Huron County budget to rise by 1.99 per cent in 2021
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Huron County Council is moving forward with a budget that includes a levy increase of 1.99 per cent, or $872,927, over the county’s 2020 budget, resulting in a total budget figure of just under $45 million.
Treasurer Michael Blumhagen presented his draft budget to Huron County Council at a special budget meeting on Feb. 11. The draft document remained largely unchanged from the last time he presented it to council.
Blumhagen told councillors that the county’s assessment had increased by just under $150 million over the course of the year. That increase in assessment supported a levy increase of 1.14 per cent, accounting for an additional $498,459. As a result, to fund the proposed 2021 budget, the county would only need to technically increase its tax rate by 0.85 per cent.
The proposed tax rate increase will result in a minimal increase for most residents, Blumhagen said. In regard to residential assessment, there will be a $3.87 increase on $100,000 of assessment. That means, he told councillors, that for the average residential Huron County home, valued at $208,000, the tax increase for 2021 will be just over $8.
For farmland, Blumhagen said the increase per $100,000 of assessment will be 97 cents. So, with the median farm property being valued at $985,200, the 2021 tax increase will be $9.52.
He also noted that there will not be significant tax shifts to the farm class that have been present across the province in the last eight years, which should help to stabilize things in Huron County.
Blumhagen also detailed a number of key budget considerations for the year, which includes the impact of staff salaries and benefits.
“In respect of council’s desire to limit staff salary increases, we have set non-union salary increases at 1.5 per cent for 2021. Staff will strive that future union settlements will fall in line within this amount,” Blumhagen said in his report to council. “Union salaries continue to cause pressures, as many settlements are based on arbitrated settlements. The non-union salaries are being kept in line with 2017-2020 at 1.5 per cent in an effort to mitigate overall budget increases.”
Blumhagen detailed the increases for salaries and benefits for the year, telling councillors that, across the board, those increases equated just over $1 million of the entire budget.
The only grants that will be funded with 2021 tax dollars, he said, would be the annual grant to the Huron County Food Bank Distribution Centre for $66,000. Other outstanding grants to the Regional Equine and Agricultural Centre of Huron (REACH) and the Alexandra Marine and General Hospital in Goderich will be funded from reserves. He also noted that 2020 was the final year for a grant installment to the Wingham and District Hospital and that this year will be the final year for a contribution to REACH.
Blumhagen said that the county’s Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund (OCIF) money, in the amount of $2.4 million, has been set aside for future projects and is not included in the 2021 budget.
“Due to the focus on urban road renewals and bridge work, rural paving projects being proposed in 2021 are minimal,” Blumhagen said in his report.
Blumhagen also detailed two bridge projects being proposed for 2021, saying the county will be utilizing debentures with the estimated amount of $4.3 million. There is an option for the county to use some of its OCIF funding to offset debenture costs, but nothing has been finalized.
Insurance costs will also represent a significant budget pressure for 2021, Blumhagen said. The county’s insurance costs have increased by nearly $420,000 from 2020 to 2021, he said, which accounts for nearly one per cent of the county’s entire 2021 levy.
The county’s reserves, he said, will be drawn down by nearly $11 million this year, projecting to end the year at just over $48 million, as opposed to the reserve levels of just under $59 million that had been projected at the end of 2020.
Blumhagen said that while the county is facing significant infrastructure costs in the years to come, its reserve levels remain healthy.
After Blumhagen’s presentation, council had very little debate on the budget. One item that was discussed, however, was an additional $50,000 in the Huron Clean Water Project budget for 2021 on top of its annual budget of $400,000.
Several councillors spoke against the increase, including Bluewater’s Paul Klopp and North Huron’s Bernie Bailey, saying that, just like any other departmental budget, those behind the project should work within the constraints of their budget.
Others, however, felt the increase was warranted, with others saying they felt the increase should be even higher due to the importance of Lake Huron to all of the county.
Goderich Mayor John Grace said that if it were up to him, he would increase the budget by $100,000, rather than $50,000. He said the increase, in the context of the county’s budget, is a very small amount and he would be embarrassed if council voted to eliminate it.
Both Central Huron Mayor Jim Ginn and Huron County Warden Glen McNeil supported Grace, saying they wanted to see it left in, which council did.
Huron East Mayor Bernie MacLellan said he wasn’t initially supportive of the increase because the project’s budget still had money in it, so he didn’t see the need for an increase.
Morris-Turnberry Mayor Jamie Heffer, however rebutted MacLellan, saying that the Huron Clean Water Project awarded approximately $410,000 in grants in 2020, $10,000 more than its annual budget, so the need is there.
The only change to the budget that remains outstanding is the proposed elimination of the 30 per cent tax reduction for vacant and excess land for industrial and commercial subclasses. The impact of that change on the county’s residential class, he said, would be a reduction of 0.08 per cent with a shift of over $32,000 in taxes to the vacant and excess land subclasses from other classes like residential and farmland.
“With the elimination of the tax reduction, the residential tax rate increase is 0.77 per cent and, if kept the same [ratios] as in 2020, the residential increase would be 0.85 per cent,” Blumhagen said in his report. “While the overall impact is minor, this will bring the vacant and excess land subclasses in line with the changes made by the province for the education rates.”
That discussion was set to take place at council’s Feb. 17 meeting.
Council approved the budget as presented by Blumhagen. Final approval would come in March when he would bring forward formal tax bylaws for council’s approval.