Meaford's Council certainly has a challenge ahead of it. With a bare-bones draft budget featuring no frills or enhancements calling for an 8.7 percent increase in 2021, well above what most members of Council would prefer, there is much work to be done to find savings in the budget in order to reduce the required rate increase next year.
On Monday, November 9, Council spent the first of two full days at Meaford Hall for budget deliberations. During the more than eight-hour meeting the focus was on the 2021 operating budget with the capital budgets to be discussed the following day on November 10.
After more than eight hours of deliberations Council made just one significant, though minor, change to the 2021 draft budget – an increase to the cost of bag tags from $3 to $4, a move that will knock close to a half a percentage point (0.4) from the required increase next year.
Below are some random facts and thoughts after Monday's operating budget deliberations:
Policing is an expensive budget item at more than $2 million per year. Then again, the cost of policing works out to roughly a dollar a day for the average Meaford property owner – what is policing worth? Council has very little control over the cost of policing. Instead they are at the mercy of the OPP and their billing models. Policing isn't an area to find budget savings, but it is important to note the significant cost to the municipality.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Meaford Hall was enjoying ever-increasing success with sold out performances becoming the norm. Since the pandemic the hall has been virtually idle, with only minor events and council meetings breathing any life into the facility.
As Councillor Harley Greenfield noted, the debt from Meaford Hall's renovation will be paid off in 2028, which will further help with the future success of the facility, not to mention the municipal budget.
Meaford is still battling to receive appropriate payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) from the Tank Range. The issue has been ongoing for many years, and it is currently in the hands of the municipal lawyers, who are confident that once their case can be heard, Meaford will gain roughly $90,000 per year in increased revenue (not to mention the potential back payments estimated by Meaford's Treasurer to amount to roughly $1 million), less county and school board cuts).
Parking passes for municipal parks was a hot topic on day one of Council's budget deliberations. Other municipalities like the Town of the Blue Mountains have implemented parking passes, however reception to the idea among members of Council was mixed. Council directed staff to bring forward a budget report that will outline the potential costs and revenues to be realized by the implementation of paid parking programs for municipal parks, including an option for only requiring visitors to pay for parking.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic impact in many sectors, boating apparently is not one of them. During Monday's budget meeting Council learned that all of the roughly 200 boat slips at the harbour marina are fully booked for next year, and there is a wait list of roughly 90 more wanting a slip.
Arenas are expensive to operate, nobody would disagree, but Meaford has an extra frustration when it comes to our local arena – the Town of the Blue Mountains. While the municipality generally strives to ensure that rates charged for services are comparable to other municipalities in the area, when it comes to the arena, the rates Meaford charges for ice time are significantly lower than most everywhere except in the Blue Mountains. Meaford's Treasurer suggested to Council the ice rates are kept artificially low, forcing Meaford to match their ice time rates or risk losing bookings to the Blue Mountains. Blue Mountains aside, the Treasurer told Council that all other municipal arenas in the area charge at least 25 percent more for ice time than does Meaford.
Bag tags were a significant topic of discussion during Monday's budget deliberations, and it was also the only area of the operating budget that saw Council make any significant change. In 2021 Meaford will see a whopping $365,000 increase to its waste management contract. In recent years Council has been unwilling to increase the cost of bag tags, so the price has remained at $3.
Council voted in favour of increasing the bag tag cost to $4 in 2021, a move that should provide a net increase in revenue of some $65,000, which will offset the $63,000 increase to the garbage portion of the waste management contract.
While Council voted in favour of the increase, councillors had mixed feelings, and before the budget is finalized, Council could reverse its decision to up the bag tag cost. That said, after a full eight-hour day of operating budget deliberations, members of Council did not propose a single cut or reduction in the budget, so the bag tag increase is likely to remain in the final budget.
Staff once again advised that the municipality is living beyond its means, and that Council's only real hope of finding savings in the 2021 budget in order to reduce the required increase is by finding areas to reduce services.
After eight hours of presentations and discussions with every municipal department there was not a single proposal from Council aimed at reducing costs. It would appear that many members of Council are counting on the capital budget to find the required savings, though cancelling or postponing infrastructure projects does not make them go away; it simply pushes the required work into the future, so making cuts in the capital budget can be a double-edged sword.
In next week's editorial I will offer some thoughts on day two of Council's budget deliberations which will focus on the capital budgets (spoiler alert: council did find some items to cut from the capital budgets which will bring the required rate increase down to 5.14%).