North Huron budget trimmed heavily, recreation cuts shelved
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
North Huron budget deliberations resumed on Monday, March 27, as the Township continues its struggle to get a handle on budgetary numbers. Director of Finance Chris Townes surprised council with the admission that around $180,000 in recreation department salaries and benefits was missing from the original calculations provided to council on Friday, March 24. The omission created confusion in the room, a sentiment voiced urgently by Councillor Chris Palmer. Townes offered reassurance that the numbers being presented that evening were revised and updated, and the result is a 7.09 per cent proposed increase to the township levy. The original document provided by Townes presented a 4.18 per cent increase to the levy, which was then raised to the adjusted 7.09 per cent figure to accommodate the error.
Reeve Paul Heffer opened proceedings with a quick review of the 2023 budget process, saying staff proposed a 13.4 per cent levy increase on Dec. 16, 2022, and then returned to council on Jan. 12 with a revised proposed levy increase of 20.65 per cent. Council requested staff return with a revised levy increase of between six and eight per cent.
Heffer addressed public outcry over the township’s handling of the 2023 budget process, saying, “From the feedback we had received from the public and from the council input, it is clear that we needed to take a different approach in the way we provide the services that the people have come to expect.” Heffer continued, “We must remind ourselves that we are here to make the best decisions we can for all of North Huron.”
Council had previously authorized staff to consolidate and use reserve funds to reduce impacts on the 2023 operating budget. Chief Administrative Officer Dwayne Evans cautioned council against relying on reserve funds for achieving budgetary goals, saying, “This approach is not sustainable. The township’s reserves will slowly be depleted if we continue this trend.”
Townes provided an overview of departmental cuts and transfers from reserves that he implemented to achieve council’s desired levy increase. Townes broke the budget down into several subcategories, including general government, protection to persons, transportation services, environmental services, health services, social and family services, recreation and culture, and planning and development, and provided details of how each subcategory was impacted in the latest draft of the budget.
Under the category of general government, Townes said approximately $31,000 from reserves will fund the physician recruitment committee and members of council budget; $59,000 of modernization funds have been used to offset modernization project costs and the asset management co-ordinator’s wages, and the information technology budget was reduced by $25,000.
Under the category of protection to persons, Townes said adjustments were made to align expenses with fire-sharing agreements and $10,275 from Building Code Act reserves were transferred to net-zero the Chief Building Official budget.
Under the category of transportation services, Townes said calcium application was not included in the first two drafts of the 2023 budget, and reductions were made based on 2022 actuals and projected 2023 operational requirements.
Under the category of environmental services, Townes said reductions were made based on 2022 actuals and projected 2023 operational requirements.
Under the category of health services, Townes said cemetery grass trimming has been outsourced, removing the need to purchase a zero-turn mower.
Under the category of social and family services, Townes said revenues were updated to align with funding sources, and reductions were made based on 2022 actuals and projected 2023 operational requirements.
Under the category of recreation and culture, Townes said reductions were made based on 2022 actuals and projected 2023 operational requirements, and said the missing salaries and benefits discovered earlier that day were included in the figures being presented that evening.
Under the category of planning and development, Townes said a contribution to the Blyth Centre for the Arts has been reduced from $15,000 to $5,000; and that economic development staff reduced its budget by $40,000.
Townes also provided an update to capital cost projections, saying $250,000 was transferred from the asset management reserve to fund the Blyth Fire Hall and Public Works Building demolitions; there was an allocation reduction to the council chamber relocation project funding and an additional $100,000 was transferred from reserves. An additional $30,000 has also been made available for the Blyth brine pump, and $300,000 has been added for Moncrieff Road work.
Townes concluded by saying if council was satisfied, the budget could be approved in principle and ratified at the next meeting, or, if changes were necessary, the scope of the changes would determine the necessity of another budget meeting.
Palmer started the discussion by voicing his concerns about discrepancies he located in the line-by-line budget, especially in regards to the recreation budget and cuts to its services. He worried that the cuts would lead to under-budgeting, causing the department to overspend by the end of the year. Palmer was assured by Townes that a consensus had been reached between himself, Evans and Director of Recreation Vicky Luttenberger in regards to the finalized recreation budget, and that the previously-missed $180,000 in salaries and benefits was now included in the final calculations, offering a mea culpa for the mistake.
Palmer had questions about the progress of a languishing ramp-building project, and the ballooning costs of renovations to council chambers, saying, “When the dollar figure changes so much, I think that council should re-examine it… we’d be fools not to.” Director of Public Works and Facilities Gregg Furtney said he’s been in talks with contractors and hopes to have work started on the ramp again soon. Clerk Carson Lamb offered more details on the council chambers renovations, promising a breakdown of the different proposed renovation options, none of which have been finalized.
Palmer also questioned the potential purchase of plow trucks, as one had been purchased a year prior, and Furtney explained that last year’s plow truck purchase was to replace an out-of-date model, with the eventual goal to minimize the number of single-axle vehicles in the fleet, switching over to tandem vehicles. Furtney said this would eliminate the need to hire a third party for hauling sand and salt.
A main point of contention at the meeting was the fate of “Wingham-only money”, dividends generated by Wingham ratepayers’ relationship with Westario Power deposited into a reserve account, traditionally only used to fund projects benefiting residents of Wingham. Evans noted that money from the fund had been used to disband the Wingham Police.
Councillor Mitch Wright questioned the proposal to use some of this money for the decommissioning of the Howson Dam, a project that had been hotly contested within the community. “I just wonder why we’re using Wingham-only money in general North Huron assets… I think we need to use other assets than Westario [reserve funds] for these projects.”
Wright motioned for staff to look into other sources of funding for the dam decommissioning. The motion was seconded by Palmer, “to get it on the table.” Wright defended his stance, saying “if this is considered Wingham-only money, then it should be used for things the people of Wingham want to happen. A park upgrade, work on a road, maybe upgrading the town hall, or whatever… most Wingham residents want the dam to stay.”
Councillor Anita van Hittersum pointed out that the floodplains study indicated that many municipalities would benefit from demolishing the dam, not just Wingham. Van Hittersum adamantly expressed her opinion that all township funds should be made equally available for each of the township’s wards and refused to support the motion.
When brought to a vote, the result was deadlocked. The tie-breaker went to Heffer who voted in favour of the motion. Additionally a report was requested to see where money to pay for demolishing the dam could come from if not from the Westario reserve fund.
Council voted to accept the budget in principle but expect the recommendations of the forthcoming report on alternate funding sources for decommissioning the Howson Dam to be incorporated into the budget’s final draft. The next meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 3.