North Huron staff pitches drastic recreation cuts to balance budget
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
North Huron Council is facing a proposed property tax increase of over 20 per cent, leading to some drastic potential cuts, including closure of the Blyth and District Community Centre over the summer months, further recreation clawbacks in Wingham and a review of the township’s ability to support two community centres at the request of Reeve Paul Heffer.
Chief Administrative Office Dwayne Evans, at council’s Jan. 11 budget meeting, presented 13 recommendations tied to service delivery and a comparison between discretionary and non-discretionary spending.
The recommendations are:
• Seeking a third party to operate the Blyth Campground, which would include assuming any operating gains or losses
• Seeking a third party to be responsible for the operation of a proposed museum facility, including the assumption of any operational gains or losses
• The continued advancing of process-based opportunities to achieve efficiencies and savings
• Requesting additional funds from Huron County for the delivery of library services
• Reducing the township’s contribution to the Blyth Centre for the Arts for marketing to $10,000 and the discontinuation of Municipal Civic Night at the Festival
• Directing two members of council to meet with the Belgrave Community Centre Board to discuss the terms of the agreement between the township and the board and to report back to council
• Administering a survey of childcare users to provide a detailed update on the required resources and challenges to deliver each of the township’s four childcare programs
• Issuing a request for proposal for grass cutting and trimming for the season at North Huron’s cemeteries
• The closure of the Blyth and District Community Centre from April 1 to Aug. 31 on an annual basis.
• The permanent closure of the township-operated fitness centre by May 1 and issuing a request for proposal to lease the space and equipment for fitness centre services
• The annual closure of the Wingham pool for July and August, beginning this year
• The discontinuation of free recreation programs and the encouragement of more sponsored programs
• A staff-developed recreation subsidy program for low-income North Huron residents.
“Change is not easy and as with any change, there is going to be negative feedback. Council’s role is to make decisions in the best interest of the entire municipality,” Evans said in his report to council. “There is one budget for the entire municipality and, with the exception of street lighting, water and wastewater, all costs incurred are paid for by all taxpayers.”
He added that there are some services best delivered by the private sector, while others are best provided by the public sector.
“When considering the recommendations of this report, it is important to remember that there are some goods and services that are best provided by the public sector, and some goods and services that are best provided by the private sector,” Evans said in his report. “Just because the township has traditionally been the provider of a service does not mean that it is the only method of delivering the service to the residents of North Huron.
“A general rule of thumb used by many economists has been that the public sector should provide the services that the market (private sector) is unwilling to provide. This ensures that municipalities (which are typically less innovative and slower to adapt) are not competing with private sector businesses that often operate more efficiently and innovatively,” he said in his report.
Other things worth noting in the 2023 draft budget, Evans said in his report, is the decommissioning of the Howson Dam, the completion of accessibility ramps and doors at the township office, the completion of the new council chambers, the completion of several projects at the North Huron Wescast Community Centre that are funded by the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP). He added that new capital projects include improvements to Cruickshank Park, the tennis court and Wingham Trail expansion and the improvements to the HVAC system and flooring at the municipality’s childcare facility in Wingham.
The proposed property tax collection for the year is $8,154,992 in the draft budget, which is over $1 million higher than in the 2022 budget and nearly $500,000 more than what was proposed at North Huron’s first budget meeting, held late last year.
Property tax collection rates sat at 3.47 per cent in 2021 and 6.28 per cent and are now proposed to be 20.65 per cent in 2023. That represents a 7.25 per cent increase from the 13.4 per cent figure that was proposed at council’s first budget meeting.
Much of the discussion at the meeting surrounding Evans’s 13 recommendations, some of which were met with more support than others, with councillors concerned about cutting too much, especially in the department of recreation.
Heffer began the meeting with a statement that would re-appear later in the meeting, asking councillors to keep an open mind to the recommendations being presented and asking themselves if a community of about 5,000 can support two community centres. He suggested the township making the absolute best use of one, while making alternate uses for the other as something to be considered.
He also suggested that the township should not be in the business of operating a campground, similar to the discussion that happened during the previous term of council when the township divested itself of its airport.
He also called for better relationships with neighbouring municipalities and searching for better shared services in order to provide the most, at a reasonable cost, for all area residents.
Heffer then asked councillors what they felt the final tax rate increase should be and, while some answers varied, they settled on somewhere between six and eight per cent, citing the effect of inflation, which is about six per cent for the year.
Evans said staff would be happy to prepare a final draft of the budget with current service levels and the proposed tax increase, but he felt that would be unacceptable to council. He felt that staff could make some small cuts to bring the proposed increase down to between 16 and 18 per cent, but that council would have to make some hard decisions to bring it down further than that. He also cited council’s request for a review of discretionary and non-discretionary spending and the service delivery review completed by KPMG during the previous term of council.
Before tackling the recommendations, Councillor Anita van Hittersum asked if staff was prepared to present any cost-saving options that didn’t recommend closing facilities or clawing back services and Evans said that his recommendations were just a starting point and that council could decide to do anything it wished.
Councillor Mitch Wright, agreed, saying he didn’t feel council could cut its way to success. Cutting programs and closing facilities, he said, could only be done once and would only cut costs in the short-term, where he felt that much of the big-ticket items in the capital budget should be where council focused its attention.
In regards to the first recommendation - attracting a third-party to manage the Blyth Campground - Evans said bringing in someone to assume the potential losses and gains associated with the campground would save the township over $70,000. Furthermore, he said a third-party company could better manage the campground, something the township has not really had the ability to do in recent years.
Deputy-Reeve Kevin Falconer said the township simply doesn’t have the resources to use the location to its full potential, so he felt this could be an opportunity for North Huron, calling it an underutilized asset that could be used better.
That motion was carried. The motions passed at this meeting will further inform council’s next budget meeting, which has yet to be set, and none of these decisions are final.
The second recommendation, regarding hosting a museum in the township, was deferred. A delegation was scheduled to speak to council at its Jan. 16 meeting and council felt it was too early to make a decision until that delegation had an opportunity to address council.
The third recommendation was ongoing with staff and didn’t require a motion.
The fourth recommendation, to ask the county for more funding to host libraries in the township, was also carried, with van Hittersum asking if more funding for childcare facilities could also be requested, which council approved.
Council also directed staff to reduce its annual advertising contribution to the Blyth Centre for the Arts from $15,000 to $5,000 and to discontinue Municipal Civic Night.
Evans’s recommendation was that council reduce the contribution to $10,000, but Councillor Chris Palmer suggested trimming it further. Council also suggested reviewing further contributions at the end of the 2023 season.
Falconer, however, saw the discussion as part of a bigger one regarding the township’s advertising budget and asked for a staff review of advertising contributions being made by North Huron, which council approved.
Palmer said that the Festival posted a surplus at the end of the 2022 season and, if the Festival was indebted, he said he would feel different. But, with challenging times ahead financially for the township and the Festival in the black, he felt that reducing North Huron’s contribution made sense.
Council carried that motion.
The sixth recommendation, to meet with the Belgrave Community Centre Board to review the current deal between the two, was also passed.
Evans said the township annually contributes between $50,000 and $60,000 to the centre. Palmer said he would be happy to be part of those discussions to see if there were opportunities for cost savings, adding that the centre is important to the community.
There was also a recommendation to include Morris-Turnberry Council in a potential meeting to discuss a shared services opportunity, however, Clerk Carson Lamb said that the current agreement is between North Huron and the board, so council would be inviting in a third party that is not part of the agreement.
Council also voted in favour of the seventh recommendation, directing staff to survey childcare users and provide a detailed update of the required resources and challenges associated with the township’s four childcare programs. Falconer asked that childcare expansion to Blyth, which he has been asking for for years, be included in the review, which council approved.
For recommendation eight, regarding issuing a request for proposals for grass-cutting at the township’s cemeteries, council was also in favour. However, Falconer recommended expansion of the scope, saying that if cost savings could be found in grass-cutting for the cemeteries, perhaps they could be found elsewhere in the township, which council approved.
The ninth recommendation - the closure of the Blyth and District Community Centre between April 1 and Aug. 31 - was the first of three recreation-related recommendations that dominated much of the discussion of the day.
Director of Recreation and Community Services Vicky Luttenberger told council that, during the summer months, the facility is used by the Rutabaga Festival, the Band Dance Society, a rally car group, the Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association and others. She also pointed out that, during those months, the staff carry out maintenance and repairs at the centre that are not possible during the winter when the ice is in.
Evans, however, suggested that, if the centre was to be closed during the summer months, that those staff could be redeployed within the municipality to handle other tasks, including maintenance at parks, which Luttenberger said is already among the tasks being taken on by the staff in the off-season.
Evans also said that, it was his intention with the recommendation, that, even if council voted to move ahead with the recommendation, that the centre could be opened for groups that wished to rent it out, but that it would remain closed otherwise.
Palmer and Wright both spoke against the recommendation, saying they didn’t see the potential for cost savings. Palmer went even further, saying he felt the recommendation lacked relevance to the discussion and should be deleted. A motion to that effect, however, was defeated.
Falconer felt the Blyth centre was being targeted and felt that, if council wanted to review costs and potential savings, the same review should be applied to all of the township’s community centres. Several councillors, however, didn’t feel that would supply an apples-to-apples comparison when the different services provided in Blyth and Wingham were considered.
Falconer added that he didn’t necessarily disagree with closing the centre in the summer months, given what Evans had said about community events going ahead, but that he felt the same principle should then be applied township-wide.
Palmer disagreed, but reiterated that council didn’t want to close any arenas and that, even if the Blyth centre were to close during the summer months, it would be available for rentals, which didn’t constitute much of a change from the current model.
Evans reiterated his earlier stance, saying that staff has brought in a budget with a 20.65 per cent proposed tax increase, council wants an increase of between six and eight per cent, and someone needed to decide how to get there, balancing the needs and the wants of the community.
Palmer and Wright said that before they could weigh in further, they really needed to understand the potential savings associated with a summer closure, as that had not been provided by staff.
Wright then put forward a motion to investigate potentially closing the Blyth centre in the summer months after staff provided a detailed report on costs and potential savings offered by the move, which council approved.
The 10th recommendation - to close the fitness centre at the North Huron Wescast Community Centre in Wingham - was also met with opposition.
Wright said he would be fine with investigating bringing on a third party to manage the centre, as per Evans’s recommendation, but now with the set closure date of May 1.
Luttenberger then spoke to council about the importance of recreation to the community, saying that not all benefits to residents can be measured in dollars and cents.
She said that the recreation facilities and programs in North Huron are bouncing back after years of the COVID-19 pandemic and, while they need more time (five years had been forecast), the results are indicating that they are well on their way.
She also pointed out that, before the pandemic, council had harmed the centres by the imposition of non-resident user fees, which not only resulted in lost users from other municipalities, but residents who cancelled memberships in solidarity.
She said she has been working hard to bring the centres back to their pre-pandemic levels and that process is ongoing.
Luttenberger told council that recreation centres and parks all run at a loss and have never been designed to make money, saying that they “provide benefits to residents you can’t measure in dollars and cents.” She specifically cited the Wingham and Blyth community centres and the Blyth Campground, saying those assets mean so much to the community and that closing them or altering how services are delivered would cause damage to the community and harm the township’s reputation with residents.
She said her department is working hard to return to the 2019 service levels and that they are getting there, they just need the opportunity to flourish further.
Van Hittersum then asked that a report be prepared on all of the township’s recreation costs and potential for savings, so council could better understand the kind of savings to the township if certain decisions are made.
Falconer said he was concerned that any real cuts to recreation were being proposed in Blyth, calling the village the “sacrificial lamb” for the budget process. He said that assets like the campground and the arena pre-date amalgamation and were taken on by the community to better the village and that it was disheartening to have to fight for them in this way.
Heffer reminded him that the township is North Huron now and that council is charged with making decisions in the best interests of all of North Huron.
Palmer said he didn’t feel Blyth was being attacked, but that council needed to think through any drastic action on recreation. He said he was in favour of finding savings, but that some of the proposals being discussed, if approved, would have a drastic impact on people’s lives and that needed to be thoroughly considered.
The 11th recommendation - to close the Wingham pool annually for the months of July and August - found some favour with council, as Evans said those months, historically, are the least busy for the pool.
Luttenberger, again, came to the defence of recreation, saying that closing the pool for such a long period of time would have an effect on the health and well-being of residents. She suggested, instead, that if council was committed to closing the pool for eight weeks, that they be scattered throughout the year.
Council then supported the final two recommendations, which would be the discontinuation of free recreation programs (instead moving to a paid model) and the development of a subsidy program for those who are unable to pay.
After the 13 recommendations had been considered, councillors were then free to make motions ahead of the next budget meeting, which is when Heffer asked for a staff review of the community centres in Blyth and Wingham, asking if a community of about 5,000 could support both.
He said he wanted to look at the possibility of using one centre to its full potential and using the other as a “facility for whatever”, suggesting that the township could put its effort into making one centre work.
Falconer said he felt Heffer was driving for the closure of the Blyth arena and said that if council was considering closing one arena, perhaps it should be Wingham’s, which has a far higher debt load than the centre in Blyth if council is hoping to save money.
Heffer said he wasn’t lobbying for the closure of one arena for another, just for a report on the township’s ability to support two.
Council approved Heffer’s request for a report.
Wright then asked if council could prepare another report on finding potential savings with as little of an impact on services as possible, which council also passed.
Falconer then asked for a report from staff about a third-party operator coming in to manage the Blyth arena if council were to decide to close it. Palmer protested, saying council was not considering closing one of the arenas, but Falconer allowed his motion to stand, which was approved.
The next budget meeting was set for Jan. 27, but Clerk Carson Lamb said that, with staff’s to-do list, he felt it should be held at a later date. Council adjourned the meeting with the next budget meeting date yet to be determined.