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Region recommending two per cent budget guideline for 2021

Some councillors want to tap into reserves

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

Durham’s finance committee has recommended a two per cent property tax increase for 2021.

For residents owning a home estimated at $483,100, this means a $56 increase on their yearly residential taxes.

The budget cap, if approved by regional council, would see a maximum increase of three per cent to police, while conservation authorities would get a 2.5 per cent increase, and the special benefiting programs would see a 1.5 per cent increase.

The 2021 property tax guideline was approved after consultation with Durham CAO Elaine Baxter-Trahair, Durham Regional Police Services (DRPS), Durham Region Transit, and various other regional departments.

However, while the finance committee approved the two per cent guideline, Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier expressed concern over the message that increasing DRPS’ budget could send to the public.

“Given the political climate, the whole Black Lives Matter thing and everything else, I suspect this will be very, very unpopular,” he says.

He says that without knowing the specifics of DRPS’ budget increase, it makes it difficult to support.

Commissioner of Finance Nancy Taylor explains the increase to DRPS’s budget is “business as usual.”

“We have taken into consideration their current budget pressures. They’re very similar to ours with respect to annualization, the positions from last year that need to be fully covered off, benefit costs, all of those kinds of things,” she says.

Taylor says she and regional staff have taken into consideration all of the implications of a budget increase, and treated it as though it were a standard budget year in terms of setting a guideline.

In regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, Baxter-Trahair says the region and DRPS are taking on a number of initiatives to combat racism, beginning with anti-Black racism.

“One of the key venues through which we’ll be developing strategies to address this and other issues is through the development of the community and well-being safety plan,” she explains, adding the work was suspended temporarily because of COVID-19, but is set to begin again.

Ultimately, Collier says he doesn’t mind approving the guideline, but he believes it needs to be made clear to the public why there is an increase in the police budget.

Pickering Councillor and Chair of the Police Services Board Kevin Ashe say the guideline is actually lower than the requested budget increase of 4.3 per cent for DRPS.

Whitby Councillor Chris Leahy expressed unease with the idea of having an increase to resident’s taxes in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the middle of a pandemic can we not do better? Why aren’t we aiming for one per cent or zero per cent in recognition of the fact we have 10 to 12 per cent unemployment and unprecedented pressures on all of these people without jobs,” he says. He suggests the region dip further into its reserves and aim for an increase of less than one per cent.

Taylor explains much of the budget goes towards essential services, which are in high demand right now because of the pandemic.

“We find ourselves sort of in this weird box where the demand for our services are higher than ever because of the pandemic,” she says. “So we’re certainly not in any way insensitive to the economic pressures that people in households are having.”

Leahy says the region has more than $1 billion in reserves.

“We have these reserves for when it’s raining. If a pandemic happens, and we don’t consider that raining, I don’t know what we’re saving reserves for,” he says.

In the end, the finance committee voted in favour of the two per cent increase, with Leahy and fellow Whitby Councillor Rhonda Mulcahy being the only two voting against it.

It will now head to regional council for final approval.