City Executive Budget Committee cuts council some slack and reduces their ask by .58% Council hasn’t taken that deal – yet.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON

January 15, 2014

There was a bit of a buzz in the Council Chamber Tuesday afternoon – the significant seven were gearing up for their first crack at the 2014 budget and given that they were going into an election year they both wanted to get it right and at the same time make sure they took care of the people in their wards.

Ward 3 Councillor John Taylor was the first one to approach the pork barrel – we will come back to that.

In a phrase – the city wants to spend $134,513,000 – up $2, 155,000 from 2013- and they are going to do that without adding to the staff compliment which now sits at 1311 with both full and part-time people.  Staff salary increases is to be limited to 1% in 2014.

The document being debated was the recommendations from the city’s Executive Budget Committee (EBC) which consists of the city manager, his two general managers, the Director of Finance Joan Ford,  Transportation Director Bruce Zvaniga, HR Manager Roy Male and Corporate Strategic Initiatives Executive Director Allan Magi.

At a meeting in December city manager Jeff Fielding put a number on the table that had his people looking for an increase that was 4.66% over 2013 or $6,106,ooo  – you could almost hear the gulping on the other side of the horseshoe.

City staff came up with a budget increase of 4.66% over 2013.  Council pushed back and it was cut to 4.13%  Service changes could add an additional 3.66%.

The city has a couple of whoppers it has to deal with.  The money it has to fork over to OMERS to cover the staff pension requirements got increased – taxpayers don’t get to say “no thanks” to this ask.  OMERS found it wasn’t fully funded to meet the draw hat would be made so they slipped in a special levy.

Insurance premiums have increased and there has been more than expected in the way of assessment appeals that were lost and vacancy rebates.

The city’s infrastructure work is not up to date and more money is needed to fix the roads before they become so bad they have to be rebuilt.  There is a half a percentage point ($643,000) tax levy dedicated to infrastructure that the city manager wants to raise to three-quarters of a percentage point.

Being added is $815,000 in spending which will get covered by additional revenue from the growth of assessment revenue.

Hayden Recreation Centre will get $375,000

Alton Library $295,000

Transit service for Hayden High School – this one won’t be a forever cost if the service is not well used.

Operating costs for water play features in three community parks: $49,000

Roads, Parks and Information technology growth: $52,000.

Growth in the city’s property assessment has come to an end.  The spending days have to come to an end as well.

The gravy days for Burlington are now at an end.  Assessment growth has plummeted.  In 2002 the weighted assessment growth was 3.69% – we are now at .58%   The big cheque days for the developers has come to an end.

The Executive Budget Committee recommended four areas for expansion:  Heritage is to get a full-time Planner – if the Heritage Conservation District gets approved in principle that planer will be very busy.

Heritage Burlington will get $167,000 of which $64,000 is a onetime amount.

Culture has been given a lot of attention; the Cultural Action Plan has been approved in principle – next step for that is an Implementation plan which will require a full-time Manager of Cultural Services (think $128,000) and lastly $36,000 for the community garden initiative Burlington Green got off the ground two years ago.  Agriculture has worked itself south of the rural urban divide.

The Burlington Economic Development Corporation is in for $275,000 for more studies – they want to revise their business model – what business?  That crowd has delivered one cock-up after another in the past two years.  They turfed the Executive Director and then added a significant chunk of change to the cost of the severance package with some ill-timed comments from the chair.  The movement of that mouth is reputed to have cost the city an additional $10k.

The city feels it needs to add crossing guards and an additional crossing guard supervisor to the staffing list. And the final increase to the tax levy for the city’s portion of the cost to rebuild the Joseph Brant Hospital is due to come on-line this year.

There is also a service called One Call that the city can’t get out of which is going to cost us $111,000 this year and probably an ongoing amount for the service that has to do with knowing where anyone is going to dig to ensure that they don’t hit hydro lines, gas lines or anything else that is underground.  when the service was mentioned at a Council Stranding Committee meeting Roads and Park Maintenance Director Cathy Robinson said there wasn’t much the city could do – it was being mandated by the province and we were stuck with it.

Looked at from a high level – the budget for 2014 looks something like this:

This is what the Executive Budget Committee proposed to Council early in December. City Manager Jeff Fielding called it a status quo budget. Council wasn’t quite on for that much.

Staffing has held firm:  1131 people of which 865 are full-time and 251 part-time – holding those numbers in an election year is no small feat.  Kudos on holding that line.

Staffing was kept at the 2013 compliment and salary increases will be limited to 1%.   That will keep the rate payers happy.

While not included in the Executive Budget Committee recommendations there are some suggestions Council can consider if they are looking for ways to cut the budget.

Limit overtime

Remove one leaf pickup south of the QEW ($65,000) and one north of the QEW ($70,000)

Revise the sidewalk snow plowing program ($27,000(

Convert 10% of the passive parks to naturalized areas ($24,000)

Eliminate enhanced maintenance of grass sports fields ($40,000)

A reduction in the bus cleaning contract ($100,000)

Staff provides a business case for each of these options which will get debated at the budget meetings.

Council members are currently going through the budget books, line by line for some of them, and picking items they want more information on.  They then write-up short notes on items they wish to debate.  When all the requests are in they get debated.  It is at this point that Council members push for their pet projects and where they take positions they will want to use in the forthcoming election.

Each has to figure out where they are with their electorate.  If you were wondering why none of the Council members, except for the Mayor, has yet to file nomination papers, perhaps this will help: once you file papers you are in the race and you have to begin taking a position on matters.  And the budget, which determines the taxes people will pay, is a major matter.

When the budget is decided upon watch for the different political positions to become evident.  Ward 2 Councillor Marianne Meed Ward, who chaired the Budget meeting was sounding much more “financially fluent” than she normally does, may begin her 2018 campaign for Mayor if the budget fits her longer term agenda.

Will this Council save or spend?  The city manager is turning out to be a bit of a spender – does Council want to encourage this approach?

There is $44,000 that can be saved from the tax levy if the transit service for the Hayden High students is paid for out of the Provincial Gas Tax funding – these are monies , gas taxes, the province passes along to the municipalities.

The Fire department wants four more firefighters ($361,000); a proposed increase in the dedicated Capital Infrastructure Renewal levy from .50% to .75% would add $964,000. Not being recommended for this year.

Community Development Halton is in for $86,000 – Ward 3 Councillor John Taylor is pushing hard for this one.  He will probably get his way; what he is prepared to give to get his way is unknown.

Sound of Music wants $44,000 – they argue that they bring in tons of spending to the city.  Taylor wants to see their books – again, before he gives them as much as a dime.

The Museum Board wants a Special Events Assistant ($36,000)

Other places to spend that are also not recommended by the EBC include:

Restoring Transit resources: $1 to $2.8 million.

Increased money for storm response $747,000

Phase in the OMERS contribution which would stretch out the length of time we have to pay that big lump sum charge they hit the city with.

Jiggle the amount of money we take as a levy for the hospital will cut  $300,000 this year but that amount will have to come from somewhere next year.

City manager wonders why so much time is being spent over a half a percentage point difference in budget proposals.  Is it worth a full month of expensive staff time.  It’s called DEMOCRACY people having their say.

If you look at budget scenarios chart again you will see that the difference between what staff first proposed, the status quo number, and what they came back with after council pushed back,  is less than half a percentage point.  What’s the big deal – live with it, it’s not a lot of money and the city has healthy reserves with debt permitted at 12.5% of net revenue currently at 8.4%

Having to find an additional $60 million to pay for the hospital upgrade pushes Burlington close to its self-imposed debt limits.

The hospital levy does edge us very close to that 12.5% of net revenue debt level – which is self-imposed – the province would let us go to 20% +.  What neither staff or council underline is that the hospital levy will continue to come out of taxpayers pockets – they will just call it something else.

Tax increases each year of this term of office.   Comes in at more than the 10% Mayor Goldring promised.  Watch for an explanation as to what he really meant when he made the promise.

But look at the chart with the tax increases each year of this term – that’s where the real story on this budget is.  In the first three years of the term tax increases totaled 6.63% – add in the 3.20 proposed for 2014 and you get to 9.83% over the four-year term, which keeps the tax increases below that magic 10% number the Mayor, and truth be told, most members of his Council  hung their hats on.  Add in the 2.96% we are scheduled to give the hospital and we are at 12.79%

Now Council members will say, frequently, that the hospital levy doesn’t count – but it does because what is now the hospital levy is never going to go away.  They have plans to spend that sum right through till 2031 and beyond.  When bureaucrats get their hands on a portion of your money – they don’t let it ever get back to you.

Assuming the proposed budget gets passed – and that isn’t an assumption you want to bet on – here is where your tax dollars are spent.

The first time Canadians were hit with an Income Tax was to pay for World War I – and we’ve been paying an income tax ever since.  The hospital levy is money that will always go to the city – get used to it.

It was a full session, the Community and Corporate The first time Canadians were hit with an Income Tax was to pay for World War I – and we’ve been paying an income tax ever since.  The hospital levy is money that will always go to the city – get used to it.Services Committee got through the high level overview in close to record time.  You could almost see the Council members feeling their oats.

The one area that sort of threw Council members was the comment from the city manager on the amount of time being spent on the budget.  He wanted to see as much as a month taken out of the process, arguing that far too much staff time is being taken up with relatively small amounts.

What the bureaucrat forgets is that those small amounts represent a service that people expect and want some say in.

City Manager Jeff Fielding pointed out that the Region has its budget wrapped up in December and that Burlington will still be at it in the middle of March. 

The Region has a billion dollar budget Fielding points out – but, as Mayor Goldring pointed out – they don’t have the public delegations that municipalities have.  Also Burlington basically packed it in early in December.

Councillor Taylor didn’t like the idea of the time spent on the budget being shortened.  He pointed out that the budget books were just given to them last Friday.

The schedule right now calls for the Capital budget and the Current budget to be handled at different times.  It was suggested both could be done at the same time which would cut out a few days.

Comments from the bureaucrats suggesting that the politicians spend less time on how they spend the dollars they ask citizens to pay in taxes are a hint that perhaps the political process isn’t fully understood or appreciated by the bureaucrats.

 

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3 comments to City Executive Budget Committee cuts council some slack and reduces their ask by .58% Council hasn’t taken that deal – yet.

  • John P.

    A Heritage Planner is not a justifiable full time position. The city can use the existing planning staff which will be seeing less workload.

  • Roger

    I wonder how the mayor and council will defend an increase well above 10% – remember the promise. Councillor Sharman came to council to take in cost – nearly 15% increase in cost – he is silent on this one – the hospital levy which will be transformed into a city slush fund – is it a tax or is it not a tax – if I do not get a choice in paying it – tax. My thoughts we convert the hospital levy to the legal defense fund for the pier. At the point I can neither believe what council can either say or do on cost – however control does not seem to be the word of the day

  • Bill Pruner

    Is there a need for the same amount of planning staff if new developments are declining? Why not re-allocate any surplus planners onto the new heritage files?

    Why even have an economic development department if all you need is somebody to go and buy some more reports that are typically generic in nature and say the same old things.

    Is Taylor trying to buy votes with $86K for another social program that can be accommodated for virtually zero dollars by simply utilizing the city’s infrastructure currently in place. Do we need duplication of all social service programs?

    There, I just saved the city about $1M per annum. You are most welcome.

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