By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
It involved opposition to the end, but Oshawa city council has approved the 2016 budget following days of deliberations and financial wrangling. The result is an average increase of $57 on the bill of the average Oshawa taxpayer.
The first discussions on the city’s finances for the year, which began in mid-January, saw the operating budget come with a proposed tax increase of 2.94 per cent. That number has been brought down to 2.52 per cent.
“It’s always good to go back into the budget process,” Mayor John Henry said following the budget’s approval. “Every member of council has the opportunity to raise questions related to the budget and have a good dialogue.”
Following a pair of days that only saw a miniscule drop to the budget’s proposed tax hike, council sent staff back one more time in an attempt to drum up savings within departmental budgets.
The final day of deliberations saw a list of nine items being considered.
Some, such as the discovery of $38,000 in overtime pay for firefighters which had been included twice in the budget or $50,000 of additional interest on investments, were welcomed by councillors as they added a little more padding in the thin budget.
Other items, like the removal of $40,000 for the city’s watercourse monitoring program, were met with resistance. The program, initiated in 2013, works in partnership with the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority and UOIT to keep an eye on the city’s streams and creeks for harmful substances that may be running into Lake Ontario – a vital program in the eyes of some councillors
“I think it’s most important that we do as much as we can,” said Councillor Nester Pidwerbecki. “The more monitoring that we do, the more knowledge we can gain.”
The results of the previous two years have yet to be presented to council, and for that reason, Councillor John Shields felt that it would be shortsighted to remove it in 2016.
“I believe that without having the results…we just don’t have enough information to omit this,” he said.
The removal of the program was recommended by Gary Carrol, the city’s director of engineering, and Councillor Nancy Diamond said it is up to councillors to trust his expert opinion.
“While fully appreciating working with the university…our director of engineering is the person who would be most knowledgeable,” she said.
The program was eventually left in as part of the budget.
Another $30,700 in gapping savings, $20,100 in savings from the winter maintenance budget due to a mild January and $160,000 in capital savings all helped pull the tax rate down to its 2.52 per cent resting place.
However, Mayor Henry says the final number could actually end up being slightly lower.
Due to the fact that Oshawa contracts out its waste management services –other municipalities rely on the region’s waste services – the city receives a small rebate.
“So we get a credit for that back on to our budget, so it should be less than 2.52,” he said.
While unable to give a definitive number, Mayor Henry said the number would more than likely not drop below the two per cent mark.
The Express attempted to obtain the amount rebated to the city for 2015, however treasurer Stephanie Sinnot did not return The Express’s request for comment.
Despite being able to drop the tax increase by less than half a percentage point from the first proposed budget, many councillors voiced their pleasure with the final outcome.
“I am satisfied. Everyone would always like a lower number, but I’m satisfied that we will be able to meet the service needs,” Diamond said. “We’ll be able to have money for training for staff, we’ll have the money to do the work at the waterfront. So it’s spread across the city in a balanced way. We’re set.”
Projects for the harbour lands and the city’s downtown were originally slated for deferral into 2017 and beyond, but council voted to make moves in 2016.
More than a quarter-million dollars has been put aside for streetscape improvements on King Street between Mary and Ontario streets, the funds for which are coming from reserves.
As well, with approximately $1 million in reserves for the waterfront already existing, council voted to take out a $750,000 interfund note to help complete the minimum requirements at the harbour lands as laid out in the agreement with the federal government.
A report from Paul Ralph, the city’s commissioner of development services, detailed more than $2.2 million in costs to complete the work, which pushed council into action early in the budget process.
Plans have the land converted for passive public use by the end of 2016.