Council bogs down on budget debate

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budget

The first night of the 2017 municipal budget deliberations roared out to a fast start, but somewhere took a left turn and became bogged down in familiar territory – small numbers.

Overall, council initially accomplished a great deal, but with ultimately no movement in the proposed 1.96 per cent tax increase.

After hearing from Chatham-Kent Police Chief Gary Conn on his service’s part of the budget, council aggressively tackled infrastructure spending, committing found money to fuel bridge maintenance.

It then broke to partake in the candlelight vigil outside of the Civic Centre in honour of the six victims of the Quebec City shooting Sunday.

And then the small stuff hit. Following four deputations, two of which focused on improvements at Ridgetown District High School’s sports field, council opted to try to deal with a request for funding for improvements to the field. It was a $75,000 price tag that was turned down 18 months ago by council, and turned into a quagmire Wednesday night.

East Kent Coun. David Van Damme wanted to address the issue immediately, citing the fact local expertise was on hand, as a member of the rejuvenation project committee was there. Mayor Randy Hope preferred to see all capitol issues dealt with at a later date to avoid confusion, and he eventually put forward a motion to defer, but it was defeated.

After debate, which consisted largely of proponents of the project echoing each other’s ideas, and opponents essentially repeating each other’s comments, council realized it didn’t have all the information it required to make a snap decision, so a motion to defer had to be brought forward again, leaving budget chairman Derek Robertson clearly frustrated. He had mentioned earlier in the evening that there was a possibility that this year’s budget would require only one night of deliberations.

“I was getting frustrated tonight. We’re ready to call the vote and then another hand goes up to ask a question,” he said.

Robertson said the slow process only shows that Chatham-Kent council is just too big to operate efficiently.

That sluggish progression followed some large steps at the beginning of the evening, however. Money municipal administration said was to be shaved off the initial draft budget due to new information coming forward was pumped into additional infrastructure funding.

Mike Turner, the municipality’s chief financial officer, said more accurate assessment growth contributed about a $250,000 increase to municipal funds.

Additional revenue from Entegrus and landfill hosting fees also contributed to decreased pressures on the budget. In the end, Turner said the funding represented a decrease of about $550,000 – about 0.37 per cent of the total budget.

That newfound cash was later poured into infrastructure funding to help maintain bridges in Chatham-Kent. It wasn’t alone.

A total of $3.5 million in one-time funds will be transferred from reserves for employment and labour relations to help fund bridge maintenance.

Nearly $700,000 in expiring debt money will be added to general lifecycle funding.

West Kent Coun. Bryon Fluker led the charge to focus the funds on infrastructure. He shaped his motion to not tie all funding to bridge maintenance, but instead asked that administration have the flexibility to allocate more than $1.4 million of the funds to infrastructure areas with the highest funding shortfalls.

“It takes the information we have and directs it. We’re not grabbing new money and adding it to the taxes,” Fluker said.

The funding injection doesn’t solve all of the municipality’s infrastructure issues. Thomas Kelly, general manager of infrastructure and engineering services, said the added funding results in about a $2.7 million annual increase in cash support to lifecycle funding, increasing annual funding to nearly $47 million. That represents only about 53 per cent of the necessary $88 million needed to fully fund lifecycle spending.

He added the $3.5 million is a one-time commitment. There is a three-year plan proposed to increase funding for bridges to the point no more would be closed. But that plan can be altered, he added, as funding increases will be required in 2018 and 2019 as well.

“We still have a divestment list. We’ll look at it in greater detail and see if there are some bridges in there we can permanently close,” he said.

Chatham Coun. Darrin Canniff worried bridges are getting too much attention.

“I don’t want, over the next three years, that all we are going to spend on is bridges,” he said.

He also praised where the budget is at this point, in terms of a potential tax increase under two per cent. Nearly three quarters of that amount is targeted on infrastructure.

The police budget came in with a proposed increase of 1.8 per cent. Conn said the increase was the lowest among comparable Ontario municipalities, with the highest being Timmins at more than five per cent.

Conn, and Diane Daly, chair of the police services board, stressed there would be no cuts to frontline service, but rather some enhancements. They credited the five-year agreement reached with the police association as a key reason why the budget increase is at its low level.

Hope, a member of the police service board, spread the credit around for the low increase.

“This is not just the police service board and the chief. This is the associations also understanding the needs of the community,” he said.

While not directly adding to the proposed tax increase this year, council did opt to increase spending slightly Wednesday evening, pulling $20,000 out of strategic reserves.

North Kent Coun. Joe Faas successfully lobbied for the money to go towards improvements at the Dresden street scape park near the community’s service centre. A total of $40,000 was to go to the project possibly next year, but Faas said only half the money would be needed if it was supplied in 2017.

“The Dresden community is looking forward to improving their downtown by improving their oasis-type park. It’s been an eyesore for a number of years and needs attention,” he said.

Faas added the community is committed to raising another $20,000, and already has $6,500 raised to date.

“They want to use this as Dresden’s project for Canada’s 150th birthday,” he said.

Council unanimously approved the motion.

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