Opinion: The 2012 Municipal Budget
By Brian Cleeve
About 100 residents budgeted their time on Jan. 19, to get the skinny on the proposed 2012 Chatham-Kent operating budget.
I found it strange being in the audience at the Adult Lifestyle Centre for the open house and presentation since in my former life as a reporter I would have had to take notes and talk to a bunch of people. Instead, I took a few notes and talked to a few people.
I commend everyone of the people who took almost three hours out of their hectic schedules to show up, listen to the proposals and ask questions or make comments. I don’t know how many of them are the same people who daily solve all the problems of the municipality, dare I say the world, while ensconced comfortably at tables in coffee shops around Chatham-Kent.
The first draft of the estimated $258 million budget provides for a 7.6 per cent tax hike. Coun. Art Stirling, the budget chair, told the audience that council knows that such a hike is “unacceptable” and is working to whittle it down, ultimately to zero if possible.
“In order to accomplish that goal, we would have to cut services and we want to know what services you want cut,” Stirling said. And there, my friends, is the rub.
Gerry Wolting, the municipality’s manager of corporate services, explained that the 7.6 per cent is broken down into 4.1 per cent for existing services, two per cent for infrastructure phase in and another 1.5 per cent for various initiatives.
Wolting and the rest of municipal staff were tasked with providing council with options to getting a zero budget increase. That could be achieved by changing service levels (three per cent) delaying infrastructure phase in (two per cent) scaling back initiatives (1.5 per cent) and closed session provisions( 1.1 per cent.) A one per cent increase in taxes accounts for about $1.2 million in revenue.
Wolting presented a number of scenarios in which the tax hike could be lowered to five, one 1.5 etc, from the 7.6. Some of those included eliminating or curtailing some emergency services in Blenheim.
Cutting out council meals was one of the potential savings and it brought howls of agreement from most of the crowd.
One person questioned the fact that 44 per cent of the budget is dedicated to employee costs and another 21 per cent is for outside contractors. But I did not hear any person stand up and say “yes, I’m willing to have services cut ” to achieve the zero per cent saving.
The average home owner with a property assessed at about $147,000 paid almost $2,500 in municipal taxes last year and $352 to school boards.
In Chatham, with a one per cent increase in taxes, that person would pay an extra $23 per year. The 7.6 hike would amount to about $175 per year or about $15 per month, far less than the aforementioned coffee shop denizens spend in one month on coffee, I suspect.
I’m not saying that a 7.6 per cent tax hike is a good idea. Of course I don’t want to pay any more taxes through my rent than absolutely necessary. Still, I don’t know what an appropriate tax hike would be.
One of the options suggested was cutting off grants to organizations such as seniors. One person pointed out that provincial grants are contingent upon the municipal grants and so the loss of such grants could spell the end for some groups. Other proposals involved closing a couple of museums and libraries and there were objections raised there. Another audience member pointed out that if we want to attract new blood to Chatham-Kent, we had better be willing to supply services and amenities that help bring in those new people.
I wish Stirling and council good luck in determining a budget. I don’t even do my own income tax so I can’t offer any financial advice. Of course I don’t want to see money wasted, but I also don’t want the budget cut so badly that services are slashed to the point where they may not exist at all.
Anyway, council will press on and maybe I’ll head over to one of those coffee shops; I’m dying to find out what’s up and how much my taxes should go up!