that no matter what decisions are made at budget time, many are bound to be unhappy. When it comes to municipal budgets, we all have our own wish list, and we also have a list of things that we feel are little more than wasted funds, and if a hundred of us compared our lists, there is no doubt that they would differ wildly, but there would also be some common ground, and that is what elected councils are always looking to find: what can we all agree upon? It is a delicate balance, and far from an easy task, particularly in challenging economic times.
With each municipal budget season come the calls for a reduction in staff in order to ‘cut taxes’, and each year we hear councillors state the reality that to reduce staff requires a reduction in services. What services should be considered for reduction or elimination is of course subject to intense debate, as opinions vary widely. One person’s ‘necessity’ can be another person’s ‘frill’, adding complexity to budget discussions.
During our chat at the Mayor’s Levee, Mayor Kentner acknowledged to me that many are currently struggling financially, and he indicated that he and his fellow members of council do not want to add to the strain already being felt in many households.
I don’t doubt the mayor’s sincerity, but council won’t find any real savings in the budget by nibbling around the corners as has often been done in previous years, shaving a little here and a little there. With so many budgetary pressures, it will be a significant achievement if council can end up with a budget that the majority will happily, or perhaps even grudgingly, embrace.
In many years Meaford’s council has been able to soften the blow of its own levy increases by pointing to the ‘blended rate’, which factors in the county and education portions of the municipal tax bill for ratepayers. Last year for example, Meaford’s increase, once the budget was complete, was 4.46 percent, while the blended rate increase was approximately 3.16 percent. In 2022, Meaford council’s 4.9 percent budget increase meant a 3.78 percent increase for ratepayers once blended with the county and education levies.
This year however, with the county already having approved a 6.3 percent rate increase for 2024, Meaford’s council won’t have the benefit of boasting of a lower blended rate, adding to the pressure on Meaford’s councillors to minimize the rate increase for the municipal portion of property tax bills for the coming year.
The county council noted that even with a whopping 6.3 percent increase, they had to reduce some service levels or it would have been worse for ratepayers. The county has withdrawn funding from the Grey Transit Route for example, a decision that helps with the budget, but impacts folks in their daily lives.
A 6.3 percent increase at the county level is rather staggering when compared to previous years, and I think it is important to highlight. Over the past five years, the average increase from the county at budget time has been 1.9 percent, with a low of 1.26 percent in 2020, and a high of 2.88 percent in 2022. This year’s 6.3 percent county increase is more than triple the average of the past five years, adding to the challenge for Meaford’s council with their own budgets for 2024.
When municipal budget season began last year, council was facing the prospect of a rate increase of more than seven percent, but after the budget process had been completed, council approved a budget with a 4.46 percent increase, which meant a 3.16 percent blended rate increase for Meaford’s ratepayers.
The pressures on a municipal budget are many. We have all experienced the inflation of the past few years, and municipal governments also grapple with the same inflationary pressures.
What is crucial for developing the best budget possible is for ratepayers to get involved, to participate in the process. As I wrote on this page prior to the holidays, budget season is coming, and it is time to get involved. Well, budget season has now arrived, and council often doesn’t know what it doesn’t hear from residents, so if you have thoughts about the budget, if you have ideas to find cost savings, if you feel that a service could be reduced, or even eliminated, become part of the process.
The current budget season schedule, as posted on the municipal website, is as follows:
- Monday, January 15, 1 p.m. – Tabling of Draft Budget and Presentation
- Monday, January 15, 5 p.m. – Public Meeting on Fees & Charges
- Friday, January 26, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Budget Day 1 – Operating Budget
- Tuesday, January 30, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Budget Day 2 – Capital and Enhancements Budgets
- Friday, February 2, 9 a.m. – Final Consideration & Additional Deliberation of Draft Budget (if needed)
- Monday, February 12, 6:30 p.m. – Statutory Public Meeting (Special Meeting of Council)
- Monday, March 11, (anticipated in Council at 1 p.m.) – Final Approval of the 2024 Budgets