By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
After two full days of deliberations, city council has pushed the approval of the 2017 budget to its final scheduled day, today, Jan. 25, with the tax increase currently hovering at 2.89 per cent.
If council is unable to wrangle that number further down, it would mean, on average, an additional $64 on residents’ tax bills.
The tax hike is an increase from the original 2.5 per cent proposed by staff during council’s first look at the budget, and is a byproduct of nearly $500,000 of additional spending approved on Jan. 20.
The added spending comes in the form of a collection of one-time approvals for 2017, including $75,000 for a risk assessment on the Durham Courthouse lands, $19,000 for updated uniforms for municipal bylaw officers and $30,000 to the Robert McLaughlin Gallery to assist them in hiring a fundraising staffer.
A series of other approvals set to have longer term impacts on the budget include $150,000 for a new garbage truck, $40,000 of additional spending in the city’s Renaissance Community Improvement Plan (CIP) to assist businesses growing in the downtown, and $60,000 for hiring new staff.
Council also approved $100,000 for the hiring of a recruitment specialist to assist the city with its high rate of turnover.
The extra items were all part of a list of potential adjustments for council’s review. The only item that was turned down was $20,000 to the RMG to assist the gallery in its 50th anniversary celebrations.
“I don’t think it’s the right place for the money to come from,” said Councillor Bob Chapman.
The annual increase to the city’s downtown CIP, which would see it renewed to the previous $100,000 level from $60,000, saw hesitation from some councillors.
The CIP provides grants to downtown businesses looking to develop or upgrade their appearance, as well as new projects.
Councillor Nancy Diamond noted that she would “reluctantly” be voting against the approval of $40,000 in additional spending for the plan.
“These are grants, not loans. We have invested a very significant amount of money in the downtown,” she said.
However, Councillor Amy McQuaid-England disagreed, saying the additional dollars are greatly needed and many businesses that have called the downtown home for many years are starting to close.
“There’s opportunities for us to invest,” she said.
The same was said by Councillor Doug Sanders who, as council’s representative on the Downtown Business Improvement Area (BIA) board, noted it should probably be even more money as last year some of the grant funding was tapped out by the end of January.
The additional money carried with councillors Diamond, Chapman, John Neal and Mayor John Henry voting against it.
And while these additional funds boosted the proposed tax levy increase nearly half a percent, council was looking at a bit of creative bookkeeping to hopefully draw that number back down.
Looking at the previous year, city staff will speculate the amount of dollars the city will receive related to growth for the coming year. According to Stephanie Sinnott, the city treasurer, staff are generally “ultra conservative” with this number, and for the 2017 budget, predicted the taxation revenue from growth is expected to be 1.4 per cent for the coming year. However, Councillor John Aker put forward a motion to increase that speculation to 1.5 percent, or an increase of $127,000 in revenue.
Aker noted that in 2016, the assessment growth was 2.9 percent, so increasing the number to 1.5 percent was still very “cautious.”
“I think it’s just the prudent thing to do,” he says.
And while the city treasurer didn’t have a problem with the idea, she was wary of moving any further.
“I would caution against moving more than that,” she said.
The motion carried with only Councillor McQuaid-England opposed (Nester Pidwerbecki and Dan Carter were absent)
“In order for us to get into a financial challenging situation, the projection would have to be off by a full one per cent, which, based on passed projections, seems highly unlikely,” said Councillor Rick Kerr.