Basic discussion descends into council mayhem

Grimsby council struggles to work through the simplest of administrative issues

By Mike Williscraft

A simple budget item to establish the Town’s tax rate set off another round of finger pointing, raised voices, points of order, calls for sanctions and microphones being muted at Monday’s meeting of Grimsby council.

After Grimsby’s director of finance Steven Gruninger worked through the document which sets the Town’s tax levy and tax rates – with 2020 total revenue at $14.37 million up from $12.48 million in 2019 – Coun. Lianne Vardy renewed her call for a review of the 2020 budget “to give our residents some relief.”

Aside from the matter of extreme time contraints outlined by Gruninger due to filing deadlines of tax rate information with Niagara Region and the Province of Ontario, some members of council thought a review completely unnecessary while others said it was premature since a report on the financial impact of COVID-19 on the town is expected at the June 1 council meeting.

“There are 2-3 councillors – from their limited knowledge of municipal budgets – who propose to reduce the budget”

Coun. Dave Sharpe

Coun. Kevin Ritchie called it “crazy” to review the budget, which brought in a 13.4 per cent increase on the Town portion of the tax bill. He said council should wait until after hearing the June 1 report before considering such a move.

Coun. Dave Sharpe noted that Niagara Region has already announced COVID-19’s impact will be about $7 million while Welland has confirmed a $4.4 million hit, so he did not want the budget changed so the town did not double up on the financial hit.

Sharpe said if revenues are reduced and COVID-19 pushes costs up, the Town would pay “two ways”.
“It’s a mistake,” said Sharpe of lowering the budget. “There are 2-3 councillors – from their limited knowledge of municipal budgets – who propose to reduce the budget.”

Similar to Coun. Randy Vaine’s assertion at the previous meeting of council that the CAO should have the ability to make unilateral decisions, Sharpe said the town had experienced staff who should make the call on spending.

At that point, Vaine threw more gas on the fire by citing the debate regarding a $72,000 lawnmower purchase approved at the last council meeting, what he considered a waste of money to get a legal opinion on an interim control bylaw discussed earlier Monday and the Town’s spend on a heritage study planned for Main Street East which he has noted several times is not needed.

“If you want to spend your money on pet projects, let’s bring back the biodigester. That was a pet project.”

At that point, Vardy called a point of order, saying, “I am offended”, before she was cut off by Vaine, who maintained he was “on topic”. When he persisted as Mayor Jeff Jordan attempted to take control, Vaine’s microphone was cut off and comments simply moved on to Coun. Reg Freake.

“I take offence at Coun. Sharpe saying we don’t know anything about budgets,” said Freake.

“Revenue is what makes a budget, then you put costs around them. If we can cut costs, then we don’t spend money on hirings we don’t need. It’s not in the best interests of the Town. What is it about that that you guys have such a negative attitude about going back and looking at it (spending).”

What Sharpe seemed to misunderstand noted Coun. Reg Freake was that his interest in a review was to get projected costs down to create a financial buffer for the COVID-19 financial hit council knows is coming.

The subsequent item on the agenda – the extension of some financial measures waiving tax late fees and interest – was estimated to cost the Town about $180,000 on its own, noted Freake.

“It happens all the time in the business world, every quarter budgets are reviewed. I get frustrated when we keep sticking our heads in the sand when this (a review of spending) is in the best interests of the Town.”

In the past, Freake and others had supported a hiring freeze, among other possible measures, with the Town having approved many new positions in the 2020 budget, however five councillors who largely pushed the budget through have remained steadfast in not allowing any reconsideration of expenses or directions they have already approved.

Vardy had sought to get a two-thirds majority to bring the budget up for review Monday night, but Jordan noted staff were not prepared and said he would support dealing with it at the May 19 meeting of council.

In the subsequent debate regarding the relief measure from COVID-19 impact, Sharpe suggested residents would be better off to pay other expenses and withhold their tax payments since the Town’s interest rate was only 1.25 per cent.

When Jordan noted it was 1.25 per cent month – 15 per cent annually – Sharpe realized his error.

“Don’t follow my financial advice,” he laughed.

Freake renewed his assertion that costs need to be put in check immediately.

“These guys (Niagara Region and Welland) are looking at their budgets and figuring out where they can cut costs,” said Freake.

CAO Harry Schlange said there have been two rounds of cuts – March 14 and April 6 – already.

“We thought you would come back with another request,” said Schlange, so another review has been ongoing looking for more cost savings.

He asked council to wait for his June 1 report which he said would give a “comprehensive look” at the Town’s financial picture.

When Vardy weighed back in to say she would prefer to reopen the matter Monday as opposed to waiting two more weeks, and followed that with a request the mayor sanction Vaine “for his disparaging remarks”, Vaine jumped in again saying he found Vardy’s comments offensive and he requested the mayor sanction Vardy.

Gruninger noted the clock was ticking with June 1 being the deadline when tax information had to be submitted elsewhere.

So with Schlange, Ritchie and Sharpe all saying council should wait until June 1’s report, Jordan said it was clear that suggestion was worthless.

“So waiting to June was bad advice. We need to do this May 19,” noted Jordan.
Sharpe, again, went off seemingly missing Freake’s point again.

“If we reduce the budget, it saves money for taxpayers but we have to pay for things,” said Sharpe.

“It’s backwards.”

Sharpe’s sound was cut off.

“How did we get so off topic,” asked Coun. Dave Kadwell.

Council got back on topic and passed the relief measures unanimously.

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