Aldo DiCarlo

Budget calls for 1.87% tax increase

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

Barring any last minute changes prior to its final passage Feb. 25, the 2019 budget calls for a 1.87 per cent tax increase.

Town council whittled the increase down from 2.65 per cent to 1.87 per cent after four hours of budget deliberations last Tuesday night and roughly nine hours of debate last Wednesday.

The operations budget saw a 1.82 per cent increase but, with the two levies, it brings the overall impact to the municipal portion to 1.87 per cent, said treasurer Justin Rousseau.

The town states that, when blended with county and school board rates, the rate is lowered to 1.47 per cent or $59 on a home valued at $250,000.

Mayor Aldo DiCarlo believed town council did a good job balancing needs, wants and what is affordable to the tax base.

“The simple answer is the new council is consistent with the last council’s strategy,” said DiCarlo.

Over the two days, DiCarlo added that council had its say on many issues and seemed pleased they debated items before simply voting on them.

“The Town of Amherstburg council is not a rubber stamp committee,” said the mayor.

Admitting zero per cent was the ideal number for a tax increase, DiCarlo noted the town did reduce the increase from the original number presented.

“I’m satisfied that council did a good job coming to a final position that bodes well for the town in the long run,” he said.

Director of corporate services Cheryl Horrobin and treasurer Justin Rousseau field questions last week.

Councillor Peter Courtney voiced concerns during the deliberations over potential new hires and the amount of studies that were part of the 2019 budget but noted that costs are going up as well. He took some satisfaction in the fact they were able to find some reductions.

“Any reduction is a good thing for the taxpayer,” he said. “I’m never completely satisfied. I’m confident we did the best we could under the circumstances that we’re in.”

Courtney added he tried to find more savings but respected the final decisions of council.

“Democracy, at the end of the day, will prevail,” he said, adding that there is no ill will after the deliberations and that “we’re a team.”

Councillor Michael Prue said he was disappointed they weren’t able to whittle the overall increase below 1.8 per cent but recognized that he and his colleagues “gave it their best try.” Prue had advocated to put off the purchase of $600,000 worth of police radios for another year and, while that purchase was pulled out of a motion and still has to be considered further, he was hoping that $600,000 could be used on other things.

That money is to come from a reserve and not directly impact the tax rate, he noted, but believes that money could have been used on other projects that did impact the rate.

“We could have used that to offset some other costs,” said Prue.

During Wednesday’s deliberations, administration noted that the radios are still Amherstburg’s responsibility and that they are outdated. Director of corporate services Cheryl Horrobin said the current radios are older technology and could be “problematic” if not addressed.

CAO John Miceli said it was “very well known” that the current police radios are well past their useful lives and that it was an issue as far back as three years ago. Courtney agreed with Prue that the purchase should be delayed but Deputy Mayor Leo Meloche stated that “taxpayers have already paid for it” and that the issue of the radios was not hidden “and was part of the deal.”

Regarding the budget process overall, Prue acknowledged that he received numerous calls and e-mails from residents and that he tried to address their concerns.

“I tried to be their voice,” he said.

The capital budget is for about $14.5 million and among the projects included are the reconstruction of Concession 5 North from Alma St. to Middle Side Road for $2 million and Texas Road between Concessions 2 & 3 for $800,000. The resurfacing of Walnut Dr. between Hawthorn Dr. and McCurdy Dr. resurfacing pegged at $160,000. Paving projects on Creek Road and Pickering Dr. are also expected to be finalized this year with engineering work on McLeod Ave. and South Riverview Dr. also planned for 2019.

There will also be numerous culverts and bridges replaced, with the Concession 2 North bridge over Long Marsh Drain finally to be done with just shy of $1.2 million being carried over from 2018 to complete the work. The town will also purchase a $300,000 truck for public works that will replace a 1999 truck and a new Zamboni for the Libro Centre at a cost of $108,000. The town also allocated $25,000 for upgrades at Malden Centre Park and $170,000 for upgrades at Beaudoin Park.

Courtney was pleased with the Beaudoin Park upgrades, noting the park has been “neglected” and that residents in the River Canard area will appreciate the new amenities that will be installed at the park.

Some new positions approved, others shot down during budget

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

The tourism department had its staffing request approved during the 2019 budget deliberations but you won’t get that news from a communications co-ordinator.

Town council opted to convert 1.5 contract positions in the tourism department to two full-time positions as part of their budget deliberations last Wednesday, a move that the town estimates will cost an additional $58,000. Manager of tourism and culture Anne Rota said her department brings in revenue and helps economic development. She also told town council that the tourism department came in 23 per cent under budget.

Councillor Peter Courtney said that while the tourism department does good work, many residents don’t see a direct benefit to their work and he wanted to see a status quo on staffing levels as compared to 2018.

“We’re all supposed to be bending and twisting. Our infrastructure is terrible,” said Courtney. “I’m not convinced we need four full-time all-year personnel.”

Mayor Aldo DiCarlo said he knows first-hand the work that goes into planning events and that he also attends festivals for the duration that they are on and that work has to occur for many months on them. Rota added that both tourism co-ordinator Jen Ibrahim and herself work 50-60 hours per week in the spring and summer and “we can’t do it anymore. For the first time, we’re coming here and saying we need your help.”

Deputy Mayor Leo Meloche believed that tourism “is a large component of the business strategy of the town” and that it is in the town’s best interest. Councillor Patricia Simone questioned whether grants could help offset increased staffing costs.

Simone added that while she supported the tourism department’s work, she didn’t support the staffing request this year.

Rota added that sponsorships went up in 2018 and that her department also meets with hotel operators.

“Why do you think they came here?” she said of the hotels. “It was because of tourism. This department is more high level than people think.”

Councillor Donald McArthur said he believes in the economic spinoff of tourism and that he wanted the town “to send a strong message on supporting tourism.” He believed that local businesses benefit from the tourism department’s work and that it leads to local jobs.

“I think it benefits local commerce,” said McArthur.

Councillor Michael Prue supported making the additional tourism positions full-time and believed there are benefits to the town in doing so.

“I’ve never met such hard working women in my life,” said Prue. “I think they deserve full-time jobs.”

Councillor Marc Renaud said residents he spoke to while campaigning said festivals and events stood out to them. Helping support local businesses through festival leads to commercial taxes and jobs, he added.

The communications officer, estimated at $105,000 for salaries and benefits, fell by the wayside Tuesday night. Courtney was the initial council member to voice opposition with Meloche joining him. Meloche noted that with the initial tax increase projected at 2.65 per cent (since reduced to 1.87 per cent), that was an area that they could cut.

McArthur, himself the communications co-ordinator with the County of Essex, said he saw value in the position and that it would be a “missed opportunity” to eliminate it. McArthur said he recognized the need to trim the budget but “I don’t think this is the place to do it” as a communications co-ordinator could connect with residents and keep residents informed, adding the budget presentation on the Town of Essex’s website “puts ours to shame.

“A professional communicator can ensure people understand what is going on,” said McArthur.

Prue said the town needs to invest in parks and roads as well as an economic development officer and believed the cost of a communications officer was too steep right now.

Town council approved the clerk’s services budget and with it a full-time clerk’s co-ordinator position. The town had a part-time position in 2018. Total cost for 2019 is $83,321. The town also approved $15,000 to hire a new assistant in the fire department to accommodate a person with an intellectual disability. Chief Bruce Montone said that would allow someone with a disability to get a sustainable job and to help that person contribute to the community. The figure was reduced from its original $25,759.

“I want to think the rights they have are no different than the rights we all have,” said Prue, of those with intellectual disabilities.

Relating to a temporary HR position, that was kept in and that $94,765 position is expected to alleviate a “heavy” workload in that department this year, particularly as regular staff learn new software. Courtney wanted the position eliminated but CAO John Miceli outlined health and safety matters the town has faced in recent years and said the town want to be proactive in those situations. While supporting it this go-around, Prue said he expects the department to get caught up this year and doesn’t want to see the position in November when council deliberates the 2020 budget.

Town council reduced the $128,961 in salaries and benefits requested by the parks department as they wanted three part-time staff members but council would only agree to two. Manager of parks and facilities Annette Zahaluk said her department has fielded complaints about the appearance of some Amherstburg parks.

“It’s embarrassing, some of the parks, of the way we’ve had to let them go,” she said.

Students are only available May-August, she added, while staff has to help in the winter with River Lights set-up and take-down and with salting and snow removal.

“I’m hearing River Lights a lot,” said Courtney. “If not for River Lights, would we need three part-time people?”

Miceli noted that the town has always had some sort of involvement with River Lights even before the town officially took over the festival.

Prue added he hopes that department gets assistance from volunteers when it comes to cleanups and beautification.

Stella Maris students weigh in on possible glass factory

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

Students in Maria Morrison’s Grade 5 class at Stella Maris School have weighed in on the possible glass plant that has been talked about for the former General Chemical lands.

The students recently learned about the environment, including fossil fuels, pollution and renewable sources of energy. When news of the possible glass plant coming nearby broke, they took the initiative to talk about the pros and cons of such a development.

Stella Maris Grade 5
students show the letters they wrote regarding the proposed glass plant. (Submitted photo)

Students cited property taxes, jobs and the possibility of attracting more people to Amherstburg as pros while pollution, water usage, noise and environmental issues were cited as cons.

Of the 24 students in the class, 19 of them raised their hands in opposition to the plant while three were in favour. Two students were undecided.

Morrison said the students wrote letters to Mayor Aldo DiCarlo and she delivered all of them to town hall.

“The mayor promised he’d read them,” said Morrison. “We’re awaiting a response from the mayor.”

Cops still pursuing outstanding payments

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

The issue of outstanding payments to former Amherstburg police officers is still outstanding and may end up in court.

While some payments have been made, the officers, most of whom are now with the Windsor Police Service – Amherstburg Detachment, officers are still awaiting others.

“(The town) paid severances and some vacation time to certain individuals,” said Const. Shawn McCurdy, who was the president of the Amherstburg Police Association and current director on the Windsor Police Association.

McCurdy noted there was some sick time also paid and one-year of salary “top-ups” paid but there is more to come including banked overtime, statutory pay, more vacation time and severance for one individual.

“We haven’t had any conversations with them for over a week,” McCurdy stated Monday morning. “Council and administration have not given us any information whatsoever. Our next step is to seek a court order to have it all paid.”

The former Amherstburg Police Service and chief approved all the payments and the town has no authority to interject, said McCurdy, adding the town was “made well aware of these outstanding items.”

Should the matter go to court, McCurdy believed it could cost taxpayers more as the officers could seek damages as well.

“Under the agreement, they are contractually obligated to pay all of these items,” said McCurdy. “It all stems from the collective agreement. The mayor, Aldo DiCarlo, was the lead negotiator for the board when all of this was negotiated.”

McCurdy said it is unfortunate the situation has gotten to where it is and stated they have contacted their lawyer.

“We’re only asking for what we are entitled to,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate. It’s disheartening. It should not have come to this.”

McCurdy added they are simply standing up for their legal rights and hope it can be resolved without additional costs to the residents.

DiCarlo maintained the town’s position that it is the residents whom they are looking after.

“Our position hasn’t changed in the sense we are doing due diligence as far as our financial reporting goes,” he said.

DiCarlo said he can appreciate the officers’ frustration, but said the town’s finance department “are working very hard on this trying to get it resolved” and that a lot of the money has been paid in advance of legal deadlines.

“A considerable amount has been paid out,” the mayor stated. “We’re doing what we can to expedite it. We’re working on it.”

DiCarlo had previously indicated that the town needs all the documentation in order to pay the costs per its financial reporting obligations and said Monday night that he appreciates the officers positions but “the town has theirs. We have a responsibility to the residents who are going to be paying these bills. We are doing what we absolutely have to to be responsible to them as well.”

While not wanting to see the matter go to court, DiCarlo indicated the town would “absolutely be there” to defend its position.

Shaanti Museum of Costumes and Dolls finds new home at Gordon House

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

The Shaanti Museum of Costumes and Dolls had to vacate the former Malden Community and Cultural Centre but has found a new home in Amherstburg.

The town recently sold the “Little White Church” and the museum is now located on the first floor of the Gordon House. The museum will have a rotating exhibit with town tourism staff having a hand in what will be displayed.

An official ribbon cutting ceremony for the museum’s new location took place last Friday afternoon at which Mayor Aldo DiCarlo thanked the museum board “for entrusting this unique and important collection from around the world to the Town of Amherstburg. This collection is the largest in Ontario and possibly in all of Canada.”

Wira Vendrasco and Raj Varma from the Shaanti Museum of Costumes and Dolls (left) joined Mayor Aldo DiCarlo for the official ribbon cutting at the museum’s new Gordon House location.

The Shaanti Museum of Costumes and Dolls has upwards of 3,500 dolls from around the world in its collection and reflect a variety of different cultures. The current exhibit carries a Black History Month theme.

“The composition, creation and interpretation of these forms are truly magnificent works of art,” DiCarlo stated. “We are so proud to be able to showcase them right here in Amherstburg as another authentic and cultural asset in our town.”

The current exhibit is Black History Month themed, and includes a rare doll which is only one of two in the world.

Wira Vendrasco, the museum’s president, thanked the town and singled out manager of tourism and culture Anne Rota for specific credit. She said the town has “a lot to work with” as it pertains to rotating exhibits.

“This is wonderful,” said Vendrasco. “We’ve been in a number of locations over the years. I think this is the most appropriate and historic. This is absolutely beautiful.”

The Gordon House is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. with extended weekend hours from June through September. For more information, call 519-730-1309.