By Bob Bruton, Barrie Examiner
So who’s counting?
Barrie homeowners are, as city council increased their property taxes by 3.3% this year on Monday night.
That adds $119 to a typical Barrie home assessed at $277,000; it had taxes of $3,625 last year. With that blended, municipal/education tax increase this property’s 2013 tax total will be $3,744.
“The financial pressures are significant,” said Mayor Jeff Lehman. “All of us would have liked to see a lower number.”
Council made a number of reductions to the budget Monday, lowering the increase from 3.5%. It began at 4.1% on Jan. 21.
“It was a very hard process, from 4.1 to 3.3,” said Coun. Peter Silveira.
Ed Archer, Barrie’s general manager of community operations, provided council with a list of nearly $400,000 worth of possible cuts last week.
On Monday, council saved $115,000 by adjusting expenditures on the city’s fleet of vehicles (dump trucks, flatbed trucks), found another $90,000 in salary gapping — money saved when city employees leave and aren’t replaced right away — saved $63,000 by adjusting service levels in the new transit plan and cut $45,000 from the city’s community improvement plan program.
“This is an unusual budget year. There is a little pain from past years,” Lehman said
The mayor noted 1.2% of the tax increase is for debt from previous years of economic stimulus, and that socking away another $2.2 million this year in reserves, for roads and infrastructure, is another 1.1% of the tax hike.
“That’s a 1% operating cost increase, year over year, in service delivery,” he said. “That’s very, very low.”
The 2013 operating budget/capital plan was approved unanimously by council Monday, the third consecutive budget passed that way.
“Every single (city) department touched the budget and there was a tremendous amount of work done,” said Coun. Michael Prowse, chairman of Barrie’s finance committee.
“At the end of it we have a fair and balanced budget, to move the corporation forward.”
Lehman noted there is money in the budget for Barrie’s fifth fire station, environmental work for Lake Simcoe, a new transit plan, refurbishing Lampman Lane Community Centre, the Duckworth Street/Highway 400 interchange and moving Lakeshore Drive back to the old CN Rail line.
This year there’s also funding for a new transit garage, road widening, rehab and reconstruction of city streets and Sandy Hollow landfill re-engineering.
Staff had again recommended ending the one free yearly trip Barrie residents enjoy to the landfill with a load of 100 kilograms or less, at a savings of $195,000. But councillors wouldn’t go for it, and that freebee continues.
But not every request was met.
Coun. Bonnie Ainsworth asked for another $500,000 this year for roadwork — repaving and planing. Last year the city spent $1 million on its road revitalization project, but only completed 14 of 22 roads identified.
Ainsworth wanted that list of roads that could not be scheduled within at least six years completed.
Staff looked at whether federal gas tax funding could be used, but concluded it should not.
Of the residential property tax bill, 49% pays for city services, 16% is for education and 35% is for the city’s service partners — the County of Simcoe, Barrie city police, Barrie Public Library, Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, Lake Simcoe Regional Airport and the conservation authorities.
Barrie homeowners also face other cost increases this year besides property taxes.
The budget includes a 7% hike in water rates and a 12% sewer rates increase. For the typical Barrie home, that equals another $49.
A household consuming 180 cubic metres of water in 2012 paid $277 for water and $323 for sewer charges, a total of $600. The 2013 water/sewer bill, based on the same consumption, would be $649.
Adding the blended 3.3% property tax increase and the water/sewer rate hike adds another $168 to household expenses this year.
Council asked its service partners to keep their budget increases to 3% or less this year.
The city police budget, for example, hires no new Barrie officers, no new civilian employees and offers no extra service beyond core policing.
It asks for a 3% increase in policing costs, to almost $44.9 million from nearly $43.6 million in 2012, a $1.3-million hike.
Barrie’s portion of Simcoe County’s budget drops by $1.2 million this year, savings that can be attributed to the provincial uploading of Ontario Works costs.
The $20.5 million Barrie is providing to the county helps pay for social services, paramedics, social housing, Simcoe County Museum and Archives.
This year’s Barrie fire department budget is $22.3 million, an increase from last year’s $20.2 million spending level. The 2013 fire budget includes $1.1 million relating to hiring 20 firefighters for new Fire Station #5.
But council delayed spending $1.2 million, over two years, for a new aerial platform truck, replacing an existing 75-foot one with a 100-foot model, to improve firefighters’ ability to respond to high-rise fires and other emergencies. Instead $400,000 will be spent in 2014, $800,000 in 2015.
The city has two aerial trucks and one in reserve, but the latter is 17 years old and it’s difficult to find parts. It takes about 16 months to get a new fire truck, once ordered.
Barrie’s total 2013 tax-rate based gross operating costs are $250.2 million, compared to $249.5 million budgeted last year. This includes $71.9 million for the salaries and benefits of 725 jobs.
This year’s budget includes a $4.1-million increase in salaries and benefits for city employees. This is due to negotiated increases for both CUPE and Barrie firefighters, as well as full-year costs for new city employees who started work last year.
The city is saving $12.2 million in its general operations budget this year, mostly because its final commitment to Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre’s expansion and cancer care centre is $2.5 million in 2013. Last year it was $16 million.
Lehman also said another $11 million in city debt has been cut this year, which improves the city’s fiscal future.
“This builds on more than $25 million of debt reduction through council’s changes to last year’s budget,” he said. “We need to do everything possible to limit the city’s reliance on debt for its capital plan, while still doing the critical work that the city needs.
“Now that the stimulus period is over, the city needs to cut back its capital plan and cut the amount of debt used to fund projects.”
Staff have said Barrie’s financial sustainability is declining. Past decisions to rely on debt financing are having a more significant impact on the city’s operating costs, now that this debt needs to be repaid. New debt this year will total $2.4 million
The city’s level of reserves and reserve funds are projected to drop by $62.4 million or 48% this year. This means user rates and development charges, as well as taxes, are not keeping pace with current or planned spending levels for capital works — even with capital spending being reduced to $129 million.
This year the city is increasing its contributions to reserves by $2.2 million.
The city has a 12-year plan to increase funding for rehab and renewal, and the 2013 capital budget is the second year of following this plan.
“It’s a document that adjusts some service levels while maintaining our assets and planning responsibly for the future,” Archer said.
City officials expect tax assessment growth of $1.5 million this year, as well as user fees and charges worth $17.1 million. The majority of fees and charges come from recreation/leisure programs, and transit services.
Ontario municipalities can’t budget for an operating deficit; the books must balance.
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