Budget deliberations head to third night

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Nine hours of deliberations and a reduction in the proposed increase in the 2024 budget to 5.76 per cent wasn’t enough for nine councillors Wednesday night.

They defeated the eight members of council who believed the body had done all it could to tackle the first stage of this four-year budget.

With several councillors cautiously optimistic the budget would pass, as no one spoke just prior to the vote to say they weren’t happy with the proposed increase, they will now return to council chambers Thursday evening to try again.

Two days ago, the budget committee of council began facing a proposed 6.57-per-cent tax hike. After four and a half hours Tuesday night, that number was down to 6.03 per cent.

And after Wednesday night, it dipped to 5.76 per cent.

That wasn’t good enough for the majority of council.

Wednesday night’s effort was a tough slug, especially at the outset. One night after a fast start to trimming from the proposed municipal budget increase, the committee waded into the weeds.

They began the night by spending more than 40 minutes discussing what ifs in terms of funding from senior levels of funding for prenatal nutrition and the Healthy Babies initiative.

West Kent Coun. Melissa Harrigan put forward motions to add funding back into the budget to cover these initiatives, only to withdraw them.

The funds for the Prenatal Nutrition Program totalled about $83,000 and would not be an impact until 2026 and 2027 in the four-year budget plan.

However, April Rietdyk, general manager of health and family services, and Teresa Bendo, director of public health, stressed the federal government is changing its model for the program in 2026. Both expected it to still be in place

Rietdyk also explained the provincial public health standards are going through a “significant” review over the next year, which includes the Healthy Babies initiative.

Forty plus minutes into the budget session delivered no changes. That trend continued. 

Council spent another 40 or so minutes asking questions but not ultimately putting forward any changes to the budget as they discussed items that included Service Ontario offices and fire and emergency services.

The first trimming took place when South Kent Coun. Anthony Ceccacci successfully proposed to move an additional $400,000 from the anticipated 2023 budget surplus into the 2024-27 budget, adding $100,000 to each of the next four years.

That motion passed 16-1.

Council, led by Ceccaci, then opted to reduce and delay tax increases intended to fill up municipal reserves.

Despite lauding the idea of adding 0.5 per cent in tax increases annually to add to reserves, council ultimately opted to delay reaching that level of commitment.

Instead, they saved more than $900,000 in increases over the four years of the budget by shaving points off the increases in the coming years.

“This is just slowing the practice down a bit. We’re still putting extra in. It’s just going up a little slower,” Ceccacci said.

His motion passed 14-3.

At that point in time, council added to the budget on multiple occasions. They put in $22,000 to increase the operating season for local splash pads and added funds to improve programming at municipal libraries.

Council, by a vote of 12-5, opted to add $59,000 back to the budget for 2024, and $3,000 in each of the final three years of the four-year budget process.

They also chose to waive library late fees, which means an estimated $8,000 in lost revenue per year.

Retiring head librarian Tania Sharpe said a pilot project waiving late fees on returns for teens and children saw increased use at the libraries. She anticipates library traffic will continue to increase with this decision.

Council then went into closed session for more than an hour and returned to opt to take $500,000 out of the 2023 police service surplus and apply it against the 2024 budget increase.

The mayor, who sits on the Police Services Board, put forward the motion.

“This does not impact the police budget at all. It doesn’t impact the new officers coming in at all,” Darrin Cannif said.

His motion passed 16-1.

That set the stage for Canniff, budget chair Brock McGregor and others to commend one another on getting to where they were in terms of reducing the proposed increase to 5.76 per cent.

But nine councillors weren’t happy, and now all 17 of them are to return Thursday night to try again.

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