By Bob Bruton, Barrie Examiner
There’s more fiddling in the forecast for this year’s Barrie budget.
After nearly five hours of discussion Monday night, city councillors gave initial approval to a 3.5% property tax hike for homeowners.
But the vote wasn’t unanimous — with Couns. Alex Nuttall, Brian Jackson, Arif Khan and Peter Silveira opposed.
While four votes isn’t enough to defeat the 2013 operating budget/capital plan – council has 11 members — the tax numbers, and service levels, could change.
Nuttall says city staff is trying to find him some additional tax savings this week.
“I was originally hoping for 2.9(%) territory, but I don’t think that is going to be able to be done,” he said.
“But I’ve committed that if we get into 3.3 territory, then I will support the budget, and leave the transit enhancements in there.”
Barrie’s new transit plan is to begin in August, and there’s $691,000 in the operating budget to support it.
The new system will serve multiple transit hubs, at major destinations, in different parts of Barrie — replacing a radial system where all routes go to and from the downtown.
Routes will double up on major roads, so there will be 15-minute service on many of the city’s busiest streets, instead of the 30-minute service today.
Barrie Transit’s existing 21 routes will be replaced with 10 more efficient routes.
There’s also $9.1 million in the capital budget to construct the new transit garage on Welham Road. The total cost is $23.5 million.
“My concern was that in a year where we have certainly the highest tax increase since I have been on council, that we’d be doing service enhancements as we were cutting back (on other services),” Nuttall said. “I don’t believe there is support on council to take the transit out, so that would leave me in a position where I would continue to oppose the budget.”
The Ward 10 councillor says his commitment, when elected, was to keep tax increases in line with inflation.
Jackson tried to convince councillors Monday to support a hiring freeze at city hall, until the fourth quarter of 2013, to save $186,000.
Coun. Michael Prowse, chairman of the city finance committee, argued city salary gapping — money saved when city employees leave and aren’t replaced right away — was already budgeted at $960,000 this year.
This would push it to more than $1.1 million. Jackson’s motion lost, but the Ward 9 councillor said Wednesday that city staff are looking at other options for savings in the budget,
“I’ll be making my decision after I see them … to see what amendments can be made to it (the budget), and what else could be done,” he said.
“To make a greater change to the budget, for a greater reduction, to say under 3%, would take some significant work by council, with some possible serious repercussions to public service.”
Jackson says he is looking for an increase somewhere around 3%.
“If we come close to that next Monday, then I can give consideration to my support of the budget,” he said.
Silveira says he has supported the last two city budgets, but not this one.
“In my view, we were able to find the perfect tone between increases and affordability, while continuing to provide a fair level of services for our residents,” he said. “But this time, unfortunately and in my opinion, we are not able to find that perfect balance.”
While Silveira acknowledges the hard work city staff and councillors have done on the budget, he says more is needed.
“The current way we work is to set up the services we want and then find a way we can pay for it. But in this economy it is very difficult,” he said. “What I want to happen is to figure out not just the services that we want, but rather the services that we need, and then make these services as efficient as possible.”
Silveira says he will ask staff to provide a list of city assets and revenues, to help determine what needs to stay and what needs to go.
“We have lots of assets, but unfortunately some of these assets have turned into liabilities and (are) toxic for our economic health. The majority of our residents don’t want to keep pouring good money after bad,” he said, without being specific.
“I believe we have to target the liabilities to stop the financial bleeding,” Silveira added. “Doing this we will ultimately improve Barrie’s financial outlook.”
The Ward 5 councillor says he is working on some budget amendments for Monday’s meeting. Silveira says he is more than willing to support the budget if the property tax increase is 2.9% or less.
Khan says he’s looking to exhaust every opportunity to find efficiencies and alternate sources of revenue at city hall before final approval of the budget Monday.
“I had no unrealistic expectations that we could avoid a tax increase,” he said. “A tax increase will address the immediate challenge alone, and allow us to live another day.
“For the health of our city, we need to make a concerted effort to shift our thinking, create healthier financial habits and act responsibly. I would suggest that regular modest increases would have avoided any unnecessary harder-to-stomach increases.”
Khan, who was elected in the Ward 8 byelection late last year to replace Jennifer Robinson, said council will have some tough choices to make.
“I had a conversation with a local resident just the other day. He shared some valuable perspective. He encouraged me to ask people who were enraged by the idea of a tax increase of any sort to single out what service that they used regularly that they were willing to live without,” he said.
“It’s a tough but fair question. It essentially summarizes the question that council is faced with today.
“As ratepayers, we have wants and needs that we have come to expect from the city, and we also expect a high level of service. Myself included, we feel like we can never keep up.”
A 3.5% property tax increase would add about $124 to a typical Barrie home assessed at $277,000, which had taxes of $3,625 last year. With that blended, municipal/education tax increase this property’s 2013 tax total would be $3,749.
Of that residential property tax bill, 47% 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 besides property taxes this year.
The budget also includes a 7% hike in water rates and a 12% increase in sewer rates.
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, for a $600 total. The 2013 water/sewer bill, based on the same consumption, would be $649.
The 2013 operating budget/capital plan will be considered for final approval on Monday, Jan. 28.
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