For the past decade I have sat in Meaford's council chamber for what would amount to hundreds of council meetings, and in that time I've seen it all; from temper tantrums to mind-numbing, far from productive debates, but what I saw in the council chamber on Monday was perhaps the best budget discussion I've seen yet.
From my experience, council budget discussions can head in a few directions, most of them not so great. Often they are incredibly frustrating, with councillors debating endlessly over small dollar items while glossing over major expenditures, while at other times there can be frustratingly little debate at all.
This year, however, I think this council represented their constituents well, with an intelligent, exhaustive discussion that ultimately resulted in a proposed rate increase for 2019 that is significantly less than even council had originally asked for.
That's not to say that I agree with all of the decisions that council has made with respect to this year's budget, but when you have witnessed a genuinely exhaustive discussion among councillors, even if there are elements within the budget that I would personally change, it is certainly much easier to accept knowing how thorough council was in their examination of this year's budget.
At Monday's meeting councillors challenged staff to defend various budget items, and they listened, asked more questions, and challenged some more. And what members of council found was that there really was very little contained within the draft budget that could be considered 'frills', which made the job tougher for those members of council who had expressed a desire to find areas to cut in order to minimize this year's rate increase.
At the beginning of the budget process, council had tasked staff with producing a budget with a maximum rate increase in 2019 of 3.65 percent. When councillors arrived at the council chamber on March 4, the proposed increase after previous council and public budget discussions had been shaved down to 3.321 percent – less than council had originally requested, but some councillors wanted the increase to be even lower, so they scoured the budget looking for opportunities.
Ultimately Councillor Bartley's proposal to delay the purchase of a new backhoe and to instead spend some money on repairs in order to try to extend the life of the equipment resulted in a savings of $100,000, bringing the proposed rate increase in 2019 to just 2.72 percent.
A victory for councillors, but as I have written before, the job of a councillor is not easy, and it is often complex, and this week's 'victory' in further reducing this year's increase will have an impact on next year and the years to come. Currently, the projected increase required for 2020 is 7.95 percent, but with the deferral of the purchase of a new backhoe until next year, Meaford's treasurer cautioned that the immediate impact is that next year's projected increase will likely be closer to 9.0 percent – so next year's budget discussions should be particularly interesting. I suspect that while next year's increase will likely be less than 9.0 percent after everything shakes out, I think it will be a battle to bring next year's increase anywhere close to the relatively low 2.72 percent we will see this year.
There is much to like about this year's draft budget. It is heavy on infrastructure projects, particularly roads and bridges, which is exactly what ratepayers have been asking for, though I think that, given the realities of the infrastructure funding deficit facing this and most every other municipality, a sub-three percent increase is perhaps too low, but politically it is understandable that councillors want the rate increases to be as low as they possibly can be.
So, many will be pleased with the work council has done regarding this year's budget, and they should be – our councillors, every one of them, did their voters proud this year, but they have compounded the issues for next year (granted, not by a lot, all things considered), so enjoy the small increase in 2019, because 2020 doesn't look as promising for those looking for relief from ever-increasing property taxes.