News Local

Barrie's service partners costly

Bob Bruton

By Bob Bruton, Barrie Examiner

Barrie city council will hear from its service partners Monday as their 2017 budgets are presented. City of Barrie graphic

Barrie city council will hear from its service partners Monday as their 2017 budgets are presented. City of Barrie graphic

Nearly a third of this year's property tax bill for city homeowners could go to its service partners, which include Barrie police and the County of Simcoe.

The question is whether these budgets can or will be lowered by city councillors.

If that's going to happen, any seeds will be planted Monday – when the police board, county officials and the Barrie Public Library board make budget presentations to city council.

Coun. Michael Prowse, chairman of the finance and corporate services committee, says these budgets are always a challenge because council has no direct control of them.

“We rely on others to do the critical work in challenging costs and increases in year-over-year budgets. From my perspective that has never sat very well with me,” he said. “Some of the costs we face are mandated and we have little choice, but others we should have more say in.”

At this stage in the budget process, Barrie homeowners are facing a 3.76% property tax increase, which would hike taxes by $145 to $3,992 for the average city home assessed at $302,000. Last year property taxes on that home were $3,847.

“The (service partner) presentations do provide council with the opportunity to ask questions,” Prowse said, “but if council really wants to change the end result of a nearly 4% tax increase, we will need to do more than just ask questions.

“We will need some intestinal fortitude and some amendments to the budget itself to bring the budget increase down.”

Coun. Barry Ward has sat as a city representative with many of these service partners over the years.

“(Their) budgets generally do face the scrutiny of their own board members who try to keep the increases to a minimum,” he said. “Those groups are facing many of the same pressures as the city, so I am appreciative of the fact the requested increases are so minimal.

“If we are to lower the 3.76% increase, it will be up to council to find those savings in our own portion of the budget this year.”

Barrie's service partners also include Lake Simcoe Region and Nottawasaga Valley conservation authorities, Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, Lake Simcoe Regional Airport, Tourism Barrie and the physician recruitment task force.

Including the police board, county and library board, the total service partner budget asks for $1.1 million more this year, up 1.42%.

But all's not equal at budget time.

Barrie's largest single operating expense is traditionally policing, and this year is no exception. It represents approximately 22% of the city’s net tax levy.

The 2017 operating/capital police budget is nearly $50.38 million, or another $1.56 million, a 3.2% increase.

The lion's share of the police budget, 97.5%, is for the salaries, benefits and overtime of officers and civilian employees. That's estimated to total almost $47.5 million in 2017, up from $45.7 million last year.

City police have a force of 237 officers and 108 civilian; the 2017 budget calls for an increase of three new civilian positions.

New officers have not been hired since 2012, and one reason is what's called 'civilianization'.

“Wherever possible, positions previously held by a police officer are being replaced with a civilian member,” said police board chairman Jim Dickie, in a Nov. 8 letter to the city. “This strategy allows for the redeployment of sworn members (police officers) into the community.”

Capital expenditures in this year's police budget total $1.2 million, an increase over last year's amount of $850,000.

There's also $400,000 for a future first-responders campus that would involve police being housed with other emergency services, and $88,000 for a radio system upgrade.

Both those amounts were required by city council, according to the police board's 2017 budget document.

Prowse noted cost pressures on police, the county and library are significant, especially when compounded with the labour cost increases being experienced with the city itself.

“While each increase has its merits when presented in isolation, I think we have to be troubled when you look at the historic cost increases,” he said. “In less than 15 years, for example, we have seen the police budget go from less than $20 million per year to this year hitting $50 million!

“In pure dollars as presented, the police budget is projected to go up $1.5 million in a single year. I cannot see how this is sustainable on the back of property taxpayers, and I think we must continue to push to keep our costs low while we search for new options to create other revenue streams.”

Ward said the city can request cuts to portions of the service partner budgets, and has done so in the past - a few years ago some of the requested funding in the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority budget, for example.

“And, more than a decade ago, we cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Barrie Police Services budget, although I seem to remember the police subsequently overspent their budget by that exact amount and we were forced to cover the shortfall,” he said.

“This year, however, all of the various partners came in within the city’s guidelines for increases so it is extremely unlikely we are going to look for savings in these budgets. The one exception is police, which is marginally over the guidelines, but not enough to set off any alarms bells.”

The County of Simcoe provides land ambulance, long-term care, social housing, children and community services, as well as Ontario Works, to the city.

The city's share of county services are to drop to $19.29 million this year from $19.87 million in 2016, down almost $600,000 or by 3%.

Most of the county services to Barrie will cost more this year, but this has been offset by a $1.3 million drop in city's share of Ontario Works – as the province continues to upload this expense from local governments.

Despite these numbers, Prowse said he has concerns there too.

“The county certainly has been a good news, bad news situation in so much as the provincial uploading has created some relief,” he said, “but in many cases that relief is simply being eaten up by the expansion and spread of other services - such as the paramedic service, which again this year is planned to increase.”

Barrie's share of land ambulance costs is $6.1 million in 2017, up from $5.86 million last year.

Barrie Public Library's 2017 budget is to go to just more than $8 million from $7.9 million last year, a 1.41% or $111,651 increase.

Monday's service partner presentations are the next steps in Barrie's 2017 business and capital plan process, which sets property taxes and service levels.

A staff report and councillors' deliberations on the budget are scheduled for Feb. 6, with council approval Feb. 13.


Barrie residential property tax bill

2017 (projected)

City services – 55%

Service partners – 31%

Education – 14%

Source: City of Barrie


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