Justin Rousseau

Town agrees to new positions, decides against others

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

There will be new positions in Amherstburg, with some positions garnering more debate than others during budget deliberations.

Amherstburg town council agreed to fund an additional 1.5 bodies in the tourism department at a cost of $88,552 with CAO John Miceli noting there was a “significant amount” of increase programming on the horizon. Tourism co-ordinator/visitor information centre Jen Ibrahim noted the town’s new strategic plan states the department is “poised for growth” and that “tourism numbers increased year-over-year” for the last decade. She told town council that there has been a 38 per cent increase since 2016.

Ibrahim further told town council that numbers need to increase to justify a hotel coming to Amherstburg.

The department is currently staffed by Ibrahim and manager of tourism and culture Anne Rota – the latter missing the budget deliberations due to a family emergency – and Ibrahim said it has led to seven-day-a-week workloads. “Exciting new initiatives” such as the Duffy’s development and Belle Vue property will require time and resources to help write grants, she said.

Tourism staff are also looking at another major festival for the Civic Holiday weekend in 2018, she indicated.

“We want to keep Amherstburg top of mind,” said Ibrahim, telling council a risk of not hiring additional bodies hinders succession planning.

“We’re just looking for sustainable work years ahead,” she added.

Councillor Rick Fryer noted his daughters made a video documenting the “Canuck it Up!” Festival and touted its success. Fryer made the motion to bring in 1.5 new positions and told Ibrahim “we really appreciate the work you do.” Councillor Leo Meloche said he was fine with one new position, but didn’t favour 1.5.

The public works department will be getting one new position, and came close to a second. An engineering technician, a position that carries a cost of $90,726 including salary and benefits, was approved but a supervisor of roads and fleet position – valued at $113,408 – was eliminated roughly 90 minutes after it had been approved.

Council emerged from its dinner break Wednesday evening with Fryer making the motion to reconsider the previous motion that approved the position.

Fryer believed there would be three management positions for six employees, a concerned shared by councillors Diane Pouget and Jason Lavigne.

“It would be hard to justify this position to the public,” said Pouget. “We need more people working, not overseeing.”

Public works administration argued that it wasn’t actually three management positions in roads and fleet as there is only one manager there. The others are contained within other aspects of the department, PWD officials added.

The motion to approve the public works budget without that position failed on a tie vote with Pouget, Lavigne and Fryer in favour and Mayor Aldo DiCarlo, Councillor Leo Meloche and Councillor Joan Courtney opposed. Deputy Mayor Bart DiPasquale was absent for Wednesday’s deliberations.

DiCarlo noted that even though the motion lost, the position still won’t be created as it was no longer approved and didn’t exist in Amherstburg to begin with.

The position of financial analyst, the cost of which is $95,644 including salary and benefits, was approved by town council with Miceli and treasurer Justin Rousseau strongly advocating for the position. Rousseau said it was the fourth time requesting the position, one that was recommended in the Deloitte report.

While Rousseau stated the finance department has made “leaps and bounds in the last few years,” the department is not at the “mature” status as recommended in the report. He said they can’t do business reviews and other functions in as timely of a fashion. A financial analyst would assist the department in finding additional savings.

“In my professional opinion, this is a required item to get to the level of reporting that a corporation of this size should have to its council,” said Rousseau. “We are doing more than ever but doing it with the same people. To not make this investment would not serve the community well.”

DiCarlo said he questions during hiring debates whether the job would pay for itself and whether the work is not getting done and Miceli was emphatic that the position was a necessary one in his opinion.

“This position will pay for itself,” said Miceli.

The CAO recalled that in his former position as executive director of parks and recreation in Windsor, financial analysts helped turn things around from a deficit to a surplus. The hiring of a financial analyst would be a “minimal investment for council to make,” he said, adding “I believe it will provide excellent benefits to the town. It will pay for itself.”

In a recorded vote during Tuesday’s budget deliberations, six of the seven council members voted in favour with Fryer being the lone vote in opposition.

While not the full-time position administration had put in for, town council did approve the policy co-ordinator job on a part-time basis. The original request of $76,238 was cut in half.

Council made progress on updating its policies earlier in the term but Miceli noted no progress has been made since as the person that had been working on them is no longer with the town. A total of 122 policies still need to be reviewed, he said, adding the request was for a one-year contract position.

The town got itself “in trouble” because of a lack of policies to address the decisions of council, the CAO stated, but Pouget disagreed. She said there were policies in place but she accused councils of the day for not following them.

“The policy is only good if council is following that policy,” she said.

DiPasquale believed it to be an important position, stating the policies are “one of the most important things that need to get done.” Rousseau added there are legislative changes coming and that there is still more “heavy lifting” that need to be done.

Meloche didn’t believe in hiring a person from the outside to update policies as they don’t know the town well enough.

“I think we have to look at a better approach in the long-term,” he said.

Lavigne also disagreed with a full-time position, stating that Rousseau had helped create or update 23 policies in two years. He did note that upper tiers of government, such as the province, should help municipalities as legislation is creating more work.

Pouget said university students are looking for placements and suggested the town engage a student to do some of the work, but DiCarlo didn’t think that would be feasible. The mayor, who is also a physics lab co-ordinator at the University of Windsor, said the goal of the co-op department is to give students experience but supervision is still required.

“You will still tie up a full-time position,” said DiCarlo.

DiCarlo said he was OK with not approving the position as long as council understood that policies would not get done or be updated “very slowly.”

Town council also approved a part-time bylaw officer at a cost of $33,452. Meloche said they have been hearing bylaw-related issues over the past few years and advocated for the position further by stating that new bylaws will need monitoring as well.

“It’s time we match the resources with the requirements,” said Meloche.

After Pouget raised concerns about issues she believed had to be dealt with, council went in-camera Wednesday afternoon for a 45-minute session after which Miceli reported out that it had to do with a motion made in January 2016 about council wanting $100,000 in savings. Those savings were achieved, according to Miceli, through the amalgamation of the bylaw and building departments.

While some positions were approved, others were denied. A part-time policy co-ordinator position will not be hired in 2018, though some council members suggested it could be reconsidered for 2019. Streamlining committees were cited as a reason that it isn’t necessary in 2018 with Lavigne noting some committees were also eliminated as the committees were “not following procedures.”

A part-time committee co-ordinator carried a cost of $29,517.

There also won’t be a communications officer hired in 2018 as council didn’t approve the $95,644 cost that came with it. Miceli said he had a concern over messaging that “we want to bring forth in the community” and that messaging through social media is important and has to be accurate.

“I feel very strongly this is a position that brings merit,” he said, noting similar positions exist in Lakeshore, LaSalle, Leamington and Essex.

Council did not agree.

Lavigne said council uses the mayor as its “voice box,” adding “he does a tremendous job.” He didn’t believe there were enough people using the Talk the Burg website to warrant a new position.

“It says to me people are content and happy living in Amherstburg,” said Lavigne.

Meloche agreed that the mayor and CAO are doing a good job representing Amherstburg. DiCarlo joked that his Facebook account “blows up” on occasion but said he will try and stay on top of issues. The communications officer position can wait, he believed, as “we’ve got other bills to pay.”

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.