Justin Rousseau

Various concerns raised by public at budget meeting

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

It was a small crowd but a crowd that came with questions last Saturday afternoon.

The town held a public information meeting regarding the proposed 2018 budget at the Libro Centre with roughly a dozen people attending the nearly two-hour session. Among the crowd were members of council including Deputy Mayor Bart DiPasquale and councillors Leo Meloche and Diane Pouget with Mayor Aldo DiCarlo joining CAO John Miceli, treasurer Justin Rousseau and other department heads at the head table.

Miceli and Rousseau outlined the budget, similar to what they did at the Nov. 6 meeting when the budget was tabled, and the current recommendation is for a two per cent increase to the tax rate and 0.75 per cent increases to each of the two levies to address the town’s growing infrastructure needs. The net capital budget request is about $41.3 million with the funding sources the town has available to deal with this request without additional debt being nearly $4.2 million.

The town forecasts $24.1 million in operating expenses in 2018, as compared to $22.7 million in 2017. General rated expenses, with capital and debt payments, are budgeted to be $27.1 million in 2018 versus $25.7 million for 2017. Total collectible through the tax rate is budgeted at $20.9 million for 2018 as compared to $20.1 million in 2017.

Miceli outlined a number of plans, including the strategic plan and asset management plan among others, that the town has undertaken. He said Amherstburg “must continue to be proactive and not reactive” as it pertains to infrastructure and said among the new studies proposed are a master aging plan and a town-wide service master study, the last one to consider possibly over-sizing of infrastructure to allow for 1,500 lots in the core.

Town council and administration fielded questions at a Nov. 18 budget meeting at the Libro Centre. Pictured are (from left): director of engineering and public works Antonietta Giofu, director of planning, development and legislative service, treasurer Justin Rousseau, CAO John Miceli and Mayor Aldo DiCarlo.

Local resident Roger Hudson believed that assessment values should be reflected in what is reported as a tax increase. He said he didn’t experience a 1.87 per cent tax increase last year, but instead faced a 3.44 per cent increase due to growth in his assessment. While the town states it faces a 2.37 per cent growth factor on average in assessment growth, Hudson stated that most people have no idea what that means.

“I didn’t know it was going to be a tax increase,” he said.

Town officials argued that they can only control the tax rate and that the municipality has to work with the numbers the province gives them in terms of assessments.

“It’s only 3.44 per cent for you,” DiCarlo told Hudson.

DiCarlo said his personal assessment went up 11 per cent at his home, and said it is different for each property.

“The only number we can control is our portion,” the mayor stated. “The 2.37 per cent is only the average based on what the province gives us. On a house-by-house basis, taxes may go up way more.”

Rousseau said residents have the option of appealing their assessments to MPAC, with Meloche saying people are taxed on what their new assessment value is and that the tax rate and assessment increase numbers aren’t compounded.

John McDonald asked for further information on unfunded liabilities, noting that some U.S. municipalities have “crashed” because of not being able to afford them. Miceli said that is the American model and that the Canadian model is different.

Sarah Gibb questioned the additional new jobs proposed within the budget and wondered what the new roles would be. DiCarlo said that “some of these positions are not brand new” and said in some cases, it is a job change.

DiCarlo told the public while there are ten new jobs being talked about, some jobs were either changed or eliminated with costs offset elsewhere.

“It is not the case,” he said of the ten new positions.

Miceli said there is a mix of full-time, part-time and contract positions being proposed and attempted to justify the proposals. Using tourism department as an example, the CAO stated tourism is up 38 per cent in Amherstburg with two people in the tourism department and that one of those staff members hasn’t been able to use her full vacation allotment in three years.

“That’s problematic,” said Miceli. “I look at that and say ‘can this person continue to sustain that?’ and ‘is it fair for this person to sustain that?’” I would say no.”

Miceli said residents should look at all documents approved by the town – including the Deloitte Report and all the plans and guidelines the town is working on – to understand why positions are proposed. Such documents as the strategic plan have already had public participation, he said, adding the town doesn’t have the resources to implement what the plans’ recommendations are “in an effective and responsible way.”

Local resident John McDonald asks a question of town council and administration during the Nov. 18 budget meeting at the Libro Centre in Amherstburg.

Marc Renaud, president of the Amherstburg Minor Hockey Association (AMHA), questioned a proposed $6/hr. surcharge for AMHA users and said they would rather have a one per cent increase in ice rate charges. Renaud believed that would cause AMHA’s rates to “go through the roof” but Miceli stated that, according to his numbers, AMHA is among the lowest in the region and could charge an additional $63.50 per user just to get to the median.

Miceli said there is a cost to maintaining the Libro Centre but Renaud said facilities like that are built to draw families to the community. Renaud estimated that about 30 families in AMHA have to be subsidized through Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart program.

DiCarlo told the RTT after the meeting that “the first thing you’ve got to notice is the lack of turnout.” He said it has been his experience that people generally turn out when there is a problem.

“If people do have a problem with how we are operating, you better let us know otherwise the first reaction is that we are doing a good job,” said the mayor.

There has been a lot of comments via social media, DiCarlo acknowledged, and that the town does care about all comments and that he wants to ensure people know their comments and opinions matter.

The questions about MPAC assessments and the impact on taxes comes up annually, he said. As for the questions about new job openings, DiCarlo urged the public to fully read the budget documents and educate themselves as he admitted frustration regarding the perception the town isn’t as transparent as it should be.

Rather, the mayor believed, the town is transparent “to a fault” and that positions listed as new jobs are actually reclassified jobs. Many of the jobs that are new additions are needed, he believed, first citing the building department. He said that department had more bodies several years ago but downsized and now that the town has seen an increase in building activity, “the building department can’t keep up.”

The same is true of the tourism department, DiCarlo stated.

“We are doing what we said we were going to do. We can’t be any more transparent,” DiCarlo said. “If we couldn’t, we said why.”

As it stands now, the proposed two per cent increase in the municipal tax rate would translate into a $36.77 increase on a $200,000 home while the increase in levies would amount to a $29.66 increase each. When the county and school board rates are factored in, Rousseau said that drops the forecasted property tax increase to 1.52 per cent.

Town council is expected to deliberate the 2018 budget Nov. 28 from 6-10 p.m., Nov. 29 from 2-8 p.m. and, if necessary, Nov. 30 from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Should all go according to plan, the 2018 budget could be passed at the Dec. 11 town council meeting.

Town’s 2018 budget could see tax rate and levy increases

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

Town council got its first look at the proposed 2018 budget and it contains possible increases to the tax rate as well as the two capital levies.

As it stands now, the proposed increase in the municipal tax rate is two per cent with another 0.75 per cent increase recommended for each of the capital replacement levy and the capital reserve levy. A two per cent increase would translate into a $36.77 increase on a $200,000 home while the increase in levies would amount to a $29.66 increase for municipal coffers.

The town projects that when county and education rates are factored in, it would lower the proposed increase to 1.52 per cent. The town also forecasts a 2.37 per cent increase in assessment growth.

The net capital budget request is about $41.3 million with the funding sources the town has available to deal with this request without additional debt being nearly $4.2 million. All 2018 capital will be financed in cash, the town states.

The town will spend about $1.4 million to upgrade its roads however, the municipality still faces an infrastructure gap of about $37.1 million.

The budget was presented at a special council meeting Monday night by chief administrative officer (CAO) John Miceli and director of corporate services/treasurer Justin Rousseau. Miceli pointed out this is the final budget in this term of council and compared the town’s finances from three years ago to now.

The CAO believed it was “important to note to our residents the progress we have made” in relation to the town’s finances. Miceli read headlines and quotes from Windsor media outlets from 2013 and 2014 and contrast it to today, believing the town has made strides from the “mismanagement” that occurred previously.

Miceli highlighted such progress as dealing with the Deloitte report recommendations in 18 months, filling a number of key positions, redoing Texas Road, holding staff accountable on a yearly evaluation basis, moving towards a “pay as you go” infrastructure system and the introduction of the levies among the list he recited. Accomplishments the CAO listed for 2017 were the demolition of Duffy’s and the former AMA Arena, completion of the Meloche Road project, Communities in Bloom, the Canuck it Up! Festival, sidewalk improvements, the correction of mechanical issues at the Libro Centre and new housing development.

“The list goes on and on and on,” said Miceli. “In my opinion, council’s public record speaks for itself.”

Among the possible positions that could be filled include a policy co-ordinator on a one-year contract, a communications officer, a financial analyst, additional tourism co-ordinators, a part-time bylaw officer, a supervisor of road and fleet and an engineering technician.

Rousseau said the 2018 budget “is like no other the town has seen before” in that every increase or decrease has a budget issue paper. Levies, he recommended, should be increased to meet future capital needs.

“The 2018 budget is proposing an undertaking of capital projects in the amount of $5,062,130,” said Rousseau.

Amherstburg has $11,352 in assets per capita, Rousseau noted. That is the highest in the region.

“Amherstburg has over $4,000 per resident more than the next nearest comparator in Essex County,” he said.

Miceli believed the town has made “significant, significant strides” in managing the town’s finances and told town council they have a choice of making decisions that are beneficial politically or make tougher decisions and stay the course.

“Now I suggest is the time to lead and send a message to future councils that we don’t want to go back to the financial difficulties we had,” the CAO stated.

Mayor Aldo DiCarlo believed the proposed budget is in line with what council requested and said the number may come down based on what council members want to do. He suggested funds may also be reallocated to address infrastructure needs.

DiCarlo agreed the town has made progress during this term of council.

“It was a painful start but we’ve had three years of growth over growth,” he said.

The mayor believed it’s not so much a case of increases, but a question of whether people want to pay for things now or later. While a tax increase was expected, DiCarlo said they will still be middle of the pack taxation wise in the region.

There will be a public meeting on the budget Nov. 18 from 1-3 p.m. in the community room at the Libro Centre. Budget deliberations are scheduled for Nov. 28 from 6-10 p.m., Nov. 29 from 2-8 p.m. and, if necessary, Nov. 30 from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Should all go according to plan, the 2018 budget could be passed at the Dec. 11 town council meeting.

Town to draft budget with maximum of two per cent increase

 

By Ron Giofu

The town of Amherstburg is going ahead with its 2018 draft budget, with that budget to contain up to a two per cent tax increase.

Council authorized administration to move forward with that plan, with the budget to be tabled Nov. 6. Bill 148, the “Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act” that will, in part, increase minimum wage and allow for equal pay for part-time and seasonal employees doing the same job as full-time staff will also impact next year’s budget.

“Although 2016 saw surpluses, administration is requesting council to consider a tax increase. The surpluses of 2016 can be explained by circumstances we do not believe will exist in 2018 as well as the continuing infrastructure needs of the municipality. The recommendation for presentation of up to a two per cent increase to the mill rate is reasonable when considering the consumer price index in Ontario trend, which for the first eight months of 2017 is at 1.2 per cent,” stated director of corporate services/treasurer Justin Rousseau, in his report to town council. “The forecasted growth on the roll return from MPAC from 2017-2018 is forecasting out a 2.4 per cent increase to the town’s assessment base. This coupled with a two per cent increase to the mill rate will provide additional revenue to the town of 4.4 per cent or approximately $880,000. It should be noted the new asset management plan requires an additional $300,000 to be spent on capital, in order to narrow the infrastructure funding gap that currently exists. This request is part of the council approved 20-year financial strategy to replace and repair the town’s infrastructure.”

Councillor Leo Meloche said the two per cent recommendation was higher than the rate of inflation, and the town had a “nice increase” last year when factoring in property values increasing as well.

“I think it would be prudent to stay with the inflation costs,” said Meloche, who advocated for a 1.5 per cent target.

CAO John Miceli said two per cent is a “target that allows administration to weed through the management issues” and is a “general guideline for the treasurer and myself.” It “establishes the ceiling, and not the floor,” he added.

“Council can always reduce that,” said Miceli.

Rousseau said Bill 148, if passed as it currently stands, would impact the town to the tune of $1.6 million. He predicted it will be a challenging budget due to that piece of provincial legislation.

Councillor Diane Pouget said she wants to keep the budget low, but acknowledged there are bridges, culverts and water plant infrastructure that needs to be addressed.

Under the current timetable, a public information session would occur Nov. 18 and council will deliberate the 2018 budget Nov. 28-30. If all goes according to plan, the budget could be approved Dec. 11.

Open house coming Wednesday night on proposed elimination of vacancy tax rebate program

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

The County of Essex is hosting a vacancy tax rebate program open house Wednesday night and businesses from around the county are expected to attend.

According to the county’s website, the vacancy tax rebate program was established in 2001 under section 364 of the Municipal Act.

According to the county, “the program provides tax rebates to owners of vacant property in the commercial and industrial tax classes. The commercial class receives a 30 per cent rebate, while the industrial class receives a 35 per cent rebate if the property has remained vacant for a minimum of 90 consecutive days.”

The county further notes that recent changes to the legislation now affords municipalities the opportunity to review and assess the merits and success of the program.

The total value of vacancy rebates for the town of Amherstburg in 2016 was $54,536.

Reasons listed for consideration of scrapping the program include the belief that vacant properties have a negative impact on neighbourhoods; funds recovered from the program could be re-invested in incentives for growth and development and could be better aligned with Community Improvement Plans and that funds recovered would be invested in enhancing municipal services.

The county states there is “some concern that the program encourages a lack of property development and also discourages seasonal renting” and “there is no guarantee that the tax savings from the rebate program is used to increase rental viability.”

The program also requires “significant administrative resources” to administer with the number of applications for vacancy tax rebates also being on the decline in many Essex County municipalities in recent years.

Mary Birch, director of council services/clerk for the County of Essex, told county council last Wednesday night that in order to make changes to or eliminate the program, a public consultation process has to be undertaken. She said the open house will allow businesses and property owners the opportunity to come in and explain how eliminating the program would impact them.

“We’re anticipating there will be representation of each municipality at the open house,” said Birch.

Birch said recommendations will go back to each of the seven Essex County municipalities with a report to come back to county council, likely in November.

“It’s a lengthy process,” said Birch. “We hope to have it completed by the end of the year so we can have it completed by the 2018 taxation year.”

Justin Rousseau, director of corporate services/treasurer for the town of Amherstburg, also noted the request to change the program must be made to the Minister of Finance by the upper tier municipality, which is the County of Essex.

“The rebate applies to commercial property owners in the town, they will no longer be able to get a property tax reduction for empty store fronts.  By not offering the program the town will be able to keep the additional $54,536 that it was not able to in 2016,” said Rousseau. “The benefit to that is it helps reduce pressures on the municipal tax mill rate for all the residents of the town.  The drawback is now there is no relief for the owners of vacant store in the town.”

The open house is Sept. 27 from 4-7 p.m. at the Essex Civic Centre, located at 360 Fairview Ave. W. in Essex.

Town lands $3.7 million in funding for water treatment plant upgrades

 

By Ron Giofu

The town of Amherstburg has received some good news as it relates to upgrades at the water treatment plant.

The town has received over $3.7 million for upgrades to the reservoir at the water treatment plant. The funding was received under the federal government’s Clean Water and Wastewater Fund (CWWF).

According to a report from director of corporate services/treasurer Justin Rousseau: “The Amherstburg Water Treatment Plant currently only has one water storage in-ground reservoir. Water storage reservoirs are required to ensure that adequate supply of water is maintained to meet peak water demands or emergencies such as fires, water main breaks, power outages and pump failures. The existing reservoir is old and showing extensive deterioration. In 2003 and 2010, the town performed emergency reservoir repairs due to excessive leaking of treated water from the reservoir. Further failures and repairs are anticipated as the structure ages.”

The Amherstburg Water Treatment Plant

The Amherstburg Water Treatment Plant

Rousseau noted the construction of reservoir would take place in two phases, with the first being the construction of a new 14,800 cubic meter reservoir and the second phase being two 7,400 cubic meter cells being built within the existing reservoir footprint. The cost of the second phase is not known at the present time, he added, with an assessment of infrastructure to be undertaken after the first phase.

While the grant is good news, there is still more money needed in the future.

“The town’s Long-Term Strategic Financial Plan and Water Model identify the need to invest over $30 million in water infrastructure in the next ten years,” stated Rousseau. “Furthermore, the town presently has little in reserves in the water division and has one of the higher rates in the region for water. This successful grant application will assist the town in securing future development and providing water at a reasonable rate thus assisting the town’s long term sustainability.”

CAO John Miceli pointed out that town council received a private and confidential memo about other projects needed at the Amherstburg Water Treatment Plant. He indicated administration is “examining all options for the delivery of clean water” in Amherstburg.

Miceli said a new plan might come before council on how to deliver clean water to the residents.

“I want to be very clear that we are looking at all options,” said Miceli.