By Mike Williscraft
Grimsby council has recommended an historic budget – complete with a 16.7 per cent increase on the local portion of residents’ tax bills – last week which included many firsts.
Included among the firsts:
• It could be the first time any council approved a budget with so high an increase;
• It was the first time a council approved funding – $250,000 – for a door-to-door transportation system;
• Council voted to hire permanent staff for communications and economic development for the first time;
• After being obligated to a $2.5 million commitment to West Lincoln Memorial Hospital’s rebuild initiative more than two decades ago, council implemented a funding formula for those funds as well as the additional $9.5 million which will be also needed in the new funding formula for the WLMH rebuild;
• Council voted to hire new staff for an economic development officer for the first time, and;
• A record level of $350,000 – ramped up by an additional $250,000 from its $100,000 2019 level – has been earmarked to sup- port costs for the Town’s legal battles on planning matters.
Very little was reduced from the budget presentation which came to council which initially proposed an 18.46 per cent increase on the Town portion.
The updated budget document will come to council at its regular meeting next Monday, March 2 to be ratified.
In voicing his support for many of the budget items, Coun. Randy Vaine noted the increase sounded like a lot more than it really is, if one just looks at the percentage hit on the Town portion. He has repeatedly stated the proposed percentage based on the combined property tax bill was much more modest.
As noted, the Town portion increase is 16.7 per cent, while the overall combined increase – including Region and school board impacts is 8.1 percent or $352 on a home with an average assessment of $444,000.
At several points in the three- hour-plus meeting Coun. Lianne Vardy questioned council’s need to adopt all the items suggested in the budget outline.
Vaine actually offered a motion to add another $40,000 item to revive the Town’s support of the Grimsby Gateway tourism kiosk, an initiative which was cut by the Grimsby Economic Development Advisory Committee.
The budget does include a $7,000 spend for some sponsorship at Gateway, but the reduction in sup- port could prove catastrophic, according to project management.
“I keep coming back to what we can afford,” said Vardy, noting there was no prioritization done in the document.
“Everything in the budget is great, wonderful things. When I consider what is most important, this is not it. We have to make some reductions somewhere.”
Other than a couple of minor items which were deferred to 2021’s budget, there were no changes.
Vardy noted her concerns regarding the record-level tax increase come just prior to an MPAC property evaluation adjustment which is expected to push tax bills considerably higher – unless council opts to reconfigure the taxation formula to offset some of any impact.
“This is the kind of thing that is going to drive people from their homes. I think shaving off six per cent is some- thing we can do,” said Vardy to no avail.
“I think the overall budget is great. The Town has been starved,” said Vaine.
To set the table for the budget discussions, CAO Harry Schlange noted many shortcomings in the decision-making of previous councils.
Among his comments, his said council missed an opportunity in 2010 to address a gap in infrastructure funding which other municipalities in Niagara did do.
“The Town did not take advantage of that in 2010,” said Schlange, noting previous councils depleted reserves more than they should have as he noted a chart showing the decline.
“That line (on the chart) should have been going the opposite way.”
Citing several factors, Schlange said, “This is the time to invest.”
Council’s plan to generate its $12 million portion of funds for the WLMH includes $200,000 increments being added to the budget for four years. After the fourth year, $800,000 will be included.
“Estimated annual debt service of $800,000 per year starting in 2024 for 20 years (will be included),” reads the budget proposal.
When the initial rebuild project was put in place in 2000, the projected cost was $25 million with $12.5 million (50 per cent) being the Niagara West requirement.
Now in 2020, the projected cost is $200 million for WLMH with $60 million being the Niagara West requirement (30 per cent).
With an expenditure of $250,000, council opted into Niagara Region-run inter-municipal transportation plan.
Lincoln and Pelham councils have eliminated their local transit systems to implement on-demand services, which includes door-to- door service.
After Vardy noted concern with adding to Grimsby dollars owing to the Region and suggesting the item be deferred to see what direction Lincoln and Pelham take on transit, Schlange made an unusual move to engage council in the debate.
Schlange said he looked at previous Grimsby reports which suggested spending as much as $1 million on a transit proposal and told council now is the time “to get in on the ground floor and shape the program.”
“Thank you for your opinion,” said Vardy, adding she was supportive of the concept, but a wait-and-see attitude could be beneficial.
“We have the opportunity to wait and see what other municipalities are doing,” she said.
Coun. Reg Freake agreed noting council should be looking for a way to cut back from the initially proposed 18.6 per cent budget increase.
“This is one of the items we have to look at for a possible cut,” said Freake.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about for a year. It’s time to get on with it,” said Vaine.
When the conversation turned to a transit survey conducted last year, it was noted that 96 per cent of taxpayers wanted a transit service if it was free and that support constantly dropped dramatically as proposed fees were suggested.
The proposal includes a $1 per ride fee, with Niagara Region subsidizing the remainder.
Coun. Dorothy Bothwell noted that Town of Lincoln’s ULinc program came in with an end cost of $132/ride as all said and done, so opting into the regional program makes sense.
Mayor Jeff Jordan also noted the Town needs to have a transit program in play to tie in with GO Transit initiatives.
“This is one time I can say it is good the previous council didn’t jump in,” said Jordan.
“Now is a good spot to jump in. There is security in numbers; coupling with GO, point- to-point transit and it will move the Town of Grimsby forward. We cannot afford not to do this.”
Council approved of budget items on a line-by-line basis. On transit, a recorded vote was called with only Vardy dissenting.
Hiring new staff for communications positions also went to a recorded vote with Freake, Vardy and Bothwell opposing, while Vaine, Coun. Dave Sharpe, Coun. John Dunstall, Coun. Kevin Ritchie, Coun. Dave Kadwell and Jordan voting in favour.
Staff for economic development ($95,000), communications ($117,000), a park specialist ($80,000) and a recreation programmer ($84,000) will also be added in 2020. The park specialist was a recommended hire in a Town report 30 years ago, but was part of past council’s ignoring of needs, said Vaine.
The budget includes funding for several studies and resources for a variety of issues.
Council has planned:
• $50,000 for an Irish Grove Woodlot study; • $100,000 for a down- town parking study;
• $100,000 for a Grimsby Beach Land Use Planning Study, and;
• $100,000 for a Main Street East Cultural Heritage Landscape Study.
The latter set off another debate among councillors who argued about the scope and terms of reference for the heritage study.
Confusion set in when Coun. Sharpe suggested the downtown parking study could be merged with the second phase of the Main Street street study.
Coun. Bothwell explained the two studies will be very different: the parking study would be a land use analysis under the Planning Act, while the Main Street study will be a historic and cultural-oriented study under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Vaine questioned spending any funds on the Main Street study at all.
“Do we need to spend the $100,000 for this study?” asked Vaine, “Plus we have the Grimsby Beach one.”
Dunstall lamented the current council’s decision to kill the hospital corridor land use planning study launched by the previous council.
“To allow for expanded facilities to support the hospital on Main East was the plan for the corridor study,” noted Dunstall.
Vardy noted all members of council ran in the 2018 election with responsible development planning as part of their platform. She noted she and Kadwell had participated in a meeting with a large group of concerned citizens and committed to supporting the Main Street heritage study.
Coun. Ritchie said the proposal of what is to be done did not have enough specifics, citing a series of items he had “looked up” under a definition of a secondary plan.
Bothwell explained to Ritchie all the language he said he wanted was already in the Town’s Official Plan.
“That is why I say refer to the Official Plan,” said Bothwell. “It is all in the Official Plan as part of the process.”
When Ritchie contested the name of the proposal should be the Main Street East Study, as it as offered in the budget report, Bothwell noted that title was incorrect and needed to be changed to the working title used in all previous discussions, Main Street East Cultural Heritage Landscape or Heritage Conservation District Study.
Kadwell confirmed what Vardy had said.
“It’s important to look at what we have and how we want it to look in the future, so I will be supporting the study,” said Kadwell.
Minutes later, while a recorded vote was be- ing conducted, Kadwell actually voted against the study proposal. After a couple of other councillors had voted – giving Freake a chance to explain to Kadwell he had voted against something he said he was going to support – Kadwell changed his vote.
The final tally on the recorded vote to support the heritage study was: Bothwell, Freake, Kadwell, Sharpe, Vardy and Jordan in favour. Ritchie, Vaine and Dunstall against.