Line by line Meaford councillors explored the draft budgets for 2020 during two full days in the council chamber on Monday, November 25, and Tuesday, November 26.
Council's primary goal was to find significant savings in order to reach their goal of a maximum 4.56 percent rate increase in 2020. The draft budget presented to council requires a rate increase of more than seven percent, meaning councillors were looking to find roughly $350,000 to cut from the budget.
Over the course of the two days of budget meetings all department heads made presentations to council, and they fielded questions from councillors.
Members of council quickly learned that reaching their goal would be a challenge without making cuts to services. They explored each department's budget in depth, searching for opportunities to find any savings.
After day one of the budget sessions, the only significant opportunity council found to offset the required rate increase wasn't a cut to the budget, but rather it was to use $239,000 of projected assessment growth in 2020 in order to offset operating expenses which will reduce the required rate increase.
Council also voted in favour of reducing the advertising and promotion budget for the Strategic Initiatives department from $38,000 to $30,000, a savings of $8,000.
Part of what council gained with those two motions was lost after council rejected a proposed increase for the cost of garbage bag tags from $3 to $3.50. Councillors expressed a reluctance to increase the bag tag price, however by not approving the increase, the revenue for the 2020 Solid Waste budget will be reduced by $18,000.
The changes approved by council after day one of the budget deliberations brought the required rate increase down from 7.55 percent to 5.44 percent, just one percentage point away from council's original request of a maximum 4.56 percent.
After failing to find opportunities for any significant cuts to the operating budget, on day two council reviewed the capital budgets for each department.
Councillors agreed to remove a proposed purchase of synthetic ice for the arena for a savings of $70,000, reducing the required rate increase by nearly half a percentage point.
Council also agreed to cancel a plan to purchase a new spare grader for a savings of $100,000.
Municipal vehicles also came under scrutiny by members of council, though they ultimately agreed that the number of vehicles in the municipal fleet is appropriate.
Another avenue explored by council was the cost of living increase for municipal employees which had been set at 2.06 percent in the draft budget. Councillor Steve Bartley suggested that 1.5 percent would be a more reasonable increase given the proposed increases he has seen in other municipalities for 2020.
Bartley's suggestion found support with all members of council who voted unanimously to lower the cost of living increase to 1.5 percent for municipal employees in 2020.
Some members of council expressed frustration over not being able to find items to cut from the budget in order to reduce the required rate increase for next year.
“We are living beyond our means, we can't afford everything,” Treasurer Darcy Chapman told council, adding that members of council should become more comfortable with the idea of cutting services in order to reduce the required rate increases each year.
With the decisions made by council over the two days of budget deliberations, the required rate increase for 2020 was brought down to 4.3 percent. Staff will incorporate council's revisions to the draft budget into a final budget document that will be presented to council next month.
A statutory public meeting was to have been held on December 16, however the final draft of the budget document will now be presented to council on that date, and the statutory public meeting will now be scheduled in January, with council's final approval of the 2020 budget to follow that meeting.