Back to the budget drawing board for St. Marys...
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Mar 26, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Back to the budget drawing board for St. Marys Town Council

St. Marys Journal Argus

Stew Slater

St. Marys Journal Argus

Presenting ratepayers with a proposed 1.85 per cent tax increase at a Public Meeting on March 20 turned out to be a bad idea for St. Marys town councillors. Judging from discussion that unfolded at a Council meeting on Tuesday, March 25, councillors were, in fact, nowhere near an agreement about what the size of the 2014 increase should be.

“We need to schedule a new budget meeting, your worship,” was the frank observation of Councillor Don Van Galen near the conclusion of the four-hour open portion of Tuesday’s meeting. Following that, councillors retreated behind closed doors for a planned “in camera” session about non-budget-related matters.

With one glance at the clock and another at Van Galen, a clearly exasperated Mayor Steve Grose made what could only be described as a half-hearted attempt to convince fellow councillors to come up with a compromise position so the proposed 2014 budget could be finalized. But a few moments later, with no alternative motions being brought forward, he asked CAO Kevin McLlwain to follow through on Van Galen’s suggestion to schedule a new round of budget discussions.

It was an unexpected turn of events, given the polite response from the public to Treasurer David Janseunne’s March 20 presentation of a budget that devoted $240,000 of surplus funds from the wrap-up of the 2012 fiscal year to drawing down how much of an increase taxpayers would face. Still looking at proposed 2014 expenditures that would have required a 3.84 per cent increase in taxes, the original proposal called for an additional $200,000 to be taken from reserves to arrive at the final 1.85 per cent figure.

It was a turn of events, however, that began to unfold immediately upon the commencement of discussion of the draft budget — at the end of a Tuesday night meeting agenda that was already heavy with other weighty issues. Grose turned the page to the budget documents, and dropped a bombshell: Contrary to what was presented to the public five days earlier, he’d like to see a five per cent tax increase.

When his next opportunity to speak arose, Van Galen commented, “the last thing I thought I’d hear tonight would be someone proposing a five per cent increase.” And it became immediately clear there was a long distance to bridge between the two assessments of the town’s financial needs.

Van Galen pressed for the proposed increase to remain at 1.85 per cent, and challenged Grose’s assertion that devoting both the $200,000 and $240,000 for future reserves is necessary to ensure the town can finance large projects — including bridge replacement/repairs and a wastewater treatment plant expansion — that are outlined in a 15-year capital expenditure plan.

The veteran councillor noted not all of those large-scale projects have been approved by Council, and questioned their necessity.

Additionally, Van Galen argued there remains a number of “line items” in the proposed budget that could be pared down. At the outset of discussion, he suggested Council go “in camera” so matters such as property dispersal and personnel could be discussed.

“There are departments in this town that still could operate more efficiently,” he said. He never proposed a motion to go “in camera,” however, and discussion continued in open session.

At one point, he proposed a motion to decrease by $10,000 the amount granted to the Public Library for 2014, but he could not find a seconder. “I’m disappointed that there is no appetite tonight for opening up a line item discussion,” he said, adding he had a number of other proposals that would gradually bring the budget closer to a point at which councillors might be able to compromise on putting aside some of the reserve funds.

Van Galen wasn’t the only councillor who was unable to garner support for what they believed were routes to a compromise. Lynn Hainer proposed putting the $200,000 back into reserves and asking for a 3.84 per cent tax increase, but there was no seconder.

Grose maintained that cutbacks to operational costs over the past three years have gone far enough. Any more, he suggested, and the outcry from the public will be even greater than what occurred as a result of changes to leaf collection and landfill hours of operation.

“The fine line with where we can stop with (operational cutbacks) — I think we’re already there,” he said.

Grose was never challenged directly to explain when and why his viewpoint changed with regards to the March 20 proposal of a 1.85 per cent tax increase. But he did hint at some heavy soul-searching about the financial legacy he hopes to leave as mayor.

“(Using money from surplus and reserves to lessen the hit on taxpayers) is not what I set out to do when I decided to run (for mayor),” he said. “And it looks bad on us. It looks like we’re making up a budget for an election year. I know (the 1.85 per cent increase) wasn’t done with that intention, but it looks bad.”

Councillor Carey Pope questioned the wisdom of Grose’s late-breaking proposal. “If we had been talking about a five per cent increase beforehand, I think more people would have shown up at the (March 20) Public Meeting.”

She was, however, the only person who managed to advance even part way towards securing a compromise. Suggesting she has “concerns” about the ability of low income and fixed income residents to handle hefty tax increases, she nonetheless made a motion to devote the $240,000 from the 2012 surplus to reserves instead of operations (and lessening the effect on taxes).

Councillors Hainer and Stephen McCotter, along with Grose, supported Pope’s motion, resulting in a slim 4-3 margin. Preceding his vote, McCotter reasoned he’s in favour of setting aside money into reserves.

When it came to the actual budget document, however, it was no surprise — given a very public campaign to outline a number of reasons why he can’t support the proposal — that McCotter withdrew his support. That left only Grose, Hainer and Pope voting in favour of the amended budget. And that reversal of the 4-3 margin led to Van Galen’s call for Council to get back to the drawing board on the 2014 budget.

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