Town council passes 2014 budget

Town Logo Small-webBy Ron Giofu

Town council has passed the 2014 budget which calls for an overall increase of 3.85 per cent.

That rate was approved by a recorded vote of 4-3 during a budget session Friday morning at town hall. Broken down, the overall figure shows the municipal rate has gone up seven per cent, the county rate has increase 1.8 per cent and the education tax rate has gone down 4.25 per cent.

The tax increase is translated into a $98 increase on a home with an assessed value of $174,000.

Voting in favour of the budget were Mayor Wayne Hurst and councillors Bob Pillon, Carolyn Davies and John Sutton. Opposed were Deputy Mayor Ron Sutherland and councillors Diane Pouget and Bart DiPasquale.

Hurst said he was pleased to see the budget passed adding that administration worked hard on it.

“I think it’s a very good budget,” said Hurst. “I’m very pleased to see it pass.”

Hurst believed the budgeting process was a good one and was happy with how things transpired in getting the budget completed.

“We’re looking forward to good things happening,” he said.

Asked if the budget went far enough to address debt reduction and reserve replenishment, Hurst said selling the Essex Power shares to Entegrus would have helped alleviate pressures and rebuild the town’s reserves and paid down debt.

Sutherland admitted he would have liked to have seen the municipal rate brought down another couple of percentage points but was trying to be positive with the end result.

“I would have liked us to see us come in around five per cent (municipally). Obviously, it wasn’t possible to do,” he said. “I can live with what we’ve got.”

Sutherland said he voted against the budget because it was his belief the town could have found additional ways to cut costs.

“I just wasn’t entirely convinced there weren’t some other savings somewhere,” said Sutherland.

Referring to a chart presented during the meeting showing the debt slowly dropping over the next five years, Sutherland said it is coming down and said it isn’t something that can be eliminated in one fell swoop.

“(The debt) didn’t happen overnight,” said Sutherland. “We’ve got to work at this bit by bit.”

CAO Mike Phipps said he tried to “sound the alarm” to town council about paying down the debt and replenishing the reserves but believed not enough occurred to address those matters. Phipps acknowledged that a special levy to help pay back reserves would have stung taxpayers initially but could have helped replenish reserves had it lasted over a five-year period. However, that suggestion did not fly.

“They have some serious financial issues but somewhere, someone is going to have to bite the bullet,” said Phipps, following the meeting.

During the meeting, Phipps told council a similar message.

“You have huge debt and the reserves are gone,” the CAO told council. “You’ve done nothing in this budget to address any one of these issues.”

Phipps said some suggestions made by administration were turned down. Acknowledging that council had inherited many of the problems, he believed they needed to do more to address them.

“You are just deferring a lot of hard decisions to the next council,” Phipps told the elected officials. “You can’t defer your way out of debt or defer your way in replenishing the reserves.”

Pouget said she wanted the municipal rate lower than what it turned out to be. She said the hope was to get it between 3-5 per cent but “it’s seven per cent,” a figure she deemed too high.

“We are putting very, very little on our debt and very, very little in reserves and I can’t vote in favour of the budget the way it is now,” said Pouget.

“I still have a real problem with the comparables not matching,” added DiPasquale. “It just leaves a void for me. I’m going to vote against it.”

At that point, Sutherland added “I have to agree with Councillor DiPasquale.”

Sutton and Pillon both asked those opposed to the budget to come up with further solutions to satisfy the concerns they had.

“Make some suggestions and move on,” said Pillon.

Sutton said over $500,000 in cuts were rejected by council.

“It’s very easy to say what do we want to cut,” said Sutton. “Let’s have specifics.”

Sutton added if there are cuts to services – which in turns drive staffing – those cuts should be brought up.

“I don’t think anything is sacred,” he added. “Tell me where we should cut. Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if it flies.”

Pouget countered by stating that “we wouldn’t be here if we came in with a five per cent reduction,” referencing a motion she made that was defeated several months ago. She said cuts suggested by Phipps “hurt council and the public” adding that staff knows where to cut more than council does.

Davies countered back by stating “we cannot pull numbers out of the sky” and asked for places to cut that will “keep the town safe, keep the town growing and not put it back in the dark ages.” Davies also noted there were opportunities to cut further that were shot down.

“You tell us where you want to cut back or how you want to reverse your decisions when you voted line-by-line,” Davies told Pouget.

Noting initial budget estimates came in at 17 per cent and were shaved to 10.01 per cent and finally to seven per cent, Davies further remarked “I think that’s more than a five per cent cut.”

Capital works projects were left in the budget “as a placeholder” and will not be done unless approved individually by council complete with a plan how to pay for them. Sutherland said he wished more could be done for Texas Road since it is on hold once again, but indicated an opportunity could occur if BCF becomes available again. BCF funding is on hold due to the June 12 provincial election.

Pillon was adamant during the meeting that no more money be borrowed because of the town’s debt. Phipps’ debt figures he showed during the meeting have the town at $56 million in debt for both 2014 and 2015, $55 million in 2016 and $51 million and $46 million in 2017 and 2018 respectively. However, much of that is predicated on no new debt, something Phipps said is tough to avoid since the town has to maintain services such as roads, bridges and waterlines, to name a few.

“It’s OK to say we’re not going to take on new debt but you will. You have to,” he said.

“It’s constant spending to maintain a municipality,” added Hurst. “We’ve made changes that have set this town on the road to financial stability but we have to pay our debt. There is no free lunch. We have to pay our debt.”

The current debt averages out at $2,625 per person or $6,350 for every taxable property.

The town did agree, by a similar 4-3 vote, to spend almost $1 million in gas tax revenue on projects in town. The Sandwich St. S. repaving project, which had been deferred for five years, will proceed in 2014, as will a traffic signal rehabilitation at Alma St. and Sandwich St., a traffic signal control replacement program, the 2014 tar and chip program, resurfacing of Renaud Dr., Boblo Island Dr. and Marsh Dr., and the biannual bridge inspection.

 

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