North Huron budget process begins with proposed 2.99 per cent increase in spending
BY DENNY SCOTT
North Huron Township Council has directed staff to present a bare bones budget for 2021 and received just that, according to council members, during a meeting late last week.
The municipality’s first budget meeting, held last Thursday in the Wingham Town Hall Theatre on the second floor of the Wingham Town Hall, saw staff present a budget that included a 2.99 per cent increase in spending, or just shy of $185,000. The presented budget proposes $16,464,869.44 in spending, which covers $14,216,708.44 in operating costs and $2,248,161 in capital expenditures. During the presentation, Director of Finance Donna White explained that a one per cent increase in spending is equal to $61,469.39.
Changes in the budget from those of previous years include additional costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic, like $10,000 emergency planning funds, a significant increase in dog tag revenue, increased insurance costs and transfers to and from reserves that will be reviewed at a future meeting, according to White.
Cuts were also made, White said, including putting off the purchase of a loader for the Public Works Department that was budgeted at $200,000, decreasing Public Works transfers to reserves by $50,000, and the removal of the economic development position estimated to cost $100,000. The latter cut, however, was disputed by several council members.
Reeve Bernie Bailey wanted to put $50,000 into reserves to help prepare to hire an economic development individual in the future, and while council debated it, staff did take the recommendation to include in the next draft of the budget. White explained that including those funds would bring the increase in spending to approximately four per cent.
White said there was some good news to start the budget process as the municipality had received an increase of $32,300 to its Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF) allocation.
As far as general government expenses are concerned, White said council’s training and travel expenses were lower in 2020 and would continue to be lower due to conferences being held virtually.
White also explained that policing costs were decreasing across the municipality due to reconciliation from 2019 costs. Blyth and East Wawanosh had their policing costs decreased by $13,130 for the coming year while Wingham’s was reduced by $130,918.
“The price didn’t go down,” White explained. “The reconciliation is helping us out.”
Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip, who sits on the municipality’s Police Services Board, said he wouldn’t bank on that kind of reconciliation every year.
“Could we see something? Maybe, but it could go the other way,” he said.
The North Huron Township Building Department generated greater revenue than anticipated in 2020 according to Chief Building Official Kirk Livingston, and he anticipated similar revenues in 2021. He said new residential developments like those in Blyth drove the increases.
Livingston also said training and travel expenses are going to be reduced for the next year. While travel, training and workshop expenses will be down as a result of online learning and exams, Livingston explained that less fuel was being used as a result of clustering inspections.
Livingston, who is also the municipality’s bylaw enforcement officer, said that in 2021, he anticipated lower legal costs, so he dropped that line item from $7,500 to $5,000.
The Public Works Department’s operational budget will be similar to what it was in 2020, according to Director of Public Works Jamie McCarthy, with some minor increases in some services.
The Richard W. LeVan Airport staff costs have increased, McCarthy said, as have recycling costs. She also said that there will be changes to the cemeteries’ budget due to North Huron moving to non-user fees.
The North Huron Township childcare budget, now handled by the newly-hired Manager for Childcare Services Trisha McLean, will continue to be based on lower user numbers due to COVID-19.
Despite that, outgoing Manager Valerie Watson said the programs will continue to post a small profit to be put into reserves. Seip, however, felt that reserve may be eaten into with rising grocery bills increasing meal costs in the program.
Watson explained that, due to COVID-19, a full additional staff day was being spent at the daycare centre. In the morning, she explained, a staff member is needed to bring children in because parents can’t enter the building and children can’t be left alone while staff bring in new arrivals. A staff member is also needed to take children outside when parents arrive for pick-up at the end of the day, she said, as well as more staff time being dedicated to cleaning throughout the day.
Seip asked how many empty spaces were used as a basis for the budget’s revenue, and was told there would be an estimated eight vacancies. Councillor Kevin Falconer asked why there were empty spaces if there was a waiting list.
Watson explained that the waiting list is 90 per cent infants that parents have signed up, even before the children were born in some cases.
“They go on well in advance,” she said. “We have room for preschool, toddler or school-age children currently.”
RECREATION AND FACILITIES
After hearing about the minimal changes to the recreation and facilities budget, presented by Director of Recreation and Facilities Vicky Luttenberger, Seip wanted council to consider consolidating the municipality’s two libraries.
“Has there ever been a question of consolidation?” Seip asked. “I don’t care if [the remaining site is located in] Wingham or Blyth. The argument is we have two for a municipality this size.”
Seip then questioned whether there is a need for two libraries in North Huron.
Director of Finance Donna White explained, a number of years ago, the Blyth branch of the Huron County Library was located in Memorial Hall and was moved as the community felt they couldn’t do without a library at the time. She also pointed out that North Huron doesn’t operate the libraries as that’s managed by the county. North Huron only provides the space for them.
Councillor Anita van Hittersum said that libraries in small communities are very important due to the internet access, programming for children and important social aspects they provide. “They have more social impact than you realize,” van Hittersum said to Seip. Councillor Paul Heffer agreed, saying that the Blyth Library branch costs less than $3 a day to the municipality while Wingham costs $7. “I think they’re good investments,” he said.
The township made its last $50,000 contribution to the fundraising drive to help retrofit the Wingham hospital in the 2020 budget and will be making its last contribution to the Blyth Memorial Hall upgrades this year, leaving White to suggest council consider setting up reserves with similar contributions going forward.
She also noted that the Recreation Infrastructure Canada (RInC) grant for paving at the North Huron Wescast Complex will be paid off in 2022, and suggested considering setting up reserves for maintenance of the site.
The municipality is still paying off several other debts, including a grader purchase and payments associated with the dissolution of local fire boards that led to the creation of the Fire Department of North Huron.
Capital projects set for the 2021 budget cover new projects, as well as projects that have been held over from 2020, according to White.
The budget includes paving surfaces, like work on Carling Terrace in Wingham and resurfacing projects in East Wawanosh and Blyth, new equipment like a tandem truck for Blyth and infrastructure work, like the replacement of the roof for the Blyth Community Centre and accessibility projects for the municipality’s town hall in Wingham.
Held-over projects include the Blyth fire hall and public works building, the Howson Dam and work on the town hall.
Bailey questioned the purchase of a new zero-turn mower, saying he wanted to stop servicing other municipalities with North Huron equipment.
“We have a contract with Morris-Turnberry where we mow their lawn,” he said. “I want to see that revisited. It should be Morris-Turnberry equipment and Morris-Turnberry staff, not us buying equipment.”
Council members said they were pleased with the budget presented for the most part with Falconer saying that, compared to previous years, a 2.99 per cent increase in spending was a welcome sight. He also said that to keep it so low must have been a “monumental task” for staff.
Seip, however, wanted to know how the budget would impact overall taxation, saying that knowing how much more was being spent doesn’t let council tell ratepayers how that will factor into their tax bills. He also said that staff need to “break out taxation versus assessment and spending” because council has “no control over assessment”.
“The sooner residents figure that out, the happier we’ll all be,” he said.
Seip then went on to say that, with such a bare bones budget, any changes made will be “political”. He said staff were asked to provide a no-frills budget to council so, if there are any lines that can be cut, staff “didn’t do what we asked in the first place.”
The next budget meeting is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 15, 2021.