Council tweaks tax hike on first night

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The budget committee of Chatham-Kent council opened its 2020 deliberations Tuesday evening without a $434,000 tax deferral, while discussing a bicycle trail and several staffing positions.

The proposed tax increase did dip slightly, as administration altered funding allocations to several new staff positions and the committee opted to change how the positions are being funded this year, dropping the increase to by less than 0.3 per cent.

Administration announced the cost of a new human resources staffer will come from internal savings.

Salaries for an engineering technologist, a business solutions analyst and an engineering manager were shifted under asset management plan funding, after lengthy explanations by administration.

In all, the changes pulled about $434,000 out of the base budget.

What was briefly on the chopping block, at least in the minds of a handful of councillors, was the completion of the CK Trails’ Greenfield Global Trail west of Chatham.

The budget committee heard from Angelo Ligori, a senior advisor with Greenfield Global in Chatham in an early deputation. That firm pledged $250,000 over five years to help pay for the $4.25-million development of a 21.5-kilometre stretch of trial that loops around the Thames River from the western edge of Chatham to the Prairie Siding Bridge and back again.

The first phase was completed last year, involving three kilometres of multi-use trail on Grand River Line. The second is to be done this year along Riverview Drive between Keil Drive and Bloomfield Road.

Ligori warned the committee that if the municipality doesn’t handle its end of the funding commitment due to cost savings, that would impact Greenfield’s commitment.

“I understand there are tough decisions to make. We promised $250,000 over five years,” he said. “We plan to hold that commitment, but it’s tied to a five-year plan. If we miss one year, we’ll miss $50,000. I personally had to work very hard all the way to our board members to get that money.”

Funding for the Greenfield Trail was also received from the Ontario government and the federal Great Trail group. CK Trails and the municipality’s engineering department are also partners in the project.

But administration told the budget committee there are no senior levels of funding for the third and final phase of the trail that will complete the loop.

East Kent Coun. Steve Pinsonneault made a motion to pull the trail spending out of the base budget.

Jeff Bray, manager of parks and open spaces for the municipality, said the stretch of road, according to information indicated by apps used by area cyclists and walkers, is the most actively used area for those recreational activities in the municipality by far, even though there is no completed trail along its entire length.

West Kent Coun. Melissa Harrigan believes the trail is crucial, especially for safety reasons.

Pinsonneault’s motion was soundly defeated 14-4; the trail remains in the budget.

The night began with the committee hearing from several deputations before beginning its examination of the draft budget.

With the proposed tax increase of 4.99 per cent in the draft budget and pledges from various members of council that such a hike is unacceptable, groups spoke out both for and against holding the increase at that level.

Kelly Gottschling, executive director of the Mental Health Network, urged council to not short-change supports for vulnerable citizens.

“We have more people living in poverty and living with addictions than ever before,” she said. “I spend my days with some amazing people living with mental illness or addiction. They are at risk of being homeless every day. It is impossible for people to get well when they don’t have a secure place to live or they are eating out of dumpsters. If I had to pay a 4.99-per-cent tax increase, I’d gladly do so to help my friends.”

Chatham resident Rob Hakker took the opposite view, telling council no one is paying enough attention to spending.

“There are a lot of good things in Chatham-Kent, but there has to be oversight and fiduciary responsibility,” he said.

Hakker said assessment does not cover the growth in municipal spending from year to year.

“You just keep adding taxes and taxes and taxes. You’ve been doing this for 20 years,” he said. “When you keep repeating the same thing over and over again and expect a different result, that’s the definition of insanity.”

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