In the town’s final meeting on the operating budget before its scheduled approval expected this Tuesday, council decided to double up on this year’s contribution to its capital reserves to the tune of another $150,000, bringing 2023’s tax levy hike to 8.58 per cent, or $104.96 more to pay this year.
At the budget review committee’s fourth meeting of the month on Thursday, March 23, council did a final review of plans to hire a new batch of full-time employees, and discussed the budget requests five local organizations are making this year, totalling $1.4 million.
In addition, Coun. Wendy Cheropita proposed increasing the municipality’s 2023 contribution to its capital reserves by $300,000 instead of $150,000 – one of three budget package options senior staff presented to council at the start of budget deliberations.
This reserve is a pocket of money the town adds to annually to pay for capital expenses throughout the year. The town’s contributions have fluctuated over the last 10 years, and since 2020 has remained at $2.1 million
Cheropita argued that with over $1 million going to hiring and retaining 15 employees, plus upcoming financial pressures such as settling the million-dollar Cole Drain clean-up from last summer’s spill, legal suits, and potentially updating municipal parking meters, the town should top up its capital spending pool.
“I just don’t want to find ourselves having these significant expenses and not being able to really cover them effectively,” she said. Her motion passed 7-2.
During the meeting, some elected officials expressed disappointment the town couldn’t present a leaner budget this year. Including the storm levy for residents in urban areas, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s total tax hike for 2023 will be 10.31 per cent.
As treasurer Kyle Freeborn shared, without this year’s $787,453 decrease to public transit expenses, as Niagara-on-the-Lake uploads transit services with the new regional system, the tax levy would have been as much as 15.8 per cent
“I know we needed a significant increase this year, because of what we did in the last years,” Coun. Sandra O’Connor said, “but a 15 per cent increase is just too large of an increase for one year.”
Wiens, supported the staffing boost is needed to provide the level of service people in the community need and expect.
“The question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Are we a world-class destination with the services that we have?’” he said. “We run a skeleton crew – we’re running our people ragged.”
“This is a tough decision,” said Zalepa, “but I’m very confident that we’re delivering the kind of community we want to see in the next four years and I think this budget confidently does that.”
In a series of final efforts to find savings, separate motions were put forth to defer hiring a mechanic, executive officer to the Lord Mayor’s office, economic development officer, digital records coordinator, and a health and safety coordinator, to 2024. All these motions were defeated.
As per a previous motion put forth by Coun. Gary Burroughs, treasurer Kyle Freeborn confirmed the town will update its plans to hire an associate planner to a senior planner instead, with an additional $20,000 added to the budgeted salary.
As for the review of budget requests from community partners, Coun. Maria Mavridis proposed keeping the town’s contribution to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library’s budget at $786,278, 2022’s approved budget, rather than granting the library board’s request for an additional $53,189 this year. Her motion, which also asks the library board to investigate other ways of increasing donations and fundraising, passed 5-3.
“I think there are areas that can be looked at that would help with these efficiencies,” said O’Connor of the library’s financial planning: for example, she said, the local library currently has two volunteers, while the Lincoln Pelham Public Library has 135.
At the end of the meeting, O’Connor proposed allocating $20,000 in the budget to help with the recruitment of a new family physician for the local health centre, due to a lack of family health care services in town, and her motion passed.
“We have needs for a family physician here, so I want to be on a level playing ground with other municipalities,” she said. St. Catharines and Fort Erie put aside funding in their budgets to subsidize a moving cost for a family physician, or whatever they would need, with the money going directly to the physician, she told councillors.
In total, the committee spent nearly 10 hours deliberating over the operating budget this March, and are scheduled to have a final discussion before approving both this and the capital budget on Tuesday afternoon, March 28.