North Huron draft budget includes 6.28 per cent increase
BY DENNY SCOTT
Despite significant concerns regarding funding for a new economic development officer for the township, North Huron Council has approved a budget in principle to be presented to the public.
The budget will be reviewed during council’s Feb. 7 meeting, with it set to be presented for approval during council’s Feb. 21 meeting.
The proposed 2022 budget represents an increase in spending of $399,256 over the 2021 budget, or a 6.28 per cent increase, totalling $6,759.276. Recently-hired Director of Finance Darcy Chapman said that staff had held itself to a 2.11 per cent increase in the base budget, which he touted as a success given that, of the $133,813 increase, approximately $100,000 is tied to cost-of-living adjustments and other wage increases.
The remaining 4.17 per cent in increases are tied to new positions and projects that council directed staff to include, such as museum operations, the economic development officer, the extension of a human resources contract that started last year and the potential relocation of council chambers.
The review of council chambers is estimated to cost $40,000 and increase the budget by 0.63 per cent, Chapman said. That funding will not see council chambers relocated to a permanent home, but will be used to either commission an engineer’s studies regarding a new space or buy technology and furniture for a temporary space, noting council needs to stop using the Wingham Town Hall theatre for meetings due to complications with the space.
During his presentation, Chapman said council had added several line items to the budget over the past year, including increasing a part-time childcare position to full-time, resulting in an $11,000 increase; the delay in implementing an economic/business development officer, which resulted in savings of $15,650, and reducing museum facility funding to reflect that the new museum won’t be operational this year.
Chapman said he and Reeve Bernie Bailey had met with Doug Kuyvenhoven, who is offering to sell the former Wingham rail station to the township for $1 provided it’s used as a museum and visitor centre for a set period of time. As part of that meeting, all sides agreed that, before the township assumes ownership, approximately $400,000 needs to be raised to make sure the project will go ahead. As a result, $25,650 was removed from the budget, which represents expenses like heat, electricity and insurance at the facility.
While that represented a savings, staff told council the budget included the first of two years of contracts to catalogue and deaccession artifacts at the museum. The total cost is set to run $140,000, with this year’s contribution set at $70,000.
Chapman briefed council on its donation budget, which is used annually to help community groups and other organizations.
Thus far, the township only has three recipients with amounts that total $925: The Huron County Plowmen's Association ($125), the Elementary School Fair ($300) and the Huron Hospice ($500). The donation budget includes $6,000, which means council has just over $5,000 left to distribute throughout the year, Chapman said.
Councillor Chris Palmer asked if council should consider putting funding aside for the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device that the Listowel Wingham Hospitals Alliance is applying for from the provincial government.
Council discussed the issue, however Chapman and Clerk Carson Lamb explained there hadn’t been an official request for funding yet, just a request for a letter of support to go with the application.
Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip confirmed that, saying that “every hospital” in the Southwestern Ontario Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) would also be applying, so preparing for it would be premature.
Regardless of whether the application is successful, Seip said the earliest the council would see a request for funds would be in a year to a year-and-a-half, and that request would come from the hospital foundation.
As part of his presentation, Chapman also explained that there had been some changes to the budget through “staff-led changes” that were unavoidable.
Included were $7,000 and $5,000 increases to property standard and drainage inspection contracts, respectively, which Chapman said was due to the dissolution of the shared Chief Building Official position with Morris-Turnberry.
The Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) presented its budget figures and North Huron’s share came in $5,081 higher than anticipated. Councillor Anita van Hittersum, who sits on the MVCA board, said she didn’t know the exact percentage of the increases when asked by Bailey, however she said there were numerous increases for the organization that needed to be handled.
There is also a $13,760 increase in insurance costs that wasn’t anticipated, Chapman said, tied to taxation. Council had recently dealt with increased insurance costs, including taxes. However, due to what Chapman called a loophole, taxes that council would normally receive back (as most township expenses are partially tax-exempt) would instead not be paid out. He said the taxes on the insurance cost were not exempt, resulting in the overage.
The fire protection budget was reduced thanks to revised assessments, Chapman said, resulting in $3,689 going back to fire partners and reducing the budget.
While the budget includes a 6.28 per cent increase in spending, Chapman said that, due to increased assessment and policing costs, each ward would see different increases.
Looking at properties in Wingham (a residential property assessed at $331,000), Blyth ($283,500) and East Wawanosh ($103,400), Chapman said annual tax increases would be 3.24 per cent ($155.06), 4.27 per cent ($137.68) and 5.74 per cent ($61), respectively.
He said the main reason Wingham is lower, percentage-wise, is due to a decrease in policing costs. Development in Blyth had helped reduce its average increase.
Palmer said the properties chosen for East Wawanosh, including the residential site listed above and a farm site valued at $854,600, were no longer representative of the average in the ward.
“The farm selected in East Wawanosh doesn’t work anymore,” he said, explaining most residential properties were more expensive and most farms were bigger than the 100-acre site used. “We should get a better example, and it should be a 200-acre farm… that’s a more realistic example.”
Chapman said he did “run some numbers” to give council a better idea of what the average properties and costs would be, saying the municipality has 2,450 properties, approximately 1,400 of which are considered residential.
“The average assessment for those residential properties is $195,000,” he said. “The [example] assessment numbers I provide at $331,000 [in Wingham] and $283,000 [in Blyth] are more than $100,000 over assessment. If I used the average in Wingham, the taxpayer would see an increase of $91. In Blyth, with the same price, it would be $95 and in East Wawanosh, $115…. The average person is going to see an increase of between $91 and $115.”
He said it was difficult, however, for council to make decisions when looking at specific locations.
Bailey asked if looking at the municipality as a whole instead of as three different wards could simplify things, and Chapman said it could, but it would require work beforehand.
He said 17 per cent of the municipality’s overall budget is policing, and that the majority of the rest of the 83 per cent is spread equally over the wards.
“As long as we have different levels of policing in the areas, we have to have area ratings,” Chapman said. “If we get to a point where we have one contract, then it’s the same level of service, same cost, and we can rid ourselves of area rating.”
Councillor Anita van Hittersum asked why Blyth and East Wawanosh were area-rated when both have the same policing, and Chapman said that was partially due to historic practices and partially due to the fact that Blyth has street lights, a cost that East Wawanosh residents don’t have.
“Even though the level of policing is the same, the process for splitting the cost has been done the same since amalgamation, and based on historical numbers that may not be accurate [today],” Chapman said. “In reality, there’s probably slightly more policing costs allocated to East Wawanosh than Blyth based on total assessment.”
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OFFICER
The most hotly contested aspect of the budget was the suggestion that North Huron should be considering hiring its own economic development officer.
To help guide the discussion, council invited newly-hired Huron County Director of Economic Development Vicki Lass to give an overview of the services her department offers.
Lass described her department, and told council the basis of its service is to provide assistance directly to businesses, while also providing high-level support to municipalities.
Part of that, she said, is to make sure there is no duplication of services between the county’s economic development efforts and individual municipalities or their officers.
She also said the department focuses on “high-level” issues like housing and transportation that impact businesses across the county.
She pointed out that some municipalities have had great economic development officers creating growth opportunities, like Huron East had in the late Jan Hawley and Central Huron has with Angela Smith, but council had to decide if an economic development officer was the right fit for it.
Councillor Kevin Falconer said that, sometimes, it feels like the northern municipalities are left out of the county’s economic development initiatives, and that everything is focused on Goderich, where many county services are located, and Clinton, which is often referred to as the centre of the county.
He cited a specific meeting regarding development as a result of Bruce Power upgrades, where a map was presented that showed development had occurred everywhere in Huron County except North Huron. He went on to say that North Huron may need some duplication of services to get itself in front of developers like its neighbours have.
“My question is how do you see us closing the gap so we get the services we would like from your economic development department?” he asked.
Lass said that duplication isn’t the key, but if North Huron had its own economic development officer, the county could help with expansion of the officer’s responsibilities and provide other benefits.
“Undoubtedly, [the county’s economic development department] doesn’t have the capacity to get into individual development with partner municipalities,” she said, pointing to some of the efforts they have supported in Huron East as an example of the synergy provided.
Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip said the municipality has an opportunity to pursue an economic development officer with the significant residential growth that is happening, and is slated to continue, in the municipality.
Bailey agreed, saying that council should consider the assets of the municipality as a store, and right now there is no one working in the store to try and sell the product.
He said council couldn’t keep relying on Chief Administrative Officer Dwayne Evans to run the municipality’s economic development “off the corner of his desk”.
“Dwayne has too much on the go,” he said. “I think we’re at the point where an economic development officer is necessary.”
He said missed development opportunities are council’s fault and that council now needs to capitalize on this opportunity because the county can’t do it for North Huron.
Councillor Chris Palmer said he had reservations about the position, especially given that there wasn’t a job description, just a price tag.
He said North Huron would need to bring in more development than the $100,000 for the position.
Furthermore, he said that things seem to be getting done in the municipality with Evans handling economic development, and that, since the municipality doesn’t have any commercial or industrial land to develop, it didn’t need anyone to inventory or sell what it doesn’t have.
He said he was “softening up” to the idea of extending the municipality’s human resources contract, but doesn’t think the taxpayers can handle the increased expense of another staff person.
“I say it often, but we have to think about the taxpayer,” he said. “I think we’d be letting them down.”
He said even if the municipality “technically” benefited from an economic development officer, he didn’t know if it was worthwhile.
Bailey disagreed, saying North Huron Council needed to change course and hire a dedicated economic development staff member as the municipality was at a disadvantage without that staff member.
Seip said there will be a job description coming to council and that, if an applicant doesn’t prove their worth, they won’t be kept in the position.
“We need to have a five-year plan, and if they can’t get where we need to be in five years, they might not be the best person for the job,” he said. “The big thing here is, if we don’t have a person, what could we lose? We may never get a phone call from the big business to come in. [An economic development officer] will be on the phone, calling Bruce Power and calling others, not just sitting and waiting for the million dollar [businesses] to show up.”
Palmer was still against it, saying he felt like the issue was already decided because staff said the position would be filled by April at the earliest. He said if he was to go along with it, there needed to be a job description and another chance to “argue all the same points” before council decided on it.
Councillor Paul Heffer asked if the position could be a contract one, and Lass said it could but that might deter good applicants.
“You’re aware of the workforce shortage,” she said, adding it's an employee’s market right now.
She said employees may not like contracts, especially the limits they put on benefits.
After more debate, council members pointed out that this wasn’t a debate about who or even whether to hire an economic development officer, but whether or not it should be included in the budget.
Council approved the budget in principle after the debate, with Heffer and Palmer voting against it.