Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
May 17, 2024
14° Mostly Cloudy
December 12, 2023
Volume 193 No. 50

Budget Heroics: Councillors pore over every line item

<p>(Gazette file photo)</p>
(Gazette file photo)

It is a tough calling.

Staff and councillors waded through over 300 pages of proposals, plans, and projects, listened to three days of presentations, and spent all day, every day last week deliberating.

The goal? To reduce a proposed tax hike of 10.7 per cent. In the end, Council trimmed the $120 million capital budget to $116.2 million. To do so, it resisted the urge to sequester monies in a reserve fund on a number of occasions — monies that come from the operations budget and so are directly linked to the tex levy.

It approved an operations budget of $75.2 million to land on a tax increase of 5.4 per cent after the 1.75% projected growth of the tax base is taken into account.

Council will need to raise $50.1 million in property taxes next year. The hikes will come in April.

Rate-supported budget

On Tuesday, Council approved the 2024 water and wastewater budget, $11.7 million for operations and $10.7 million for capital projects. Water rates are fixed until 2026. It noted that “in accordance with the Development Charges Act of 1997, it is Council’s clear intention that any excess capacity provided [by ongoing waterworks projects] will be paid for by future Development Charges.”

Next year’s projects include underground water and wastewater network reconstruction in Picton, the lion’s share of the capital budget — $9.7 million.

“In terms of Main Street, there’s key infrastructure there. It’s a trunk line that’s old, cast iron pipes with lead joints, so that project was part of the plan,” said Director of Water and Wastewater Services Don Caza.

Tax-supported budget

On Wednesday, councillors examied capital budget items: roads, equipment and buildings. Roadworks asked for $14.8 million for maintenance and renewal. Councillors asked why some roads got more attention than others. Adam Goheen, Director of Operations, explained that preventative maintenance is everything. Staff need to ensure that those roads in the right condition to be preserved in the long run get the maintenance they need right away. A new $25 million program that looks one hundred years to the future is being phased in over the next five years.

“The best use of your money in the early years,” said Mr. Goheen, “is to preserve the roads and buy us time. Then we can start rolling in some of the worst roads and then it’ll be a combination of the two in the future.”

County Road 49 is slated for $2 million worth of culvert replacement, part of a display of commitment that will enhance applications to the province for the $32 million required to rebuild this essential highway. Raising community funds to the tune of $1.7 million, however, will be a challenge.

The H. J. McFarland nursing home, now 50 years old, is slated for reconstruction, but the County is still awaiting an announcement of provincial funding for the $97.4 million project. That sum makes up a giant piece in the budget pie chart, but only as a placeholder for now, reserving space in the County’s debt.  “We are not asking to spend any money yet because this project is not financially viable” without provincial support, said Director Kyle Cotton.

In the meantime, the existing facility requires fire code upgrades. Mr. Cotton is simultaneously looking to fund new sprinklers while also hoping for a total rebuild and expansion.

“Exponential increases” were a running theme of the talks. Wages and costs of services contracted from external agencies are all up. That ask totals $77.8 million, up $6.5 million over last year.

Community Supports

On Friday, Councillors funded community groups in the tax-supported operating budget.

The ROC Youth services got the $90,000 it requested for 2024. The Prince Edward Learning Centre got the $80,000 it needs, an increase of $20,000 over last year, but for 2024 only. Council denied multi-year requests for both groups. Councillor Bill Roberts said practical social programming such as this was desperately needed in Prince Edward County in 2024.

“Our community is not made up of the Royal Hotel and the Drake. 15 per cent of our community is living in poverty and they are your neighbours.  We have the second highest food insecurity rate in Ontario,” he said. “These motions make good economic sense because extreme poverty affects our businesses. It affects our health care. It affects our services and, unaddressed, it becomes systemic.”

Councillor Kate MacNaughton moved to fund the Municipal Relief Grant program for low and fixed income families at a cost of $473,000. The program allows for water and wastewater subsidies or property tax relief for those who qualify.

“We need to be able to fund our operations but we also can’t compromise these people who need this program to keep their water running and stay in their homes,” she said.

That motion passed, as did the County Docs request to create a $100,000 bonus system for new and existing physicians who take 250 unattached patients off the Health Care Connect wait list.

Reserve Funds

Council will draw $1.3 million from its accumulated surplus to fund a number of items in the budget. That practice drew concern from a number of councillors.

“It feels like we are punting the ball down the road and those reserves are going to need to be addressed at some point and very soon,” said Councillor John Hirsch.

“We’ve made sacrifices and there are some people who aren’t going to be happy,” said Councillor Phil St. Jean. He noted that good budgets generally follow the inflation rate.

“The rate of inflation in 2023 peaked at 6.8 per cent and we are below that,” the councillor said.

All but two councillors, Brad Nieman and David Harrison, voted in favour of the 2024 budget.

This text is from the Volume 193 No. 50 edition of The Picton Gazette
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