Personality clashes, irate residents and some compromise at lengthy meeting
By Mike Williscraft
In a rollercoaster of a budget debate, Grimsby council whittled its 2020 budget increase to 13.4 per cent on the Town portion – down from a projected 16.7 per cent.
The increase represents $137 on an average home assessed at $444,000.
When combined with taxes from the Niagara Region and school boards, these investments result in an overall increase of 7.15 per cent for Grimsby taxpayers – comprised of the Town’s tax bill impact comes in at 3.74 per cent and the region’s 3.41 per cent.
In the meeting, which spanned more than five-and-a-half hours, some budget items drew extensive debate, while others passed unchallenged.
Some of the items approved, included:
• An annual investment as part of Grimsby’s funding commitment to the redevelopment of West Lincoln Memorial Hospital – $200,000;
• On-demand public transit solutions, developed in partnership with Niagara Region and neighbouring communities – $250,000;
• Shoreline protection to maintain and enhance public access to the waterfront;
• Investments in parks, tree planting, heritage protection and green initiatives – $59,000;
• Increase in the legal budget to ensure new development is in the best interests of the community – $250,000;
• Enhancements to valued community events like the annual tree lighting ceremony – $13,000;
• Financially sustainable solutions for snow removal – $130,000;
• Public safety investments in fire services – $91,000;
• A dedicated Town economic development function to help Grimsby businesses start, stay and grow in the community – $44,000 prorated with a September start date, but a $150,000 annual cost projected in 2021 and beyond, and;
• Main Street East Cultural Heritage Landscape Study or Heritage Conservation District Study – $100,000.
The casualties, either items which were deferred or eliminated, include:
• New hire for communications – $113,000;
•Infrastructure levy of $125,000 deferred to next year;
• Wayfinding study – $16,000 – referred to staff to find funding from within existing budgets, and;
• Council facility upgrades (mainly new chairs for council members and a microphone bank for department heads at council meetings) – $35,800.
The standing-room-only crowd heard a series of speakers – both through delegations and the inaugural session of an “open mic” format prior to budget discussion. While two residents registered as delegates, seven signed up in the town hall lobby for the open mic.
Open mic speakers were given two minutes each to share their thoughts on the proposed budget.
Resident George Trifunovic reviewed a lengthy series of numbers to show council the impact to residents is higher than they seem to believe.
Quoting a letter from former council member Nick DiFlavio who called council’s budget “unbridled spending”, Trifunovic said council appeared to “rubber stamp the requests of staff.”
Coun. Randy Vaine said Trifunovic got stuck on the same information other residents did – the 16.7 per cent increase number – for which he blamed local newspaper coverage.
“They didn’t do a proper job,” said Vaine, adding he provided a standard reply to inquiries over the last week to which he got a “Thanks for clarifying” response.
Several members of the gallery shouted down Vaine at that point with comments ranging from “Shame” to “Dunstall looks like he’s falling asleep during these council meetings”.
Vaine went on to justify his budget position, but Mayor Jeff Jordan interjected with a point of order noting Vaine was off topic if he did not have any questions of the speaker.
Vaine shot back that he wanted to lodge a formal complaint on the record about being cut off.
At that point, resident Chris Jack stood in the gallery blasting Vaine.
“Why don’t you listen to your mayor? I am disappointed in five of you, one I am very disappointed in. Why don’t you get your head out of your #@!es?”
He immediately walked out on the meeting.
In the open mic portion, former alderman Joanne Johnston was first up, citing her concerns with higher taxes on local seniors and basic affordability for young adults to stay in Grimsby.
Gary McClure noted his concern at the little amount of public input into this year’s budget process.
Director of finance Steve Gruninger had noted a draft budget was presented at an early committee of the whole meeting and the draft of the initial proposed budget was available online three weeks before the Feb. 18 session, adding there was also a budget survey online which garnered 200 respondents.
“I read it in the paper, now there is a vote,” said McClure of how the process looked to him, adding his pension went up $21 in 2019 while his old age security went up $6.
Lisa Sesnic signed up but she wanted to address council’s ouster of Coun. Dorothy Bothwell as chair of the Town’s heritage committee in favour of Coun. John Dunstall.
The open mic portion was designated specifically to the budget topic, however.
Gruninger teed up council for the remainder of the meeting by prefacing debate with an overview of the proposed budget document.
Among the items noted, Gruninger said even with the proposed 16.7 per cent increase, Grimsby would still have the second lowest tax rate, $285, in Niagara and it would still be $533 below the regional average.
When Coun. Bothwell questioned how some of the items got included since council’s standing committees “had no input” into the document, Gruninger noted the process started with staff meeting to develop the operation budget portion keeping any increase to the rate of inflation, 2.2 per cent.
After the list of needs was developed, the first draft went to a committee of the whole meeting and it was also posted online.
Coun. Reg Freake set the table for the item by item debate by suggesting council needed to make some tough decisions to better serve the taxpayers.
“We cannot and should not try to achieve all of our strategic priorities in one budget. We have to listen to our shareholders,” said Freake.
He later moved that council take a 20 per cent pay deduction to show residents they take fiscal responsibility seriously.
During debate on that motion – which included claims by Coun. Dave Sharpe that Freake was “grandstanding” – it was noted Grimsby is currently about 10 per cent over the regional average on compensation to elected officials.
That motion was defeated in a recorded vote 6-3 with Coun. Lianne Vardy, Bothwell and Freake voting for, while Coun. Kevin Ritchie, Coun. John Dunstall, Vaine, Coun. Dave Kadwell, Jordan and Sharpe opposed.
Council opted to delay a $125,000 item which would start a long-term plan to close a gap in infrastructure financial planning.
While a gap exists and will expand over the long haul if unattended, Gruninger noted council could delay this item by one year with no serious detrimental impact to their long-term plan.
Given that was even one year of flexibility, council took that route but that came in a close 5-4 vote with Jordan, Bothwell, Vardy, Dunstall, Freake voting to remove the item from the 2020 budget, while Sharpe, Vaine, Ritchie and Kadwell voted to keep it.
Calling the development of a communications department “absolutely critical”, CAO Harry Schlange said the Town needs a communications person in place to establish common branding, heighten public engagement and root out available grant opportunities.
Sharpe suggested many options – from making the position part-time to delaying the start to reduce financial impact to making it a contract position to sharing services with another municipality. None had any sway with Schlange.
Schlange noted Town of Lincoln has 2.5 staff on communications but the municipality was not interested in sharing services.
Bothwell noted that a communications position was initially included in the 2019 budget but at a rate of $36,000, asking why the jump to more than $100,000?
Schlange said that figure was needed to attract “top talent to do a good job.”
After Freake suggested going with a junior communications person to get costs down was rejected, council voted 6-3 to remove the position from the budget entirely.
Bothwell, Vardy, Kadwell, Freake, Sharpe, Jordan voted it down, while Ritchie, Dunstall and Vaine supported it.
Council unanimously opted to keep a $250,000 item for a legal fund in place.
Sharpe noted this fund is needed to allow council any ability at all to shape development as it comes down the pipe.
Noting the previous councils would consistently allow six-, eight- and 10 storey structures for “fear of costs” to oppose them, Sharpe said the Town can no longer allow that to happen.
“Residents said they would pay to allow us to fight. When some developers come in and want to build twice the height, twice the density or reduce parking…we need to stand up,” said Sharpe.
Council fully agreed, supporting this initiative unanimously.
Some members of council were skeptical of the cost for an economic development officer suggested by Schlange, not about the value of such a position.
Schlange initially told council the full year salary for the position would be $102,000 and confirmed $17,500 would be set for a budget for conferences and travel. The department, a new one, would have a price tag of $150,000 all in.
Schlange told council there are 2,500 businesses in Grimsby and most of a community’s growth comes through expansion, not new business. Getting to network with all the businesses would take a lot of time.
Kadwell said he supported the hire, noting the Grimsby Economic Development Advisory Committee, which he chairs, had a survey done of vacant land which revealed 11 properties vacant, although not Town-owned.
“This is the right time,” said Kadwell of creating the position.
When trying to find an alternative method to cover the position’s cost, Dunstall suggested the Town initiate a business registry which would include a licensing fee, “That could pay for the economic development.”
Schlange said that was an option, but it would not cover the cost.
“We are looking into business licenses,” said Schlange.
Again it was suggested by Freake that council look at other options with hire such as delaying the start time and contracting the position.
Bothwell suggested having a two-year renewable contract with results earning a renewal or the position being made full-time at that point.
Vaine rejected the idea of a contract hire.
“If you’re a quality person, you’re not taking a two-year contract,” said Vaine.
Schlange told council to make the position full-time “or don’t approve it”.
The delayed hire suggestion was defeated in a 5-4 vote but a September start, which would save $44,000 in 2020, was approved in a 7-2 recorded vote with only Bothwell and Vardy opposing.
PARKS & REC
Both new hires – a parks manager and recreation programmer – in the parks and recreation department survived.
There was considerable debate for both positions, but council ultimately agreed these positions had been shuffled from year-to-year and were long overdue to be filled.
While there was some interest noted in doing away with all studies, most of the discussion centred around what to call the Main Street East study.
A culture and heritage study for Grimsby Beach was supported unanimously, but a culture and heritage study for Main East survived…barely.
Sharpe wanted staff to provide direction going so far as to say, “We’re not allowed to question their advice”, while Bothwell noted the community has spoken up many times saying they want council to have more control and direction for development, adding a culture and heritage study would give them a rudder.
“The community wants a heritage district study. There is no ambiguity,” said Bothwell.
In the end, the original motion for a heritage study was approved 6-3 with Vaine, Ritchie and Dunstall opposing.