Budget drops to 7% municipally, 3.85% overall

 

 

Town Logo Small-webBy Ron Giofu

 

In a day that featured news of a possible $492,000 surplus, sniping amongst council members, a 90-minute in-camera session over staffing issues and talk of capital projects, the town is left with a roughly three per cent decrease in its municipal tax rate from when budget sessions first began.

Budget sessions took place all day Tuesday and by the time the day was through, the municipal tax rate stood at seven per cent with the overall rate – inclusive of the county and education rates – being at 3.85 per cent.

Those figures do not factor in a potential sale of the town’s 14 per cent stake in Essex Power to Chatham-based Entegrus.

Town council received word of a possible $492,000 surplus for 2014, with council passing a motion put forth by Councillor John Sutton of placing $290,000 towards the tax rate and the rest in a tax stabilization reserve. That motion is on hold for the moment as a administrative concern late in the meeting will cause the $492,000 figure to be double checked.

“It’s an understanding of whether it’s a bookkeeping entry or something we actually have,” explained CAO Mike Phipps.

Phipps is confident that town has the money but administration will double check and report back to council.

“The issue for us is how it is created,” he said.

The 90-minute in-camera session dealt with personnel as council wanted to clear up staffing concerns. Phipps and Mayor Wayne Hurst stated the meeting had to be about identifiable individuals and couldn’t just be a broad discussion on the matter. Phipps said after the budget meeting ended that it was a productive meeting though expressed concern going into the in-camera session that there could be “significant problems” if council wanted to discuss staffing line-by-line.

“It’s an easy target,” he said of staffing.

Phipps said he “tweaked” an earlier restructuring done by consultant Joe Levack and said his own review showed there was “no fat” in the organization.

“If there was fat in the organization, I would have told you that. I told you that you were lean,” he said.

Councillor Bart DiPasquale was one of the members that wanted to talk staffing, stating “we have to look at cutting the fat, if there is fat. I’m not saying ‘hack away.’ Let’s do it surgically, if possible.”

Councillor Diane Pouget said those who ask tough questions are branded as being negative but “the reality is, we are in a very serious financial situation and we have to look at everything.”

Councillor Carolyn Davies disagreed, believing council is “micromanaging” if staffing were to be analyzed.

“That’s not why I was elected,” she said. “Our job is to govern, not to be human resources.”

Tuesday’s budget session opened with a discussion of staffing, where Phipps brought forward numbers he said were gathered through contacting other Essex County municipalities. He said Amherstburg has 68 full-time employees as compared to Essex with 77, Kingsville with 49, Leamington with 108, LaSalle with 72, Lakeshore with 86 and Tecumseh with 63.

Phipps indicated the Amherstburg and LaSalle figures did not include policing in order to compare them better with the others municipalities, which all are serviced by OPP. He added that numbers contained on the town’s FIR, found on the web, “don’t make sense at all” as numbers there show 131 staff members.

The CAO also said payroll rose 15.9 per cent from 2009 to 2012 with rising OMERS and WSIB costs being contributing factors and disputed “suggestions in the community” there has been a 90 per cent increase. He also noted that staffing levels increased when the Libro Centre opened in 2011.

Davies said misleading information in the town’s FIR statements is on the website and had a motion passed that those numbers be cleaned up and posted accurately.

“I find that is very disturbing to the constituents. They have to get accurate facts,” she said. “I think that would settle a lot of people down who see we have these huge numbers.”

“It’s our job to get the correct information out there to get a true picture,” said Sutton. He believed those who researched off FIR statements were not at fault, but information including office supplies, staffing and payroll are drastically different than what is reported on the province’s statements that are posted on the town’s website.

Sutton added that three positions in public works were not filled upon staff retirements and that five positions that were originally planned through a restructuring were never filled.

Upon questioning from DiPasquale, Phipps believed the town’s staffing figures were “not bad” and showed the town had proper staffing levels.

“We aren’t overstaffed which is what I’ve been saying since Day 1,” the CAO stated.

“My problem is that those towns don’t have the debt we have,” said DiPasquale.

DiPasquale said during the morning session that Amherstburg has to cut back, possibly in personnel.

Hurst said much is made about the town’s debt, but said the town has a lot of new infrastructure associated with that debt.

“Understand this if you don’t understand anything else,” he said. “Those other municipalities may not have the debt but they don’t have the assets we do.”

Pouget argued the staff figure was closer to 103, believing that Amherstburg police had to be factored in. However, Davies said a fair comparison that included police had to include what other municipalities pay for OPP.

Pouget questioned where the actual budget figures were for 2013 adding she couldn’t vote for a budget that doesn’t have actuals that she can use for comparisons.

“I have never seen a budget so poorly put together in all my life,” she said. “I don’t even know what I’m doing, to tell you the truth. We’d be absolutely foolish to approve any budget when we don’t have any of the actuals.”

Interim director of finance Wendy Dade said the actuals were not in the budget due to a format difference and that Ministry of Municipal Affairs officials only got them after they had already come down for the purposes of the audit. It was later agreed through a motion of council the updated numbers be circulated with Sutton noting monthly updates are prudent so council can better follow along on how it is doing budget-wise. A package of new budget documents was circulated late in Tuesday’s session.

Hurst said the unorthodox bookkeeping caused administration to change how it was going to prepare the 2014 budget and that council was informed of that. He believed administration did “a remarkable job” in preparing the budget.

“When the narrative changes in ways some of you are not expecting, there seems to be an uproar,” said Hurst.

“We can give you 2013 budget and 2013 actuals,” said Phipps.

Phipps invited council to try and reconcile those to the 2014 budget, adding that administration could not.

“To publicly suggest this administration doesn’t know what it is doing is reprehensible,” added Phipps. “It’s disgraceful. You’ve had a mess and you’ve had a mess for many years.”

DiPasquale and Hurst had a brief argument with both demanding respect from one another.

“I’m not politicking here. This is a serious issue,” said DiPasquale. “It’s our fault. We’re responsible for the budget.”

Councillor Bob Pillon said the previous week’s budget session went smoother and got a lot of accomplished because there wasn’t any bickering.

“That shows the fruits of working together,” he said. “This bickering has to stop. I’m not blaming anyone. It has to quit.”

Pillon said $13 million of the debt is allocated on taxes, with much of that being due to the building of the Libro Centre. Roughly $27 million is due to the new wastewater treatment plant with Pillon stating “the province forced us” to build it.

“That treatment plant should have been done 15 years ago,” he said.

Water costs amount to another $6 million, said Pillon, who added there were fewer waterline breaks in the winter as compared to other municipalities because of the new infrastructure.

“If we want to talk debt, the $27 million and the $6 million for our infrastructure unmistakably had to be done,” he said.

Pillon called the debt “doable” and acknowledged some projects may have had to wait if the town had more accurate financial figures when some decisions were made. He added council has to rely on administration and that “none of us up here are accountants.”

“I’m not trying to create dissension. I’m looking for a bottom line we can all afford,” he said.

Council also agreed to leave all capital works projects in the budget, including items like Texas Road and the re-paving of Sandwich St. S., the latter which Essex County council would also fund if approved. Sutton, who noted that accounts for 1.4 per cent of the current 3.85 per cent increase, said leaving the projects in the budget acts “as a placeholder” but noted all projects would have to come back to council for individual approvals including how it would be funded.

Grants, such as Build Canada Fund (BCF) funds, may not be easy to come by for Texas Road, as council was advised that the latest traffic counts for the road do not support the criteria laid out in the application.

“If we don’t have the funds, we can scrap it,” Pillon confirmed.

 

 

 

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