Meaford's newly elected council rejected a budget framework presented at their December 10 meeting, and they have sent staff back to the drawing board.
At issue for many members of council was a proposed maximum increase to the 2019 tax levy of 5.6 percent.
“The draft budget of no greater than 5.6% would include the incorporation of the suggested 1% increase to the levy as a dedicated source of funding to bridge the gap of the roads “Preservation Model”, the 1% increase to the levy as a dedicated source to fund long term Bridge and Culvert needs as contained in the Bridge SOTI and the 0.5% increase to the levy as a dedicated source to fund long term facility needs as contained in the Integrated Facility Study,” Treasurer Darcy Chapman told council in his report outlining the prepared budget framework.
Council's concern wasn't the amounts included to address infrastructure needs, but rather the requested 3.1 percent COLA (cost of living adjustment) increase to the operating budget and staff salaries.
Also at issue was what to do with more than $400,000 in surplus funds from 2016 and 2017. Staff recommended allocating those funds to the new library project in order to offset long-term debt that will be taken on for the project, while many members of council preferred to see those funds used for roads infrastructure.
“As far as 5.6 I do not want to head in that direction,” said Councillor Tony Bell. “I would like to see three percent there (for the maximum rate increase for 2019). And the cost of living adjustment at 3.1, I think it has been around 1.8 that we have done in the past.”
Councillor Harley Greenfield agreed with Bell.
“5.6, it's too high,” noted Greenfield, who also questioned the selection of 3.1 percent for the COLA increase. “3.1 percent, I understand, Mr. Chapman, that you need to have a benchmark some place. Back in August it was 2.9 primarily because of fuel costs. Back in July and August we were paying $1.18 here, in the GTA they were paying $1.32, or in Vancouver they were paying $1.50. In the past few months, thankfully fuel costs have dropped substantially.”
Greenfield also noted the recent union settlement with Grey County outside workers who received a 1.6 percent increase. Greenfield also questioned allocating the all of the 2016 and 2017 surplus funds to the library project when there is great need for the funds in infrastructure.
Deputy Mayor Shirley Keaveney was also uncomfortable with the proposed maximum rate increase of 5.6 percent. “We're going to have to get creative this year and look for opportunities for saving money,” Keaveney suggested.
Councillor Ross Kentner also had issues with the numbers proposed in the budget framework document.
“The COLA isn't that big a mystery, just give us a 12 month average (as opposed to selecting a single month), and I think you'll find it won't be anywhere near 3.1,” Kentner suggested, adding that, “I don't think it's appropriate to spend the surplus money on the library, I think it should go to roads.”
Councillor Paul Vickers was also opposed to the figures in the proposed budget framework.
“As far as the 3.1 for the wage increase, this is all new for me, I don't see a lot of wage increases on the dairy farm, but I guess we robbed from the staff in other years, but the suggestion of a 12-month average, if this is what we're going to go by, take the average for 12 months, and let it go at that,” Vickers suggested.
Councillor Steve Bartley expressed concern that a 5.6 percent rate increase would further widen the gap between what Meaford ratepayers pay compared to some surrounding municipalities.
“Four years ago I brought up other municipalities in Grey County, and I was chastised, and I was frowned upon for doing so, but I can't help but do so. At the time, a place like Georgian Bluffs, we were 12 percent higher in our taxes. I was told at the time that it's 12 percent now, but over the next few years we'll whittle that down, and it will be smaller, but it in fact is now an 18 percent difference. We're 17 percent higher than Grey Highlands, 10 percent higher than West Grey, the only one higher than us is Owen Sound who are 20 percent higher than us,” Bartley noted. “I cannot condone making that spread more going forward.”
Ultimately council voted down the proposed budget framework leaving staff without the tools required to prepare a draft budget for council's consideration. As a result, while Treasurer Darcy Chapman had planned to bring a draft budget to the January 7 meeting of council, a draft budget will now be delayed until after council has an opportunity to review and approve a revised budget framework. That revised framework is expected to be presented to council on January 7.
Meaford Clerk Matt Smith told The Independent that council's vote against the proposed budget framework has left staff in limbo.
“Normally, once Council rejects something, it cannot be revisited for a period of six months, unless a member of Council brings forward a procedural motion to "Reconsider" the item. However, in the case of the annual budget, staff have to have a framework under which to operate before a budget can be tabled,” said Smith. “Senior staff will be meeting today (Tuesday) to discuss the feedback that Council provided, although it wasn't included in a motion, and to decide the best way forward to present an effective budget to Council.”