Information overload during budget deliberations



Chatham-Kent council opened the front door to wrapping up the budget process Thursday, only to get buried under a pile of information Wednesday night.

The night began with budget chair Derek Robertson announcing council had cut $629,000 from the budget in closed session discussions Tuesday night. That dropped the potential increase to 1.73% from 2.2%.

He also gave a notice of motion that council would have the authority at any time Thursday to adopt the budget.

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At that point, council spent the next four hours absorbing more information, specifically on policing and infrastructure.

Council spent more than 90 minutes learning about the Chatham-Kent Police Service and where it sits in terms of staffing levels and costs relative to other Ontario services.

In the end, Chief Dennis Poole said the service is seeking $438,000 in additional funding, a potential budget impact of 0.32%. The annual police budget is $29.4 million, and 88% of expenses is for personnel in terms of salary and benefits.

Poole explained that Chatham has 164 sworn officers and 68 civilian staff. It has 157 officers per 100,000 citizens, compared to a provincial average of 195 and a national average of 202.

He said the service sits roughly in the middle of the pack in large and small municipal services in Ontario.

In terms of compensation, Poole said officers are paid less than nurses and teachers, admitting they don’t have the multiple degrees.

“Some of our compensation is based on risk,” he said.

South Kent Coun. Frank Vercouteren said council received 12 detailed pages on police costs, and appreciated all the information. This is the same councilor who last September filed a Freedom of Information request in the fall for line-by-line police budget information.

Poole also discussed cost saving harmonies the service has achieved by working with the municipality on cost sharing for such things as fleet procurement. Wallaceburg Coun. Carmen McGregor found that enlightening, especially in the wake of public comments suggesting the municipality seek an OPP costing review.

“All your integrated services you have combined with this community, you have demonstrated the importance of having a local service here,” she said. “This is more than we could ever ask for. I appreciate every detail of this report.”

In terms of detail, administration delivered it again for infrastructure.

One night after South Kent Coun. Trevor Thompson proposed to slash $2.6 million out of the infrastructure budget, staff warned of long-term implications of such a move.

Gerry Wolting, general manager of corporate services, and Thomas Kelly, general manager of infrastructure and engineering services, tag teamed to say the move would add up to more than $25 million in funding shortfalls over the next decade.

They added that the municipality has to follow an asset management plan and provide details to the province. Deviation from the plan in terms of funding infrastructure could impact the ability to land grant money, they said.

Infrastructure is currently funded at about 76%. If council adopted administration’s proposal, which equates to about half a percent of the remaining 1.73% potential tax increase, Wolting said the funding level would reach 79%.

If council were to yank the $2.6 million out of the budget, he said it would drop funding to 75%.

Several councillors questioned whether it was feasible to think the municipality would ever get to 100% infrastructure funding.

“This will forever be evolving. If inflation hits, we’ll never be fully funded,” East Kent Coun. Steve Pinsonneault said. “This will just keep setting us back.”
“When we talk about reaching full funding, I maintain we are never going to reach any kind of full funding. And when you assume that, you have to say to yourself, what is a reasonable approach to chase that thing you will never catch,” Wallaceburg Coun. Jeff Wesley said. “How much can we expect the taxpayers to afford? There is a breaking point. We have to take a reasonable approach.”

But other folks at the table backed administration’s funding plan.

Mayor Randy Hope said slicing has become an obsession for some people and can send the wrong message.

“It we want to roll everything up and cut, cut, cut, we might as well roll the blanket over us and call us dead,” he said. “We have to quit beating this infrastructure thing.”

“I definitely want to keep chasing this tail with the hopes we can catch it,” West Kent Coun. Bryon Fluker said. “I think this tail has to be caught. We have to keep this infrastructure funding in place.”

Through all the debate and questions, council didn’t shave or pad the budget. Instead, it will wait until Thursday, at the earliest, to act.


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