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Debate begins on new operating budget, capital plan 0

Bob Bruton

By Bob Bruton, Barrie Examiner

Brad McGrady stops to admire the beautiful ice sculptures which were part of Barrie’s Winterfest in 2010. The city is looking at spending less on the ice sculptures as part of the 2013 operating budget. (Mark Wanzel File Photo)

Brad McGrady stops to admire the beautiful ice sculptures which were part of Barrie’s Winterfest in 2010. The city is looking at spending less on the ice sculptures as part of the 2013 operating budget. (Mark Wanzel File Photo)

A little more here, a little less there.

That’s what Barrie residents could get for this year’s property tax increase.

Councillors will begin formally debating a 2013 operating budget/capital plan Jan. 21 which includes several service changes for the projected 4.1% hike in property/education taxes.

Coun. Michael Prowse, chairman of the city finance committee, says the document is a good starting point for councillors.

“I believe that staff have done a very good job of identifying some minor reductions and efficiencies that while relatively small dollars, add up to some significant savings,” he said.

“While I believe all of those reductions impact the services we provide, I think in general the public will not notice the impact of these reductions.”

City staff are proposing long lists of service reductions or fee hikes worth almost $1.72 million in savings this year.

They include a 3% fee increase for adult use of sports fields, reducing enforcement of the yard maintenance bylaw in summer, spending less on the Downtown Countdown (new Year’s Eve celebration), hiring fewer summer students, eliminating the GO shuttle bus, not increasing downtown snow removal levels and spending less on Winterfest ice sculptures.

The free, one-time trip to Sandy Hollow landfill for residents with less than 100 kilograms of junk is once again on the chopping block. Axing the 24,800 free loads would save $195,000 annually — although Prowse doesn’t support losing the free trips.

This year’s operating budget also includes six new permanent positions, some resulting from legislated requirements.

“In general most of the positions are either legislated or revenue neutral, but certainly I believe a couple need to be reviewed or cancelled,” Prowse said.

City staff are also proposing a pilot project for mattress recycling, costing $80,000, to keep mattresses out of the landfill. This project wouldn’t begin until the third quarter of 2013, and could cost $130,000 to $160,000 annually. But recycling mattresses could save the city $260,000 a year, staff say.

There are a number of new programs — a comprehensive stormwater management master plan, a 15-year plan to prepare for the emerald ash borer, a destructive invasive species, and work on the city’s closed dumps (mostly along Bunkers and Dyments creeks).

And there’s more than $690,000 for Barrie’s new transit plan, slated to begin this year. Instead of a single-hub system with buses all going to the downtown station, there will be several city transit hubs. There will also be 15-minute service on most city routes; the Bayfield Street bus is the only one with that regularity now.

Eliminating trapping fee refunds is being proposed, and would save $20,000 annually. The refunds are worth 50% of the cost of trapping and removing skunks and raccoons from residential properties. But city staff say this is a historic practice, and a responsibility of the property owners, not the general taxpayer.

The 4.1% increase in property taxes Barrie homeowners face this year would add $148 to a typical home assessed at $277,000. Its 2012 property taxes were $3,625. If council approves the 4.1% tax increase (blended — municipal/education), the 2013 tax total would be $3,773 for that property.

Prowse says that increase is too much.

“First, I don’t believe a 4.1 % tax increase will be acceptable to our residents or to council, for that matter,” he said. “It is still early in the business plan process, but based on my initial review I think council is going to have to roll up our sleeves if we hope to reduce the initial tax increase as presented.

“In addition, I think we need to do some additional work as it relates to our capital plan. Strategic reductions on some projects can alleviate some of the need for the increase.”

City homeowners are also facing water and sewer rate increases this year. On a typical home consuming 180 cubic metres annually, it would cost $16 more for water and $33 more for sewer charges, a combined 8% increase, or another $49.

That same household paid $277 for water and $323 for sewer charges last year, for a $600 total. The water/sewer costs this year, based on the same consumption, will be $649 if council approves these rates.

Combined with the property tax increase ($148), the water/sewer hike ($49) would equal another $197 for the typical Barrie household.

Prowse says difficult choices are ahead for Barrie councillors.

“I have said it the last couple of years and I will repeat my message. The ‘low-hanging fruit’ opportunities to reduce spending in the business plan (budget) have been used up in past years,” he said. “Choices we make as council will change the services we provide our residents or will change the taxes we charge our residents and it’s that balance we all struggle with.”

This year’s city police budget asks for a 3% increase in costs, to almost $44.9 million from nearly $43.6 million in 2012, a $1.3-million hike. It hires no new officers or civilian staff.

Other costs include new debt charges of $313,000 for Lake Simcoe Regional Airport’s expansion and the Allandale Waterfront GO Station platform of $275,000, and another $169,000 for library costs.

These increases are partially offset by lower city costs with Simcoe County of $1.2 million, mostly from uploading Ontario Works costs to the province.

bob.bruton@sunmedia.ca

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Breakdown of possible service changes

• 3% fee increase for adult use of sports fields

• reducing enforcement of the yard maintenance bylaw in summer

• spending less on the Downtown Countdown (New Year’s Eve celebration)

• hiring fewer summer students

• eliminating the GO shuttle bus

• not boosting downtown snow removal levels

• less cash on Winterfest sculpture

• cancelling the free, one-time trip to Sandy Hollow landfill for residents with less than 100 kilograms of junk

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