Huron County budget set with three per cent tax increase - Feb. 8, 2018
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Huron County Council has opted to increase its tax levy by three per cent, funding additional increases to the budget from its reserves.
Council made the decision at an all-day budget meeting held in Goderich last week. The 2018 budget will now officially be considered at the March 7 meeting of council.
The three per cent budget increase means that $1.12 million would be funded from the county’s reserves. In addition, nearly $900,000 of items listed to be potentially be cut from the budget were kept in the budget.
With over $44 million in reserves, councillors said they were comfortable taking just over $1 million out of reserves to help keep the tax levy increase relatively low.
Treasurer Michael Blumhagen told councillors that he began the process with a nearly eight per cent tax levy increase. However, he had suggested taking two per cent of that increase from reserves, leaving council with a 5.89 per cent tax levy increase to debate at the beginning of the meeting.
In his presentation to council, Blumhagen said that he felt the budget was rather lean. With exception to the proposed potential cuts of $934,765, he didn’t see many other areas that could sustain further cuts. Without eliminating staff or affecting service levels, Blumhagen said he felt the budget was as efficient as it could be.
With nearly 550 full-time employees throughout the county’s departments, salaries and benefits represent nearly half of the county budget, Blumhagen said. If council wanted to impose further cuts on the budget, staffing levels, while unpopular, seemed like a natural place to investigate.
He also said, however, that he is anticipating a surplus of approximately $1 million at the end of 2017, which would be carried over into the 2018 budget.
He did say that at a three per cent increase to the tax levy, the county would be below its 18-year average increase of 4.53 per cent. He did note, however, that the average was certainly affected by tax levy increases of 20 per cent in 2004 and 17.38 per cent in 2005. But, with a three per cent increase, he said he felt council was appropriately poised within its actions of the past 18 years.
He also said that the county has been doing a great job of keeping up with inflation at the municipal rate, which has been rising more rapidly than consumer inflation.
Blumhagen did say that the county would be facing capital project pressures in the public works department in the coming years as infrastructure continues to deteriorate. He anticipated projects costing over $230 million in the next 30-40 years.
Huron East Mayor Bernie MacLellan proposed a concept for borrowing funds from Infrastructure Ontario over that time, saying that funds could be borrowed at under two per cent interest, which would be less than the cost of inflation. Perhaps, he said, it would be in the best interest of the county to look at a large amount of long-term lending every year to get ahead of inflation.
However, that concept was too high-level for the ongoing budget deliberations and was scrapped for a future discussion.
South Huron Mayor Maureen Cole suggested that MacLellan’s idea be discussed at an upcoming strategic planning session later this year.
While each department began reviewing its proposed items to be cut, MacLellan said he felt like council was “nickel-and-diming” its departments and felt that reviewing each specific item was a fool’s errand.
Council did, however, decide to cut the budget for replacing defibrillators throughout the county in half.
Of the 86 public-use defibrillators in Huron County, Emergency Services Manager Jeff Horseman said that most of them were over 10 years old, which is past their life expectancy.
Horseman said that his plan was to replace half of the machines this year and the other half next year.
The plan, he said, only applied to defibrillators placed by the county. It doesn’t apply to those placed by the Dave Mounsey Memorial Fund or other service organizations throughout the county.
Council opted to cut that budget from $70,000 to $35,000 and replace the defibrillators on an emergency basis, as he said the units are all currently operational, despite their age. In the meantime, county staff was instructed to contact the Fund and service groups about potentially stepping up to replace these to alleviate county pressures in that department.
Horseman told councillors that while the defibrillators are not mandatory in public buildings, it has gotten to the point that most residents expect them to be there. He also said that the county could be opening itself up to liability if they failed to replace the machines.
In other additions to the budget, council opted to increase the annual Huron Clean Water Project allotment from $300,000 to $400,000 and add one more full-time employee to the Planning and Development Department to help aid in long-term planning projects on which the department has been falling behind due to day-to-day planning pressures.
It was Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh Reeve Ben Van Diepenbeek who suggested the three per cent increase to the tax levy with the remainder of the budget to be funded from reserves.
Council voted to approve Van Diepenbeek’s proposal. The budget will be up for discussion as part of a public meeting on Wednesday, March 7 at 9 a.m. in Goderich.