Jeff Heuchert email@example.com
A quarter of a billion dollars. That's the number Mayor Dan Mathieson wants taxpayers to remember when considering the City of Stratford's roughly $87 million debt.
That figure - $250 million - represents what the city has spent between 2004 and 2013 on infrastructure upgrades to roads, storm and sanitary sewers and water lines, as well as major facility projects like the Rotary Complex. The majority of that total, some $143 million, came from city residents through annual tax increases, while the remaining $106.5 million was either funded through federal or provincial grants or added to the city's long-term debt.
Over that same time period, the average municipal tax increase was 2.79 per cent.
"When you look at the investment (we've made as a city) and the infrastructure (we now have), I'd say we've gotten very strong value for our dollar," the mayor said at his annual state of the city address Thursday morning at the Stratford Country Club.
Hosted by the Stratford and District Chamber of Commerce, the mayor's presentation to mostly business and civic leaders from the community was as much about where the city’s been as where it’s heading.
Breaking down the city's 2014 budget, which was passed back in January, Mathieson noted the 1.31 per cent increase passed down to taxpayers represents an additional $45 to the average homeowner.
"That means we have growth in the community and we're doing well," he said about the low tax increase, noting the residents' share of this year's budget is $49.3 million, while the balance is made up through user fees on different services, development charges, and transfers from senior levels of government.
The mayor also spoke confidently about the city's current financial position, noting that through council's deliberate decision not to take on any new long-term budgetary commitments, the city's debt should be reduced to $81 million by the end of 2014. The city is making payments of just over $8 million on the principal and interest each year. Just shy of $5 million of that comes from the tax levy.
"We are on the cycle to start paying down our debt. We're reducing the amount per person each and every year," he added.
Noting the city has just over $28 million in reserve, he said there will be a “continual need to spend money” on infrastructure. Council, without incurring any further debt, hopes to spend on average $15 million a year to meet the city’s ongoing needs, he added.
Mathieson specifically cited the need for a new justice facility to house Stratford’s courts, police station and jail, and suggested the city would look for opportunities when possible to partner with the federal and provincial governments and other organizations.
Stratford's recently adopted strategic priorities framework provides a basis for what the city hopes to achieve moving forward, the mayor said. The three pillars that underline the framework speak to the city's commitment to long-term financial planning, improving affordable housing through innovate approaches and practices, and supporting an active, healthy lifestyle for its residents.
The mayor acknowledged keeping up with the city's growing social services caseload has been a challenge, noting that by the end of this year, the number of families supported through the city's public and social housing portfolio is expected to reach over 1,300.
But the city is making strides, Mathieson suggested, by creating more affordable housing units and making available additional home ownership loans. The city also recently completed a 10-year housing and homelessness plan and is on target to create 290 new affordable housing units in that time, he added.
Another positive for the city are the 500 new manufacturing jobs that were filled in Stratford last year and the 150 new positions that are expected to be created locally this year thanks a $500,000 investment from senior levels of government, Mathieson said, noting the city’s unemployment rate as of the end of February was 6.3 per cent, lower than the national and provincial averages and second best in all of Ontario.
Looking forward, he said a focus needs to be on finding jobs for youth and mature workers who have spent years in the same industry and now find themselves lacking the necessary skills to find new employment.
But more opportunities are on their way. The mayor revealed that TG Minto, which manufactures a variety of interior automotive parts for Toyota, will be adding over 75,000 square feet to its Stratford facility and between 50-70 new jobs in the coming months. Mathieson said D&D Automation is also planning to expand and take on new staff to support a recently announced $2 billion upgrade to a BMW plant in Greenville, South Carolina. The contract will lead to more “innovative jobs in the technology sector here in Stratford,” he said.
During his state of the city address the mayor also touched on the impact the Stratford Festival has on the city ($135 million in gross domestic product and 3,000 direct and indirect jobs), tourism initiatives like the Savour Stratford culinary festival (25,000 visitors to the city in 2013), and the University of Waterloo Stratford campus (enrollment of 350 come next fall, including 65 full-time students living in Stratford).
On a less positive note, the mayor noted the ongoing transportation issues facing the city; namely, reduced rail service. He reiterated his hope that Metrolinx will reconsider its plan to build a Go Transit layover facility in Baden and instead set up further west in the underutilized rail yard in Stratford.