Tensions were running high in the council chamber on Monday, December 16, as councillors revisited the draft budget in hopes of finding further savings in order to minimize the required increase for ratepayers once the 2020 budgets are approved.
Earlier this year council directed staff to prepare a draft budget framework that would include a maximum required rate increase of 4.56 percent. Staff was unable to meet that goal, and the draft budget presented to council required a rate increase of 7.55 percent. Over two days of budget discussions councillors managed to bring the required increase down to 4.12 percent prior to Monday's meeting.
Meaford Treasurer Darcy Chapman reminded council that it is their job to make decisions regarding service levels, not staff's. He insisted that staff have done all they can to trim any excess from the budgets, and to find any further savings council must adjust service levels or scale back on infrastructure projects, noting that Meaford has a much more expansive infrastructure program than many surrounding municipalities.
Unable to find more areas for savings or cuts on Monday, some members of council became frustrated, lashing out at staff.
One source of friction surfaced while discussing the cost of living increase for municipal staff. Council had previously approved a policy dictating that annual staff increases would be based on COLA, the annual cost of living adjustment. For this year, that increase would have been slightly more than two percent, however during budget discussions last month council agreed to lower that increase to 1.5 percent, with a further plan to adjust if needed to match the increase that Grey County employees would receive.
During Monday's meeting, Councillor Steve Bartley floated the idea of bumping that increase to 1.7 percent, but Chapman told Bartley not to bother.
“If council is not going to provide staff with the 2.06 percent, which is the rate that was established by the recently approved council policy, then just keep COLA at 1.5 percent,” Chapman told council. “There's no point. You either stick by a policy or you don't. 1.5 percent in staff's minds was an arbitrary number that didn't follow the policy directive that council had just set out, so just keep COLA at 1.5 percent and move the budget forward.”
Councillor Bartley took exception to Chapman's characterization of events.
“Darcy, I disagree with you. At that time, as a guiding document, we said 2.06, but at no time, and you said it, did we have to stick with that, we could change that,” Bartley responded, adding that his desire is that the cost of living increase for Meaford staff keep pace with neighbouring municipalities.
Frustrations continued to mount as council failed to find any significant opportunities for savings in the budget.
“So it's our budget, but there's nothing we can do with it,” suggested a visibly exasperated Councillor Ross Kentner.
Councillor Harley Greenfield shared Kentner's frustrations.
“We agreed to a budget (increase) of 4.56 percent, that's what I understood we were going to start with the budget and work on from there. A month later we got a report from staff at seven and a half, so as far as I'm concerned, that shot the original budget right out of the waters,” Greenfield told council. “It was your recommendation that brought to us to up the budget by two and a half percent!”
Greenfield became increasingly agitated as he spoke to council.
“We relied on staff for a 4.56 budget to work on, and a month later, oh forget that guys. As far as I'm concerned, that's where the gravy train went off the track, it hasn't been council, it's this surprise, surprise, we've got a lot more expenses!” Greenfield said. “You've brought back a bunch of increases to the budget, why didn't you bring back a bunch of proposed savings in the budget? It has to work both ways, and it didn't! I'm sorry, I'm on a rant, and maybe I shouldn't be, and I'm not trying to be disrespectful, but this has got to work two ways, people.”
Ultimately, council made no further changes to the budget on Monday. At their January 13 meeting council will finalize fees and charges for 2020, and the final draft of the budget will be presented to the public at a statutory public meeting that will be held on January 27, with final approval of the 2020 budgets expected to take place at council's February 10 meeting.