Huron East finances faring better than expected through pandemic: Michiels
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
While many cities and municipalities across Canada thought their finances would be in tatters as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Treasurer Paula Michiels says that in Huron East, things have been better than anticipated.
In an interview with The Citizen, Michiels said there was plenty of “doom and gloom “ circulating when the pandemic first struck, but between funding from the provincial and federal governments and savings to be found due to other aspects of the pandemic, the impact has been lessened.
Michiels says some sectors of the municipality, like its recreation centres and its daycare centre, have been hit hard by the pandemic and a lack of usage. However, there have been savings as well, including a handful of unfortunate layoffs when the pandemic first struck and low utility bills for recreation centres and other community halls and public buildings that have not been open to members of the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She also said savings have been achieved when it comes to conferences and training. Many conferences or training seminars didn’t go ahead in 2020, or if they did, they were held virtually, drastically cutting travel budgets and registrations costs.
Now, with the second lockdown in place and a Stay at Home Order issued by the provincial government, several staff members from community centres and daycare centres have been repurposed throughout the municipality in order to keep them working. Michiels says that has worked well in recent weeks.
While the municipality has been losing money with community centres in both Brussels and Seaforth, Michiels anticipated an end to that process with council set to consider a motion to remove the ice from both centres on Jan. 19.
Council had made mention of this possibility at its Jan. 5 meeting, with Chief Administrative Officer Brad Knight saying that if the provincial lockdown were to be extended – which it now has been – council should seriously consider removing the ice. With no playoffs scheduled, hockey would only continue into early March under a best-case scenario, so an extended lockdown would only leave a few weeks of potential ice time for user groups. That also assumed, he said, that the lockdown wouldn’t be extended even further.
In regards to the municipality’s daycare centre in Vanastra, the new regulations aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 made it tough for it to be open before the lockdown, Michiels said. More employees were needed and there were fewer children at the centre. Furthermore, travel for children between rooms was limited, in order to keep them in cohorts, which further complicated managing the centre during the pandemic.
Moving ahead, Michiels’ next task is the 2021 budget, which she says will be unlike any budget she’s ever prepared. So often, a treasurer like Michiels relies heavily on the previous year’s budget as a benchmark upon which to base the next year. That can’t be done this year, she said, for a number of reasons, so she’s had to reach back to 2018 and 2019 and do a fair bit of guesswork.
For community centres and halls, for example, Michiels has been working on a two-year average, using 2018 and 2019, but then anticipating perhaps half of the revenue realized in that two-year average.
As the process begins, Michiels also says she has been thankful for the Safe Restart funding, partnership funding from both the provincial and federal governments, that has helped the municipality.
While there are still some numbers to crunch and funds to move around, Michiels said she’s hoping that, with the help of the aforementioned funding, the pandemic will be “a wash” in regards to the municipality’s finances leading into early 2021, but it’s too early to tell.
How much the pandemic will affect the 2021 budget and how long it will take for Huron County to return to some semblance of normal, however, remains to be seen, which Michiels says really turns the budget process into a guessing game. But she reiterated that when it comes to the municipality’s finances, it hasn’t been nearly as bad as anticipated.