By Courtney Bachar/The Oshawa Express/LJI Reporter
The 2021 budget season has begun, and the city has kicked things off with hearing from the residents.
Virtual open house meetings were held for each of the five Oshawa wards over the past several weeks for residents to be able to share their concerns and priorities, plus ask questions, on the 2021 city budget.
“I know we’re doing this a little bit different [this year] but your voice matters,” says Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter who opened the meetings. “It’s important to us – your questions, your concerns, your ideas – we want to hear them.”
City Treasurer and Commissioner of Finance Stephanie Sinnott outlined the city budget and municipal budgeting process, noting the forecasted financial position of the city up to year-end is in the red by approximately $2.6 million.
“The good news,” she says, “is the $4 million in financial assistance the city received through the federal Safe Restart Agreement.”
The funding is provided to support municipalities in addressing financial pressures related to COVID-19 and maintain critical services. Any excess funding must be put into reserves for future access to support COVID-19 operating costs and pressures that may continue through 2021.
“The 2021 budget assumptions include a phased approach to revenue recovery to those areas of the budget more significantly impacted,” she says, noting the budget will also include increased costs as the city complies with provincial guidelines, such as social distancing and the continued enhanced sanitization protocols at city facilities.
According to Sinnott, city operations have changed significantly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including facility closures, program cancellation and service reductions.
“The adjustments have resulted in significant revenue losses, particularly in the areas of recreation, parking, and at the Tribute Communities Centre,” Sinnott explains.
She notes the city’s operational expenses have also increased due to technology requirements to equip staff in working remotely, purchasing PPE, and facility adjustments for reopening, such as the installation of plexiglass barriers.
A cost containment plan was implemented to control costs and to offset lost revenue.
Sinnott says the outcomes of cost control measures and discretionary spending has reduced the deficit in the city’s operating budget. In order to help cut costs, all staff training, conferences, professional development and travel were suspended, a temporary hiring freeze was put in place, and temporary layoff notices were delivered.
“It is hoped that the emergency financial assistance received will help balance the 2021 budget,” she says.
The city has adopted a base budget approach, which Sinnott says is ongoing funding to keep a municipality functioning based on its current operations and assured continuity.
“The base budget is derived from the previous year’s spending and adjusted for inflation, contractual increases, growth, and other known factors,” she explains.
The adjusted base budget is submitted to council as a starting point for annual budget deliberations.
In 2019, for the 2020 budget, the city delivered the annual budget in November and it was approved by city council in December.
“An accelerated annual budget cycle yields a number of benefits,” she says, noting early adoption of the capital budget may result in preferential pricing, greater competition, and availability of experienced contracts.
Following the presentation, attendees were given the opportunity to voice their concerns and ask questions. Key points raised included the city’s plans for green space, cost saving measures, reserves, infrastructure and active transportation, lighting in city parks, recreation program plans, the city’s debt level, property taxes, and the financial impacts of COVID-19.
“Oshawa is operating with the financial reality of a global pandemic, increasing diversity, changing demographic, ongoing infrastructure maintenance, the need for new infrastructure to keep up with the growing community, and an increasing demand for services, transparency, and accountability, says Sinnott.
“Public engagement activities provide an important input into the city’s annual budget. It guides municipalities in making decisions that are more informed and reflective of public priorities, values and concerns.”
The deadline for residents to submit their feedback was Sept. 13.
The 2021 budget timetable was approved by city council in May 2020 with staff formally kicking off the internal budget process in June.
The budget will be presented to council on Nov. 13 with deliberations taking place on Nov. 27 and Dec. 4, with the goal of approving the final budget at the Dec. 11 council meeting.
Sinnott notes the proposed timetable could change if a second wave of COVID-19 occurs.
For more information on the 2021 Oshawa City Budget, visit www.connectoshawa.ca/budget2021.