BY ANDREW SMITH
STRATFORD – The balancing act of municipal services and increased taxes was a point of discussion for county council as they looked ahead to next year’s budget.
Renato Pullia, director of corporate services, presented a budget visioning report on June 19, with the preliminary numbers showing a projected levy increase of 6.4 per cent for the county. Pullia said a $25 million reduction in the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund was once again a factor, which may increase to $35 million by next year and put the county even further behind.
“Until we get the final allocation, we don’t know what that number will look like,” Pullia said.
The addition of a dedicated capital levy was also discussed by public works director Matt Ash, who said the council needs to think about putting more money into reserves to bridge Perth County’s infrastructure gap.
“By my most conservative estimates, we’re probably about $2 million a year short,” Ash said. “That’s an enormous amount of money, there has to be some kind of plan.”
The Asset Management Plan prepared last year recommends a dedicated capital levy of 7.5 per cent for the next 10 years in order to close the $67 million funding gap, Ash said, which would amount to an extra $65 per household in 2015. The dedicated capital levy is scheduled to be enacted in 2016, and Ash admitted it has the potential of creating a double-digit levy increase for the next decade.
“If we are happy to accept a lower level of service, we can of course,” he said. “We know what we own and we know what it costs to keep it up to today’s standard. Are we happy with that?”
Coun. Bill French questioned whether the average taxpayer can stomach a double-digit levy increase, or if council needs to take a serious look at cutting services.
“It’s a hard sandwich to sit in the centre of, because we’re getting caught from the government, the citizens demand more, and regulations come in and we’re expected to give more,” he said.
Coun. James Aitcheson said it’s difficult getting a clear picture of the future if the county is unclear over their revenue, and the only way to increase the revenue once the budget is done is to raise taxes.
“I think we’re at the point now where we’re all but over-taxed,” Aitcheson said. “I don’t think there’s a huge appetite for a bunch of big tax increases.”
Aitcheson also wondered if the county needs to examine service levels, or start charging user fees for some programs to generate additional revenue.
“To vision where we really think we’re going to go is virtually impossible until we know what our revenues are,” he said. “We’re just spinning in circles here having this discussion.”
Coun. Ian Forrest suggested having a better understanding of the average taxpayer’s ability to afford a levy increase, which Coun. Bob McMillian agreed with.
“Rather than pretend we know what we’re talking about, we should be going to the public,” McMillan said. “Without that information, I’m probably unable to say let’s pick a percentage or pick a number and go with that.”
Warden Bob Wilhelm said a discussion on service levels would be beneficial for county council, in order to achieve a fair tax rate for residents.
“I think it’s important to feel the pulse of the public on what they can actually afford and also what service level they want to see,” he said. “If we’re not providing the proper service level then we need to seriously look at that and the costs incurred.”