By Mike Williscraft
Despite a hiccup on the communications end of things, Grimsby council is happy with its 1.81 per cent 2021 tax increase approved at the March 1 council meeting.
The increase translates to $21 more in property taxes on a home with an average assessed value of $444,000, plus the additional $10 special West Lincoln Memorial Hospital levy. The overall blended tax increase – including Niagara Region and school board levies is 1.75 per cent.
The 1.81 per cent is purely from increases on operations spending as capital spending is budgeted to be level with 2020.
The $10 WLMH portion adds 0.83 per cent to the 2021 levy.
When the budget process was initially discussed in January, there was to be two presentations to council with a public input session.
When the budget was presented at the Feb. 23 Committee of the Whole meeting no public notice of the meeting had been issued other than social media and a posting on the Town’s website.
By approving the budget first time past the post, there was no other opportunity for the public to provide any input prior to it getting council approval six days later.
“Overall, I was quite pleased with this year’s budget. Staff did a great job in this difficult year,” said Mayor Jeff Jordan this week.
“I think the biggest disappointment is that we missed the deadline to inform the public about the budget meeting in the newspaper. The number one citizen survey result highlighted that residents want to see greater accountability and transparency.”
Coun. Dorothy Bothwell echoed some of the mayor’s sentiments, but noted communications with public needs to be heightened not just for the budget, but other areas in which the Town conducts business as well.
“We need to continue to encourage innovative ways that allow the community to be effectively engaged in how we are meeting their needs and identify areas that may need extra attention,” said Bothwell this week.
“Community feedback in the budget process is essential to ensure we maintain our focus and continue to respect taxpayer funds.”
During his presentation Feb. 23, town director of finance, Steven Gruninger did note what was done to get 2021 budget information in front of the public. An online budget survey was set up online from Jan. 21-Feb. 16, which generated 249 total visits with 129 surveys completed. It was available through Twitter, Facebook and the Town’s website.
CAO Harry Schlange said council has not accomplished much of the heavy lifting needed to reset the Town’s course from several negative planning markers from 2018.
“You set a bold and courageous direction in 2020. You invested in the future. This provided a lot of momentum,” Schlange told council to kick off the budget rollout.
Schlange noted foundations for several items listed in a set of strategic priorities established in March 2020 have been set, including West Lincoln
Memorial Hospital Funding, the Town’s first comprehensive transit system and heritage planning for Grimsby Beach.
“We’re bending the curve upward. When this council took over in 2018, we were in an operation deficit position and over the last two years, with some slight surpluses, we’re really moving forward on advancing our reserves,” said Schlange, noting reserves are up 41 per cent to $4.2 million.
Grimsby posted a $1.1 million surplus in 2019 and another $330,000 in 2020
Getting the funding for WLMH in place was a major goal achieved, said Coun. Dave Sharpe this week.
“After decades of fighting for a new hospital, previous town councils never planned how to pay for the hospital. Residents donated money, and that is still safely in the WLMH Foundation. But in 2020, council implemented a plan to pay for the hospital by gradually adding to the levy over four years,” said Sharpe.
“The special hospital levy added $10 to the average tax bill this year and by the end of the four-year plan in 2024 we will have enough in the budget to cover Grimsby’s contribution to the hospital via a debenture (loan) over 20-30 years. That is something I’m really proud to have accomplished in the last few years on council.”
At the Feb. 23 presentation, Gruninger noted that when staff initiated the budget process, the goal was wrangling all with an eye to keeping any increase down for 2021.
“The CAO and I decided that, in order to keep this budget under control, there had to be no increase in capital spending,” said Gruninger, noting that was achieved.
Even with the 1.83 per cent increase – considerably down from major increases in the last two years, Jordan would have liked to see an even sharper pencil.
“I am concerned that we may be budgeting with a surplus in mind. We are still in a pandemic but our budget numbers don’t reflect that. I would be happier if we brought forward a lower increase to minimize a potential surplus as we move forward. I would also like to have seen a greater detail of distribution paths of our provincial COVID-19 relief,” said Jordan, adding he was pleased to see heritage getting some recognition “but needs to go further.”
There are many key initiatives on the table for 2021, some of the highlights include:
• Casablanca/QEW Interchange – signalization of on/off ramps, four-land cross section with centre median, multi-use pedestrian pathway to enhance public safety and improved traffic flow;
• Downtown Grimsby Secondary School Land Use Study
• Downtown Reimagined
BUSINESS ATTRACTION/ GROWTH & RETENTION
• RED Grant: Business Retention & Expansion
• Value Proposition, marketing and capacity building
• Employment land inventory and analysis
• Initiate long-term economic development strategy
• Ward boundary, council composition review
• Customer service excellence
• Shared services
• Develop Bang The Table as a communications tool
Regarding the environment, Gruninger said there will be “Further advancing the Town shoreline protection, tree planting and the Carolinian forest.
We’re looking at implementing a climate action framework and looking at some facility energy audits for Peach King Centre, Town Hall and the library.”
Shoreline protection will be enhanced at the Whittaker Park and pumphouse, Coronation Park along the 40 Mile Creek along 6th-9th Street in Grimsby Beach.
“I am pleased that we are presenting a budget with a reasonable tax increase. However, I’ve asked that more money be directed from within the budget to support the Carolinian tree initiative because of the incredible response I’ve received from the community,” said Coun. Lianne Vardy, who brought forward the idea to council of developing Grimsby to be the Carolinian Capital of Canada last month.
Community amenities will either be created or updated with replacement of the Gibson Street bridge, start of the Casablanca Beach Park build, and a new pickle ball court being built.
“This (the latter) got a lot of attention in the Grimsby budget survey,” noted Gruninger.
Main Street East, which has been the subject of a great deal of debate in recent months will also be getting some major attention.
A comprehensive strategy to include a demolition control bylaw, Part IV designations, Heritage Conservation District Study and various planning instruments “as appropriate” – with a projected cost of $300,000 will be part of the 2021 mix.
Grimsby Beach’s planning process will continue with community engagement, a land use planning study and implementation plan – with a projected cost of $140,000.
Neither will have any levy impact, however, as they will be paid for from reserves and development charges.
The planning process which will steer a revitalization process for Grimsby’s downtown core will also get underway.
“We’ll look at holding strong visioning exercise with the whole community to shape the future of Grimsby’s downtown, which includes a priority of a pedestrian square, which was brought up in council’s strategic priorities,” said Gruninger.
“The exercise will also integrate concurrent projects like the downtown watermain replacement, Century Condos and the continuation of the patio program.”
This aspect was also part of the strategic priorities set by council about one year ago.
“The 2021 budget supports council’s strategic priorities. This budget reflects the hard work of Town staff to balance COVID-19 impacts while delivering on our community’s expectations,” said Bothwell this week.
“Moving forward with initiatives such as the downtown visioning for a pedestrian square, a safe cycling infrastructure and enhancement of the Casablanca Road overpass will energize vital connections and bring residents together from across town.”
For Coun. Reg Freake, there was a lot of good teed up for 2021, but like Jordan, some concerns with patterns remain.
“I’m relatively happy with the budget in general, however, a couple of concerns were: the increase in budgeted administration costs which was up by 15 per cent over last year and planning costs up by 75 per cent whereas our Heritage/Cultural and Parks/Rec was down by 11 per cent and 12.5 per cent respectfully,” said Freake this week.
“One of the smaller but concerning new items on the revenue line items in 2020 was related to Freedom Of Information where the revenue was budgeted at $50 but the actual revenue was $3,989. In the 2021 budget this was increased to $2,500, which reflects the concerns of the community. I would like to see a more wholesome review of the process and justifications related to how the town deals with surplus – ie. underspent budgets going forward.”
Coun. Dave Kadwell said the 2021 budget is nothing but upside.
“In my opinion, the 2021 budget is financially responsible, I am very pleased that it was unanimously approved by council. We have covered the Town’s responsibility to WLMH and also moving forward with the Heritage Study, and other initiatives to move Grimsby forward in a very positive way,” said Kadwell.
All members of council were asked to submit comments regarding the 2021 budget. Councillors Kevin Ritchie, John Dunstall and Randy Vaine did not offer any input.