Budget process underway, new hires approved, frustration vented

 

By Ron Giofu

 

The first night of 2017 budget deliberations saw new positions approved, others denied and frustrations arise during the course of a four-hour meeting.

Town council was looking at a 1.99 per cent increase as recommended by administration as the night began. The meeting began shortly after 5 p.m. and wrapped up around 9 p.m. when council recessed for the night. Deliberations resumed Tuesday night after this issue of the River Town Times went to press. Details on what the budget looks like after deliberations are complete will be posted at www.rivertowntimes.com and in the January 18 print issue.

Here is a snapshot of what the first night of budget deliberations looked like:

 

Audit & finance committee report   Committee chair John Purdie appeared before town council to present his committee’s view of the budget. He said the cumulative tax increase faced by taxpayers over the past five years has been 13.6 per cent. The town has $444 per capita in reserves, which Purdie referred to as a “ticking time bomb” and believed the reserves are underfunded.

The committee’s view is that the current low interest rates in the market should be taken advantage of to address infrastructure issues but director of finance/treasurer Justin Rousseau didn’t believe the town was in a good enough position to do that. Rousseau noted the town has $12 million in reserves and $40 million in debt while other municipalities are closer to equal when comparing debt to reserves.

“It’s a bit of a different scenario,” he said.

Councillor Jason Lavigne questioned “is it time to swallow the pill given the interest rates?” but Rousseau recommended against it. He added the town had an $8.2 million tied up in a capital program and that the town couldn’t risk going any further. CAO John Miceli added many projects went over budget in past years and wanted to be an administrator that is reserved and cautious.

Mayor Aldo DiCarlo suggested the town could possibly negotiate better interest rates down the road with more reserves.

Purdie stated the committee’s recommendations were to “mitigate risk” and said the infrastructure projects could be addressed strategically, noting they didn’t recommend going after them all at once.

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Community grants   Town council authorized $34,250 in community grants to seven community organizations during Monday night’s meeting. Most were approved at the levels they requested but some were reduced and one was increased.

Amherstburg Community Services received $5,000 while the Amherstburg Food and Fellowship Mission will get a grant of $1,500. The House youth centre will get $7,000 although they had requested $8,000.

The Cat Assistance Team (CAT) will get $5,000 though they requested $7,500. Councillor Leo Meloche said the program is working and is designed to cut back on the number of spay and neuter procedures as years go on so he wanted a reduction, even suggesting the number drop to $3,000. Councillor Diane Pouget said it is “a health and safety issue” for residents, noting many members of council used to get numerous complaints over the number of feral cats.

“They did us a big favour,” she said, of CAT.

Christ Church will receive $750 with the Park House Museum, also known as the Amherstburg Historical Sites Association, getting an increase of $2,000 over last year, bringing its total to $8,500.

Councillor Rick Fryer said Amherstburg is lucky to have the Park House and that many municipalities would fully fund a museum like that.

 

Benefit debate   Council will receive a report from administration addressing benefit costs with known rates after a lengthy debate. Meloche questioned administration on a number of line items where budget requests were higher than amounts forecast, starting with a $2,100 difference in CPP under the council budget. He said there were “large increases here” throughout the budget.

Each department has various factors and “nuances” noting there were specific answers for each jump. He said “we have to ask intelligent questions” but later apologized for his frustration. Rousseau noted that the finance department does its best with the estimates it has but to recalculate the entire file would be “a tremendous undertaking.”

Administration questioned why council was asking about smaller amounts and discrepancies in the budget, but Councillor Jason Lavigne said that was the point of going line-by-line as that is how the overall total gets whittled down.

The report will be brought back to town council prior to the formal approval of the budget.

 

New positions   Council rejected a part-time committee co-ordinator, which would have cost $27,543. Councillor Rick Fryer made the motion to reject the position with councillors Lavigne and Pouget joining him. DiCarlo and Meloche voted in opposition with Deputy Mayor Bart DiPasquale and Councillor Joan Courtney not in attendance Monday night.

Council was warned that they could face $15,000 in overtime costs due to the deputy clerk and other staff having to keep attending meetings if the request was rejected but Miceli said that would be cut back with staff not going to as many meetings.
Miceli said the positions were recommended to increase accountability in Amherstburg and to get minutes to committee members quicker, noting sometimes committee members get angry when there are delays in getting their minutes back to them.

Lavigne questioned where the costs were for the last 25 years, stating the committees have been there for years. DiCarlo explained that he wasn’t advocating for the position when he said financial reporting wasn’t as clear as it is now.

Some minute taking would have been done by staff from various departments, Lavigne was later told by administration, prompting Lavigne to wonder if there are $15,000 in savings from the departments.

The health and safety officer did have his contract renewed for another year at a cost of $88,531, though town administration believed $40,000 can be saved by not having to contract out training for staff members.

The town also approved the police and fire budgets, the latter including the addition of a training officer from within the department and making the fire clerk a full-time position rather than the part-time job it is now.

The proposed director of recreation position was not discussed by council Monday night, though the audit and finance committee recommended against it, believing a realignment of staff duties could cover the jobs at a cost of only $60,000.

 

Beanbag guns   Police chief Tim Berthiaume was questioned about the new non-lethal beanbag guns obtained by police. Meloche asked about the necessity of such weapons, stating he didn’t want the municipality to spend money it didn’t have to.

“Have any of your officers even shot a bullet in the last year?” he asked, prompting chuckles and incredulous looks from others in the council chambers.

Berthiaume said the benefits far outreach the costs of the program, noting the shotguns were inexpensive to convert.

“It’s just another tool in the toolbox,” said Berthiaume.

Lavigne, who is also chair of the police services board, complimented the service and Berthiaume stating that being first to do something puts Amherstburg ahead of others.

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