Thursday, June 13, 2024

Municipal Budget Season is Here, Get Involved!

On Monday afternoon I settled into my place at the media table in Meaford’s council chamber ready for the beginning of yet another municipal budget season.

Though the agenda package was more than 400 pages in length, the focus for everyone in the council chamber was item 8(a), the tabling of the draft budgets for 2023.

The draft budgets presented to council on Monday aren’t the most exciting budgets that we have ever seen, and they weren’t supposed to be. After a year of rampant inflation causing most everyone to feel the pinch, this year’s budget held no exciting enhancements, but rather it is a ‘hold the line’ sort of budget, a budget meant to acknowledge the financial pressures that we have all experienced, while making it clear that costs have risen for the municipality just as they have for the rest of us.

The 7.1% rate increase included in the draft budgets might seem excessive, though it seems much less excessive when you consider that the inflation rate in Ontario in 2022 was 7%, so it makes some sense that a municipal budget in draft form that essentially mirrors last year’s budget requires an increase of 7.1%.

Mayor Ross Kentner told council that the required rate increase included in the draft budgets is “unacceptable”, and he along with other members of council will be hard at work in the coming weeks to find ways to pare down the budgets in order to reduce the required rate increase. This is what members of council should and will do, but we all should remember that you don’t find any significant savings in any municipal budget without impacting levels of service.

For many years I have challenged readers to not simply throw up their hands and complain about the rate increase included in a draft budget, but to take the next step and identify municipal programs or services that could be reduced or cut in order to achieve real savings. But I have rarely heard from anyone willing to take on that challenge.

Complaining is the easy part; finding practical, realistic savings is the tough part, and the challenge is compounded by the realities of competing interests. For every one person that supports cutting one service there will be three others who object. Such is the challenge of budget time for municipal councillors.

Sometimes people get offended by cost saving suggestions. A few years back for example, our then Treasurer suggested to council that there were more than a dozen arenas within a 30-minute drive of Meaford, and he asked if Meaford should continue to be in the money-losing business of operating an arena. Many I spoke to at the time were fuming over the suggestion, while many others indicated that they have never used the arena, and wouldn’t miss it if it were gone.

A few years later council was presented with a report indicating that our 50-year-old arena was in dire need of an overhaul that would cost some $12 million, significantly more than it cost to build our new library. The arena is a prime example of a crumbling municipal facility that costs the municipality significantly more to operate than the revenues it brings in yet there is no agreement of what should be done or when. The reality of the work required simply lingers, and when the time comes for the discussion of what to do about the arena to begin in full force, there will no doubt be many opinions, but there is unlikely to be a consensus.

Municipal budgeting isn’t easy, and as I have often written, I do not envy members of council who have to take on the challenge of a municipal budget knowing that they are unlikely to make anyone truly happy.

Council has help however, because it is your municipality, and your municipal budgets, and you have a say in how the budget is developed. And as I do each year, I encourage residents to get involved in the process.

The first job for those who want to have a hand in developing these budgets is to take an hour of your time to watch the archived video of Monday’s draft budget presentation, then read through the documents that were provided in the agenda, and are available on the municipal website. Once you have some facts and numbers in front of you, jot down your own ideas and consider submitting them to municipal staff and council.

We have the luxury of living in a country that is democratic, and which ensures and encourages public input, so take advantage of that luxury, but keep in mind that having your say does not equate to having your way. As noted previously there are many competing interests when it comes to municipal budgets, and there are many opinions of how things should be done, so it is important to know that your input is important, and it is valued, but it is also the input of just one, and council is tasked with finding the common ground and balancing all of the expressed needs and wants with the reality of what can be done within the constraints of the funds available.

You can submit budget related questions by emailing budgets@meaford.ca, calling 519-538-1060 extension 1746, or by dropping by the Administration Office located at 21 Trowbridge Street West, during regular hours of operation.

Those wishing to provide feedback to members of council directly can email council@meaford.ca.

More information on the Municipal Budgets, including the schedule and how you can get involved can be found at www.meaford.ca/Budgets. Paper copies of the budget are available upon request.

If you desire more information, or if you would like to attend a budget session, the following is a list of important dates and times during the course of the budgeting process:

  • Public Engagement Session (Special Meeting of Council) – Wednesday, February 8, 6:30 p.m.
  • Council Budget Day – Operating – Thursday, February 23, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Council Budget Day – Capital & Enhancements – Friday, February 24, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Statutory Public Meeting (Special Meeting of Council) – Monday, March 20, 5 p.m.
  • Final Approval of 2023 Budgets – Monday, March 27, 1 p.m.

Budget season is here, get involved, and help develop the budgets that will fund municipal services and programs for the coming year.

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