Status quo budget, levy approved by BIA - Aug. 3, 2017
BY DENNY SCOTT
After a lengthy debate, the budget for the Blyth Business Improvement Area (BIA) will remain very similar to last year’s and the organization’s maximum and minimum levies remain where they have been for the last five years.
The budget, along with a proposal from Chair Rick Elliott to do away with the $250 maximum levy and increase the minimum levy from $95 to $250, was discussed in a well-attended special general membership meeting of the BIA on Monday night.
The organization is funded by levies, which are collected through the township through tax bills. In order to make room for bigger projects for the organization, Elliott had suggested the increased levies hoping that it would allow for bigger budgets in the future.
Unfortunately, according to North Huron Councillor and BIA representative Bill Knott and interim North Huron Chief Administrative Officer Larry McGregor, the process through which the BIA had approached the issue was backwards.
Knott explained that changing the levy system was a completely independent change from the actual budget, saying that the budget needs to be set, at which point the levy will be adjusted accordingly. McGregor agreed, saying that the budget needs to include a detailed, itemized list of expenses to make sure both the membership and council approve it.
In the end, the BIA membership voted to stay with a budget very similar to the 2016 budget that will cost $6,600 instead of the second budget presented which would have cost $16,600.
The big difference between the two budgets was a $9,000 addition proposed for a joint project with the Regional Tourism Organization 4 (RTO4) that would see significant funding made available for enhancements to the south and north end of the village, including proposed sidewalks to Blyth Cowbell Brewing Company and the Tim Hortons.
The proposed larger budget would also require changing the levies, which several business representatives from the community felt was a bad idea.
Dan Bailey of Maitland Transportation Systems Limited asked what the cost of the project would be and Elliott said that the majority of the cost would be bore by RTO4 through fund-matching programs.
Bailey still didn’t take to the idea, saying regardless of whether it was levies from the BIA or government funding, it was still someone’s tax dollars.
Crystal Taylor, representative for the community service groups, went on to say she didn’t recall the project ever coming to the BIA for a vote before being placed on the budget. Elliott said it was never voted on but was discussed and that the $9,000 price tag was a worst-case scenario and it could cost less.
BIA treasurer Gary van Leeuwen explained the status quo budget in greater detail, explaining some of the projects the BIA has undertaken over the past year before saying the membership needed to approve a budget, as it was currently eight months late in doing so.
“Regardless of what budget you want, that number will go to North Huron so they will then move forward and levy the businesses in the village according to size and other factors,” he said. “There is a formula that has been in place.”
McGregor echoed the need for the issue to be dealt with quickly, saying that if the BIA didn’t approve a budget that night, just a few days prior to the last tax bills being prepared for the municipality, it would not receive any funding for the current year.
In response to an explanation of how the levy system worked, Dana Weber, who runs The Village Barber, asked if all businesses in the town were levied or if it were just commercial or industrial properties.
Elliott explained that all the businesses that have customers visit should be levied, however some are not due to the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation not having the properties assessed commercially. He went on to say that North Huron has a list of those properties and is working to have them identified properly so everyone pays into the BIA.
The exception to the rule of contributing to the BIA, Elliott said, as determined by the province, was businesses that don’t have customers coming into a location. He explained that some home-based businesses, like contractors, would not be levied.
Don Scrimgeour, who runs Scrimgeour’s Food Market, said he didn’t feel that was fair.
“If someone wants to be a carpenter, plumber of whatever... they should be paying,” he said. “I don’t understand why they shouldn’t be included.”
Elliott said he didn’t disagree with Scrimgeour, however that is the way the province classifies the properties.
The proposed changes to the levy proved controversial for some businesses as, without a cap on how much a business would be charged, they could be paying more than $1,000 per year where they currently pay $250.
Bailey was against the idea, going so far as to suggest implementing an opt-out system for businesses that aren’t interested in being part of the BIA as his assessment on both his residential and business properties would increase significantly.
Rick Howson, representing Howson and Howson Ltd., said on a personal note he appreciates the work the BIA does but from a business standpoint, but doesn’t feel his company sees a return on the levy it already pays, let alone a significantly higher one.
“We don’t see a direct link between our financial statements and the BIA activities,” he said. “We are an industrial food manufacturer. We have one customer in Blyth and any investment in the Blyth main street doesn’t bring business to us. We like to be good corporate citizens and encourage employees to enjoy the events, but having no maximum levy on this, from what I can see, is an irresponsible thing to do.”
Howson said he understood the need to increase the levy over time to coincide with inflation or property value, but not having a maximum wouldn’t work.
Elliott claimed that he had intentionally proposed a “no maximum” levy in the agenda as a way to generate discussion and encourage bigger businesses to come to the table. He went on to say he feels there should be a maximum levy in place and asked for one to be suggested.
The membership, however, was still not happy with the proposed budget and increased levy. Chris Courtney, who, with her husband Gary, owns and operates Blyth Building Supply, said that Elliott’s suggestion of the cost of being in the BIA being less than a dollar a day is a good way to look at the issue. While it may not seem like a lot of money, she said it could prove a barrier to some businesses staying open or relocating to Blyth.
Irene Kellins, a member of the current BIA board of executives, asked if there wasn’t a way to fundraise for projects like the RTO4 project. Elliott pointed to Streetfest and the BIA’s Golden Ticket fundraisers, which haven’t realized their full potential in his opinion, as a problem because they don’t provide consistent funding for the organization. He said the best way to be prepared was to have this funding in place.
While Elliott wanted to make sure funding was available for project that may come to the BIA, Knott explained that, if a significant project came up, the BIA could request an advance on future levies to take advantage of projects.
“The BIA is not going to miss opportunities by passing the first budget,” he said. “If RTO4 comes forward tomorrow and says they need $20,000 for the project, there is always the opportunity for the BIA to put together its little presentation and come to council and request the $20,000 this year against [future budgets].”
Cowbell Brewing’s Natasha Fritzley said she wasn’t familiar with North Huron’s current financial situation and practices and asked Knott if that funding represented a loan or some kind of contigency fund, and Knott explained it would be a loan.
After more debate, Elliott asked for a motion to discuss the increased levy numbers, however one didn’t come forward. Van Leeuwen said Elliott was jumping ahead and instead moved that the group accept the lower of the two budgets, saying, if enough people felt the higher budget was necessary, they would deal with the levy as a result of that decision.
A majority of members voted to approve the lower budget, maintaining a status quo.