Budget approved at 3.5% city increase
City council has unanimously passed the city’s operating budget with an increase of $5 million in spending, offset by revenues, for a 3.5% increase in the city portion of your tax bill (the capital budget was approved in February with no increase).
Over two days of discussions, council shaved roughly $1 million and just over 1% off of the proposed budget presented by staff in December.
When blended with Regional and Education taxes, which together represent 60% of your tax bill and had no increase this year, the result is an overall tax increase of 1.42%, or $12.78 for each $100,000 of residential urban assessment.
My Take: Until we revise our budget process to review all spending, rather than focusing only on a few items driving the increase, it will be difficult to do much better than we did this year, at 3.5%. The increase is better than where we started, and about where I expected we would land. Our investments in the hospital and infrastructure are needed, though we could have done more for residents by increasing funding for snow clearing and transit in particular; those items could have been achieved, in part, by reallocating funding for such items as free employee parking and transit. Our focus must be on putting residents first, before funding benefits for ourselves.
What was approved:
Heritage Planner: Request was for a new full time position at $103k annually, plus $4k in one-time office set-up costs. Council approved a 2-year contract, either for the heritage position, or to back- fill work in the department if the heritage position is filled internally. As a one time cost, no tax impact.
My Take: Supported.
Heritage Burlington – Property Tax Rebate Program: Request was for annual funding of $103k to reduce taxes on heritage properties to provide incentives to maintain and repair heritage homes, with unused funds each year going into a Burlington Heritage Trust fund. Over time the Trust would be used to acquire or assist maintaining heritage properties. Council approved the full amount as one time funding only, to be reviewed in one year. As a one time cost, no tax impact.
My Take: Supported.
Heritage Burlington Committee: Request was for $65k in one time funding for website development, public engagement and communications. Approved. As a one time cost, no tax impact.
My Take: Supported.
Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC):
Request was for $275k, largely for research and marketing, bringing the annual city contribution to $1.25m. We still don’t have a report on how the investment the city made last year generated business attraction, and no clear idea of how this year’s investment will do that. As I wrote last month, we know we are not generating enough tax income from the Industrial/Commercial/Institutional sector (ICI), and until we see increases residential tax rates will continue to increase. Finally, BEDC is undergoing a reorganization, so there’s no clear idea of how the group will be structured to achieve its goals.
At a council workshop last week, the BEDC board suggested the creation of two organizations, DEVCO, a land development corporation, and HOLDCO, a holding company for city assets to create efficiencies and where feasible generate revenue. It has not been determined how the three functions would work together (three separate organizations? one organization with three departments)? There’s no clarity around how these organizations would work with the planning department to speed approvals for commercial redevelopments. Minimizing overhead is clearly important. A fuller report on BEDC will be in the next newsletter. To see the materials from the workshop click here At this point there are more questions than answers about how BEDC will achieve it’s goals of job attraction and increasing the ICI tax base.
My Take: Supported as one-time funding only, pending further details on how the city’s investment will result in business attraction and more local jobs.
Leaf pick up: As a cost savings measure, staff provided options to eliminate the second leaf pick up south of the QEW, the single leaf pick up north of the QEW, or all leaf pickups. Council supported keeping existing leaf pickups and adding a second leaf pick up in select neighbourhoods north of the QEW, for $25k in annual operating expenses and a $115k one-time cost for extra equipment.
My Take: Though I think there are some challenges with the existing leaf pick up (often residents put out leaves too early creating a mess on streets and sidewalks), I heard from residents that they value the service, and supported the second leaf pickup for North of the QEW to create equity among all our neighbourhoods.
Community Development Halton: Request was for one-time funding for $86k to support a full-time Social Planner working for CDH to continue community programs in North Burlington and expand them in other areas of the city. Supported unanimously as one-time funding. These items are normally funded at the provincial and regional level. A motion was also approved directing the General Manager of Community Services to work with CDH and the Commissioner of Social Services at Halton Region to secure a long-term funding source.
My Take: Supported, as a final contribution, after which the organization needs to seek other funding sources, including Halton Region, the Province or sponsors. My staff direction to review our Community Development Fund of $5k, with criteria for funding and an enhanced budget so other groups could apply was defeated, however staff are bringing a report on grants to the March 25 Community & Corporate Services Committee meeting so we will have an opportunity to review this again.
Sound of Music: Request was for $44k to be added to the base budget in consideration of increased costs from the city and police. Council supported an increase of $12k to the budget, roughly the amount city costs went up between 2012 to 2013. Sound of Music paid the city $25k in permit and park maintenance fees in 2012, and $36.4k in 2013.
My Take: Supported. The city makes a nominal contribution to this free award-winning event that attracts hundreds of people to our waterfront, brings business to the city, and is something our youth look forward to. When I’ve visited high schools, young people have said Sound of Music is one of the few times of the year Burlington changes from “Bore-ington” to a place they’re proud to be.
Museums Special Events Assistant: Request was to convert this position from contract to permanent part-time. Council approved.
My Take: Supported. The initial 2-year contract has already been extended for 2-years. Clearly the position is needed.
John St. Bus Terminal: Transit staff had proposed closing the downtown John St. bus terminal, resulting in annual savings of $8k. The rationale was that local businesses could sell tickets (not set up yet) and bus drivers were moving their washrooms/lunchroom up to the Burlington GO station. Council supported keeping the terminal open 4-3.
My Take: I brought the motion to keep the station open after hearing from many residents who use the station to warm up, or cool off, use the washroom, get transit information and buy tickets. These uses are critical and can’t be offloaded to area businesses. Though bus drivers may not need the station, residents do. In addition, downtown Burlington is designated as a Mobility Hub, meaning we need to maintain a strong transit presence downtown. We can do that for the nominal annual costs of the terminal.
Christmas Tree License Fee: The city currently charges a $275 fee to all businesses selling Christmas trees, for an annual revenue of about $2,200. Council voted unanimously to eliminate the fee for established licensed businesses (like greenhouses or grocery stores) and continue to charge the fee only for those groups that set up shop just at Christmas to sell trees, usually in a parking lot for a charity. The fee covers fire and bylaw inspection related to proper tree storage.
My Take: Supported. I received many calls from established businesses complaining about the fee as an unnecessary tax grab. Many of these businesses are garden stores that sell a variety of trees and already know about proper storage.
Reviewing employee parking as a taxable benefit: Council supported my motion that staff report back on an implementation plan to treat employee parking as a taxable benefit. Free transit passes for city employees are already treated as a taxable benefit. For more on this topic, see the article below.
My Take: I brought the motion after reading the Canada Revenue Agency rules, which to me are very clear that free employee parking must be treated as a taxable benefit.
Increase planning fees and revenues: Staff proposed increasing projected revenues from planning fees by $533k, and funding any shortfalls by drawing down reserves, which have grown larger than they need to be. Approved 7-0. Reduces the tax rate increase by about .5%.
Review site plan control for single family homes: Request was for staff to prepare a report by fall 2014 that defines site plan expectations for single family homes. Under site plan control, the planning department can influence building materials, architectural design, drainage features and boundary vegetation. Site plan control was largely implement to limit construction of monster homes, so the review will determine whether it is achieving its intent or simply adding red tape. Approved.
My Take: I supported this review, as the intent of site plan is not being achieved. Monster homes are still being built, as the size of homes is covered by zoning rules around height, lot coverage and setbacks. However, we will need to ensure that such matters as boundary trees and drainage issues are covered elsewhere if we don’t have site plan control. It’s time to review site plan and see if the goals can be better achieved in another way.
What was proposed and not approved
Manager of Cultural Services: Request was for a new full-time position at $128k annually, plus $8k in one-time office set-up costs. Council did not approve the new position or funding (6-1 vote), but suggested finding the position by reallocating existing staff. The city manager has committed to considering this position as part of the overall “workforce management” plan that will come back to council in the spring. The workforce management plan will, among other things, outline changes in staffing, including reallocation of some positions.
My Take: I did not support adding this position at this time, but preferred to let the current cultural planner (which council increased from half time to full time last fall) to work with citizens to begin implementation of the Cultural Plan. The Plan did not call for adding second position in the first year of implementation. I believe there are alternative ways to achieve the cultural leadership and collaboration, and brought a motion to create a Citizens Advisory Committee on culture to move the Cultural Plan forward, patterned after the Heritage Burlington Committee. That was defeated 4-3.
Snow Clearing: Request was for an additional $48k in the snow clearing budget to clear the walking paths (Centennial Bikeway, Spencer Smith Park, Beachway), as most people use these paths as much as local sidewalks, but they’re given low priority for snow clearing. Defeated 4-3. Council will receive a fuller report on snow clearing in the Spring and can choose to provide additional in-year funding, and make adjustments in next year’s budget.
My Take: I brought the motion to increase the snow clearing in response to dozens of calls and emails about the overall need for quicker snow clearing (before it becomes packed down and icy because of people walking on it), particularly on our paths, which are heavily used by children walking to school, and people walking downtown. There’s no question we need to improve snow clearing response time.
Transit Resources: Request was for an additional $400k in transit resources, which is the value of the services that were cut mostly from downtown Burlington and reallocated to routes elsewhere in the city, mostly in North Burlington. Defeated. Council will receive a fuller report on transit in June and can choose to provide additional in-year funding, and make adjustments in next year’s budget.
My Take: I brought the motion to increase transit resources after receiving dozens of calls complaining the changed routes and cut services meant rides were longer, required more transfers, or were cut altogether. Many of our young people, seniors and folks who can’t or don’t drive depend on transit. We need a service for our whole city, but the recent changes, in the words of one delegate “robbed Peter to pay Paul” reallocating service from one area to another, creating transit winners and losers. There’s no question in my mind we need to enhance resources for transit to serve those members of our community who have no choice but to ride the bus. Based on questions raised by the BFAST delegation, I also asked staff for clarity on the priority that transit will be given in the upcoming Transportation Master Plan (TMP). Staff will report back April or May to outline what the TMP will cover.
Free employee parking and transit passes: Request was to remove this benefit and redirect these resources in community services, a value of $217k for parking, and $16k for transit.
My Take: I brought this motion as I believe taxpayers should not be subsidizing free parking or transit for our employees, especially at a time when we are cutting transit and other services for residents, and contemplating ending free transit fares for some of our most vulnerable residents (ARC, CNIB members, students). A report and recommendation on those fares is expected later this year. On parking, we have to lead by example. If we want fewer people to drive, we must remove incentives to drive, and providing free parking is one of the biggest incentives. If everyone has to pay equally for parking, they will consider carpooling or transit. We can’t use taxpayer dollars to provide a benefit to ourselves that residents have to pay for.
BPAC return unused revenue shortfall: Request was for the Burlington Performing Arts Centre to return $107k in funding for an anticipated revenue shortfall in 2013. Half of the allocation was needed, and the request was to return the balance. Defeated 6-1.
My Take: I brought the motion to return the funding. It was for a specific purpose, it wasn’t needed, and should be returned to taxpayers. I remain concerned about the amount of the city contribution to the BPAC, which was over $1m in 2013, and is projected to be over $800k annually for the next three years.
Remove automatic increases to boards/committees; align Human Resources policy: Request was to direct staff to review budget directions given to boards and committees (museum, library, art centre, etc.) to remove automatic increases (at 1.5% this year); and further, direct staff to conduct a workshop with local boards/committees to discuss aligning human resources policies to city policies regarding salary increase and fringe benefits. Both defeated.
My Take: I brought the motions as I don’t believe boards and committees should begin budget discussions with an automatic increase, but rather increases should be tied to actual spending and need, with detailed supporting documents. I also believe there should be consistency across the organization in terms of salary levels, increases and benefits. Employees at some of our boards don’t receive the same benefits as city employees, for example, and their compensation is different. Though staff of local boards and committees work for the board, they receive their cheque from the city, and the city significantly funds our local boards. As such we have an obligation to ensure consistency.
Fire Department Accreditation Coordinator: Request was for one-time funding for $100k for a contract position to complete the accreditation plan that would evaluate, among other things, service levels, community risk and safety needs and industry best practises. Defeated 5-2. Accreditation will continue without the position, just at a slower pace. Staff have said they are considering finding this position as part of the overall “workforce management” plan that will outline changes in staffing, including reallocation of some positions. The plan will come back to council in the spring.
My Take: I did not support adding this position, as the work is continuing in any case, staff will likely reallocate positions to get the work done, and there is no threat to community safety by not adding the position now.
Your Take: What are your thoughts on the overall budget or the specific items listed above? Leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org