Highlands East began budget talks Jan. 31 with a first draft 2.05 per cent municipal tax rate increase.

Deputy CAO and treasurer, Brittany McCaw said it represented an overall increase from the 2022 budget of $183,932. The difference would be $10.54 per $100,000 of assessment.

“We knew this was going to be a difficult budget year just with rising costs, things that are out of our control, but I would like to say that staff have done an excellent job of looking at their accounts and looking at where they could trim but without cutting services,” McCaw said.

She added the township was on target to come in on budget for 2022.

Across the board, they are looking at a salary increase of 1.75 per cent, a group benefit jump of 6.1 per cent and a general insurance hike of 17.19 per cent. There’s more IT, cyber security and video surveillance costs.

Deputy mayor Cec Ryall said, “I’m unbelievably shocked at the fact we could get it (the levy increase) down to two per cent. You guys did an awesome job doing that. But with that in mind I want to make sure we’re covering off some of the things you’re going to do. I just want to make sure, at the end of the day, that our two per cent is a good number and where it needs to be.”

In presenting the budget, McCaw said they got $25,000 less in OMPF funding. She noted increased user fees and charges in 2023 should generate more revenue. Former gas tax funding, now called the Canada Community-Building Fund, is bringing in $110,633. They’ve also got some money in reserves from projects not done in 2023. This includes $25,000 for an architect for the municipal office design and build. “

A business case has been prepared and provided to council for consideration regarding the new municipal office build, as opposed to operating three, separate municipal offices,” McCaw said.

Some other big-ticket items are $100,000 for the design build for the municipal office; $50,000 for a corporate strategic plan; $25,000 for records management and $25,000 for climate change initiatives.

Policing costs are down 3.27 per cent, although Highlands East will still pay OPP $1,144,948 in 2023.

McCaw said they have not budgeted for the two summer students for the septic inspection program this year. She said it’s because their department is short-staffed and it would be unfair to expect two students to work without guidance. The department will instead deal with outstanding files to bring properties into compliance.

Ryall asked about vacancies of a building inspector and chief building official, as Laurie Devolin has left the township. McCaw said they had a plan they would share with council at a future date.

In public works, Abby Armstrong said roads, bridges and culverts to be worked on include: Inlet Bay Road, Gem Road, Upper Paudash Road, the Earles Road culvert, the Gooderham dam bridge, Hadlington bridge and Donroy culverts, McColls bridge, Buxton Road and Pioneer Road.

Water and wastewater users will face a four per cent user fee increase. More money is needed for recycling and household hazardous waste days. There’s $20,000 towards the service connections in Wilberforce.

Parks and recreation capital projects for 2023 include the Cardiff Pool change house, arena upgrades, Herlihey Park, Essonville Church repairs, and the trails master plan.

Economic development would see money for a part-time coordinator, one summer student for the information centre, and new units for geogaching.

Budget talks will continue.