Peter Courtney

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.

Town to keep some ice at the Libro Centre in May

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

Thanks to an impassioned plea from a representative of the user groups, town council has agreed to keep at least one ice pad operational at the Libro Centre in May.

Wes Ewer represented the Amherstburg Admirals Jr. C hockey team as well as the Big Creek Hockey League, Skate Amherstburg and the Amherstburg Minor Hockey Association (AMHA) at Wednesday’s budget deliberations. Keeping ice at the Libro Centre in May is “extremely paramount” to the organizations, Ewer noted, as it impacts tryouts and other activities and events the organizations run.

Registration to the various sports organizations could also be negatively impacted if there is no ice in May, said Ewer, noting the organizations he was involved with are willing to pay the higher winter ice rates in order to keep ice at the arena during that month.

“May ice removal will not work for our user groups,” said Ewer.

There is talk of a merger between Amherstburg and LaSalle minor hockey associations, he added, and that could lead to a future increase in demand down the road, Ewer noted. He added they could also have camps at the Libro Centre to further use the ice.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer,” said Councillor Peter Courtney. “I know Wes will come through.”

CAO John Miceli apologized for not communicating better with the user groups and indicated a willingness to work with them. However, Deputy Mayor Leo Meloche voiced concern with the facility losing money though welcomed the opportunity to try and “turn it around.”

“For the last four years, we keep seeing declining revenue,” said Meloche.

Councillor Marc Renaud, also the president of AMHA, said they are losing players and that the potential partnership with LaSalle’s travel program could lead to more usage in Amherstburg.

“I think there is future growth coming,” said Renaud.

Having ice completely out of the Libro Centre in May, June and July would save approximately $85,000 but keeping some ice in at the facility would trim those savings to $63,000. Council also voiced interest in waiting until the middle of August before ice returned in order to save on utility costs.

Town to look at possible cat control bylaw

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

A local resident has been having issues with feral cats and what they leave behind and the town is showing interest in helping him.

Doug Patterson said he has lived in the Monopoly subdivision for 30 years but in recent years, his family has had to endure a number of feral cats and the feces they leave behind. He told town council one cat even fell out from under the hood of his car after he remote started it one day.

While town council has agreed to look at a cat control bylaw, Patterson is hopeful that will help alleviate the problem. He also noted that raccoons and skunks have also started causing problems and hopes that others in the neighbourhood that feed the feral cats will do a better job looking after them.

“The skunks have never been so bad,” he said. “It’s out of control.”

Questioning whether or not the town’s trap and release (T&R) program was working, Patterson had some doubts as cats keep coming to his neighbourhood and leaving a mess behind, not to mention the noise.

“It doesn’t get rid of the feces, smell and disease potential,” said Patterson.

Patterson called for a bylaw, noting that “if dogs need to be on a leash, why shouldn’t cats?”

“This has been going on for years and years. I’ve had enough. Our whole neighbourhood has had enough,” he said.

Patterson said the situation is “ridiculous” and “absolutely disgusting” and it is even having a negative impact on the local bird population in his area.

“We have no birds in our neighbourhood. How sad is that?” he said, adding that feral cats “are not a very good selling feature for the town.”

Deputy Mayor Leo Meloche also questioned the spay and neuter program, stating he has read reports where other male cats will come in and take over if another has been neutered and other reports suggesting euthanization.

Overpopulation is a problem, Meloche believed, and it is a problem he believed has to be dealt with.

“We do have a problem here,” said Meloche. “Cats attract more cats.”

However, members of the Cat Assistance Team (CAT) and other volunteers that look after cat colonies disagreed. They say their methods are working, with Lynn Sinasac pointing out the vouchers the town offers “have helped tremendously.” She believed people dumping cats in rural areas is a cause as those cats return to residential areas.

Carla Leardi questioned how a bylaw would be enforced and how much it would cost to have one drafted and enforced. She said the town already has an animal dumping bylaw and wondered about its enforcement.

“T&R works but you have to stay on top of it,” she added.

Councillor Peter Courtney stated he didn’t know what the solution was but adopting some restrictions could be a solution. Patterson has a right to use his own property, Courtney added, and that “property owners should not have to be concerned with feral cats and excrement in their backyard.”

“If we are regulating dogs, we should be regulating cats,” added Councillor Michael Prue.

A bylaw would allow town staff, including bylaw enforcement, to look at a situation and possibly take the matter to court, if necessary. In the meantime, the public will be able to discuss what should be in the bylaw, he added.

Councillor wants updates on Centennial Park baseball diamonds and Lions Pool

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

With budget season underway and baseball and swimming to follow, a town councillor is wondering about the status of some recreational amenities.

Councillor Peter Courtney wanted a report from administration on the status of the pool and baseball diamonds and said the user groups want to know what the “end goal is.” Courtney also asked for information about prospective locations for the amenities as well.

“This seems to be in limbo right now,” said Courtney.

Courtney added that “there’s been no foresight” regarding the loss of park infrastructure and wanted to know the plan to take care of user groups.

CAO John Miceli said it would be difficult for him to compile a report in time for the next town council meeting. He said at this point, he could only make recommendations pertaining to possible locations at this point.

“I can assure you there is no provision in the budget for that,” he stated.

Local residents, including those with the Amherstburg Sharks swim team, are looking for a new pool to be built in Amherstburg now that the Lions Pool is closed. The Amherstburg Sharks swim meet is pictured.

Miceli said there is a provision in the 2019 town budget for a master study at the Libro Centre to go over what specific components could be featured at the site. He took exception with implications there was no foresight by administration.

“To say we have had no foresight, I strongly disagree with that,” he said.

Miceli added the Parks Master Plan looked at a number of town facilities and recreating the same amenities that already exist in town “are not good for the taxpayers.”

The pool issue also came up at last Saturday’s budget meeting. Yvette Erickson and Tiffany Cote, who appeared before town council in January on the matter, also wanted to know the plans as Cote also pointed out a new pool is not in the 2019 budget.

Miceli said the town is looking at “pool access for 2019,” but added a new pool is not a high priority according to the Parks Master Plan. He said a new outdoor pool would be $1.5-$3 million while an indoor pool would cost $5-8 million with the decision ultimately being up to council.

Cote said children through seniors use the pool and believed it was “a shame” that it wasn’t a higher priority. The CAO responded that 913 users were reported at the Lions Pool last summer and emphasized there are “other means for short-term access.”

Erickson questioned why Centennial Park was sold “for so little,” with Miceli stating it was sold for fair market value. Miceli added most of the assets at Centennial Park are well past its lifespan. The Greater Essex County District School Board purchased the southern 15 acres of the park for $2.4 million to make way for a new public high school.