About 30 citizens turned out on a chilly evening Thursday to get an early look at the 2014 municipal budget.
Chatham-Kent council will head into budget deliberations next week, and administration has recommended a tax increase of about 2.5%.
The gathering Thursday was the final of a trio of open houses – the other two taking place in Wallaceburg and Blenheim Tuesday and Wednesday respectively – designed to deliver budget information to concerned citizens.
One problem: Only two such citizens showed up in Wallaceburg, an estimated 25 in Blenheim and 30 or so in Chatham.
Gerry Wolting, general manager of corporate services for the municipality, provided those in attendance in Chatham with an overview of the draft budget. He said the ongoing service review delivered nearly $300,000 in cuts to the budget, and that figure is applied annually.
He said the average house in Chatham-Kent was worth an estimated $157,000 in 2013, and is assessed at $2,600 a year in taxes.
He added a 1% increase in the budget represents a tax hike on that average home of $26.
As a result, if the draft budget were to be accepted without tinkering by council, the average home would see a tax hike of $65.
A little over half the proposed increase is slated to address the municipality’s aging infrastructure.
“Most people think it (infrastructure) is just road and bridges, but we manage about 31 categories of infrastructure,” he said.
Those also include arenas, cemeteries, railway crossings, pools and municipal buildings.
Still, roads and bridges are the big components, as Chatham-Kent has more than 1,700 kilometres of paved roads and nearly 1,800 km of gravel roads. Furthermore, the municipality has less than 1% of the province’s total population, but 5% of the total number of bridges.
If infrastructure funding isn’t addressed, municipal reports indicate 44 of the 827 bridges maintained by the municipality would have to be closed in the next 10 years.
At the proposed funding level, bridges will still have to be closed. North Kent Coun. Leon Leclair said municipal staff has been working with the Kent Federation of Agriculture to minimize the losses.
“We are finding some stuff, guys. We will lose some bridges; we can’t keep them all,” he said.
Wolting and council budget chair Art Stirling fielded questions from the public after the presentation, dealing with issues such as staffing levels, debt load and policing.
Wolting said the municipality, compared to pre-amalgamation staffing levels in 1997, is down about 178 full-time equivalent positions, when factoring in staff that had to be added due to provincial downloading. He added more efficiencies are being looked at.
Stirling said council turned down an OPP costing offer because of the issues observed in other municipalities.
“A number of other communities have gone through OPP costing in recent years. Some said no and some went with the OPP and regret the decision,” he said. “Once you go OPP, you can’t go back. You lose your fleet and your property.”
Wolting said municipal debt stands at $128 million, with $68 million of that coming from the Public Utilities Commission.
He said the municipality stopped borrowing in 2009 and is paying down its debt, having paid off $12 million in principal last year alone.
Wolting added there are critics out there who think Chatham-Kent is one step away from Detroit, and that’s just not true.
“Chatham-Kent is not on the brink of bankruptcy,” he said. “We are in a position that would make any large corporation jealous.”
Standard & Poor’s rating service gave Chatham-Kent an “A-plus” rating in September of 2013.
Council enters the number crunching in earnest beginning Monday night.