A very trying budget process - Denny Scott Editorial
Every year, journalists across the globe dread the end of December/beginning of January for one reason: budgets.
Municipalities everywhere sit down to figure out which projects to keep, which projects to put off for another year and how to try and keep the budget as low as possible.
North Huron Council and staff sat through over five hours of budget discussion last week over two meetings and I sat, headphones on, watching it all at work over the township’s YouTube channel.
Budgets aren’t the most exciting fare when it comes to covering council, but, with a draft budget including a 14.7 per cent increase to taxation, I wasn’t going to miss (the recordings of) those meetings.
Typically, budgets do start with a high taxation increase and council tries to pare it down to make it as reasonable as possible. However, 14.7 per cent was higher than I remember seeing in... well... ever.
There are reasons for it of course: new staff at North Huron are trying to bring things up to the standards they feel are necessary which includes purchasing new software, hardware, equipment and other capital purchases.
Premier Kathleen Wynne’s poorly planned minimum wage hike and increase in benefits also play a part in the increase and, in the paraphrased words of North Huron’s own council, we don’t even know how much of an increase is coming.
Staff talked about individual departments seeing increases of nearly $20,000 due to the minimum wage hike alone with Reeve Neil Vincent saying each dollar of that increase was accompanied by up to $4 of extra benefits to be paid out, meaning, one department alone could see a $100,000 increase due to the government’s poor implementation of its ‘Hail Mary, try and win a bunch of votes’ plan.
And pay attention there, anyone who wants to say I’m wrong and Bill 148 is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I said the implementation was what caused these huge spikes.
While I disagree with Bill 148 at its core, I think the biggest problem that many people will have with the change is how it was shoved down our throats almost all at once.
Anyway, I’m getting off-topic here.
Councillors have a difficult row to hoe ahead of them and, in those two meetings, they had already started considering some significant moves to try and lessen the amount of money it takes to run the municipality.
For example, concession stands at local arenas could be on the chopping block.
While council has hemmed and hawed over closing the concession booths for years, there has always been a will to keep them going because arenas are important to communities.
I’m fully on board with that sentiment. I spent a good chunk of my childhood enjoying scalding, less-than-flavourful hot chocolate from arena booths while my father coached a Senior ‘A’ hockey team or enjoying a quick snack while watching my siblings play.
Unfortunately, as a taxpayer, I can no longer argue with council members who want to do away with the concession booths. Due to the increased minimum wage, running those booths is either going to drive the cost of a hot chocolate to Starbucks levels or cost taxpayers significant amounts of money.
Take note, those who disagree with me over Bill 148, if council does away with the concession stands and the part-time jobs associated with them, it will be proof that Wynne cost us jobs in rural Ontario (and I’m sure more of that will come in the near future).
Other centres have either been built without concession stands or, like Brussels, done away with them and instead brought in vending machines. It’s not an ideal solution, but even I, the man who will go to his death bed saying ice sports are what make us truly Canadian, can’t argue concession booths are sustainable.
Capital expenses are usually where a council starts cutting to try and make the budget work but, as Councillor Trevor Seip pointed out during the meetings, all that does is pass the buck further down the line.
Normally, council can get these increases below five per cent but I wouldn’t be surprised to see North Huron’s above that and, take it from me, with the exception of some fitness equipment that doesn’t really benefit the people of Blyth and East Wawanosh, there isn’t a heck of a lot to cut.
Normally, I’d weigh in and say don’t cut this or that, but when faced with a 14.7 per cent increase, I only have one suggestion for North Huron Council: Even if you want to switch Wingham to the OPP, this may not be the year to consider adding $480,000 to the budget. Save that for a year when Wynne hasn’t left you hamstrung.
On a side note, if you do decide to go with the OPP, the costs to shut down the Wingham Police better be pro-rated and not taken out of general reserves as seemed to be the suggestion during the budget meeting. That’s not an expense for Blyth and East Wawanosh.