Minden Hills councillors want a 3.65 per cent levy increase in the 2021 budget – a figure they began to work towards Jan. 14 after the second draft of the budget started at 21.75 per cent.
It is not unusual for the township to begin with a large number, Mayor Brent Devolin pointed out. Last year, for example, the first draft came in at 34.14 per cent. They settled at a 5.3 per cent tax levy increase.
“In Minden, we haven’t lost our mind,” Devolin said. “We use a somewhat different methodology.”
CAO Trisha McKibbin added at the start of the day, “staff is very much aware this (21.75 per cent) is not an acceptable number.
Coun. Bob Carter suggested they set a target figure and Devolin agreed, saying, “to set a range of the levy increase might be a good place to start … like setting a destination, embarking on a trip, so we have that lens as we talk about and make decisions for council.”
Devolin said they set a number of just under four per cent for the County of Haliburton and he wanted to see Minden Hills within a percentage of that. Carter and deputy-mayor Lisa Schell suggested two per cent. Coun. Ron Nesbitt said he’d be happy with three; Coun. Jean Neville anywhere between two and four; Coun. Jennifer Hughey under five and Coun. Pam Sayne between two and 3.9 per cent.
Councillors decided to go with a target of a three per cent levy increase and .65 per cent of growth. Only Carter voted against in a recorded vote.
Later in the meeting, Carter suggested they look to the 2019 and 2020 budget surpluses to help them reach their goal. He thought they could use half for the 2021 budget and the other half for the 2022 budget.
Director of finance Lorrie Blanchard said there was $1 million from 2019 and about $200,000 from 2020, which meant they could plug $600,000 from budget surpluses into third draft numbers for 2021.
The draft had hefty borrowing numbers. In addition to $12 million for the arena, there was talk of borrowing more than $7.5 million for roads, bridges and culverts.
Sayne said she thought Ontario’s 444 municipalities had to continue to lobby the province for one per cent of the GST to help townships with infrastructure costs.
Council is also considering whether or not to proceed with some new hires, including a deputy treasurer and two new staff for the building, planning and bylaw department. It was suggested the hirings could be phased in and not placed in the budget until Sept. 1 due to the unlikelihood of hiring during COVID. Council also found efficiencies by backdating hiring for the new arena and community centre.
Fire chief Nelson Johnson said they’d had 298 calls in 2020, the department’s biggest year to date, representing a 30 per cent increase. He wants to up wages for firefighters by 22 per cent, representing a jump to 180 hours per firefighter from 140.
There also remain outstanding decisions about roads. Blanchard said they plan to use gas tax and OCIF funding [$295,000] for road resurfacing projects to include Rice, Clear Lake, Brady Lake, Lochlin, Tom Bolton and Howland Junction roads.
They are also looking to borrow $7,768,300 for major roadworks, including engineering and design for sections of Scotch Line and Bobcaygeon roads. There are planned replacement of culverts along the Shuyler’s Island Causeway and a total of 34.52kms of mechanical brushing in the budget.
There was some discussion of cutting $257,000 for engineering-related costs for Blairhampton Road. Schell said she didn’t want to cut anything from the roads budget. “This is the department I get the most calls and complaints about. For years, we’ve been robbing Peter to pay Paul in this department. I’d like to see it get left in the budget.”
Carter said if council hopes to get to 3.65 per cent, they have to ask themselves, “is it something we really need to do? It comes down to having to make some hard decisions in the end if we are committed to the tax increase we want to have. We are going to be paying interest on whatever we borrow. I’m all for investing in this area if we can afford it.”