This year's municipal budget season is likely to be like most everything else in 2020 – it will be ugly, a little on the scary side, and it will be costly.
Budget time is always a challenging time for any municipal council, but the past year of a state of emergency brought about by a global pandemic has presented new challenges to Council, not to mention some hefty increases are on the way for some of our most basic services like trash and recyclables collection and policing.
Out of the gate this municipality is facing a rate increase of 5.73 percent, but staff have warned Council that the actual required increase could be significantly higher, particularly if Council is not willing to make cuts to the roster of municipal services currently provided.
Municipal councils can be reluctant to increase property tax rates for obvious reasons; there is always pressure from ratepayers to keep increases to a minimum. But councils are often equally hesitant to cut or reduce services as they know they will experience push-back from some ratepayers for doing so.
This year, however, I think Council needs to make some hard choices, and they need to stop dancing down the middle or nibbling at the edges of departmental budgets, and either reduce some services or prepare ratepayers for a significant increase. If this year of 2020 has taught us anything it is that we can't have everything we desire, and we need to take a long hard look at what we consider true needs versus mere wants.
What staff has essentially been telling Council in recent years is that they have trimmed all that can be trimmed from departmental budgets, and if Council is reluctant to increase tax rates in order to make the current roster of municipal services sustainable, then Council needs to put down the trimmers and needs to haul out a larger and sharper implement in order to make some real cuts to services. In short, Council can't have it both ways.
This of course creates a significant challenge. Few enjoy rate increases, and equally few enjoy cuts to services, so Council is in a position where nobody is likely to be overly pleased no matter what they decide to do regarding next year's budget. And when staff tells Council that if they don't want to increase taxation, they need to find some actual service cuts, they aren't wrong, but the natural question becomes what should be cut?
If you were to ask ten residents to name a municipal service that they feel could be cut or drastically reduced, I suspect you would receive ten different answers, and that is part of the challenge for any municipal council when the purse strings are tightened.
While I never envy any council at budget time, I have also sat in the council chamber year after year watching this and previous councils delicately nibble at the edges of departmental budgets in order to find just enough savings to have a minimal rate increase for that year. Again, understandable from an elected representative's position, but the result has been a slow deterioration of proper funding for municipal departments across the board, and those trimmings here and there have seen most every department fall behind simple inflationary pressures, making the light trimming that has been done each year of more consequence, because as staff has suggested to Council for two straight years, the current revenue when balanced against the services provided by the municipality is not sustainable.
Each budget season is a time of significant discussion and debate around the council table, but I think this year's full day council sessions in November to deal with the budget will be more intense than in recent years, and I think it will also be more stressful for councillors, municipal staff, and residents alike.
For those who would suggest, as some do every budget season, that Council hold the line and have a near zero rate increase, I would ask how the $365,000 increase in the waste management contract should be accommodated, or the anticipated $75,000 in policing costs? Those two items alone amount to a $440,000 increase over last year's budget, and as staff have advised, the way to accommodate those added expenses is either through increased taxation or by cutting services. Nibbling at the edges of already depleted departmental budgets is not likely to bridge the gap.
Even if Council manages to limit any rate increase in 2021 to the 5.73 percent that staff suggests is the very minimum needed this year, given the external and uncontrollable pressures, it will be at the expense of something.
As I wrote in our print paper last week (The 3Rs...Rants, Raves & Rumours), we as a community should consider taking some time to reflect on our true needs versus our wants. I would suggest that our true needs are things like roads and bridge infrastructure, police services, water and wastewater services, garbage, recyclables, and compost collection, and of course winter roads control. Most everything else falls into the category of 'wants'. We might want fully rehabilitated and fully equipped shoreline parks, but do we need it? We might want to continue to operate our own arena, but do we need to, given as our treasurer has noted at council that there are a number of arenas within a half hour's drive of downtown Meaford?
When it comes to what should be cut, we will all have our own opinions, and personally I am certainly torn when I think of potential areas to cut, but we as a community need to let our council know where we stand. So engage in the process, fill out the survey, and attend the public meetings – but don't anyone get their hopes up about next year's budget, as there won't be any frills or enhancements to be tossed in this time around.