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Regional budget set for approval

Tax increase of 1.9 per cent on the table

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

The numbers have crunched and the final figures are in, as the region’s 2018 budget will be voted on this week.

During initial deliberations at the finance committee meeting on Feb. 6, councillors voted to send a 1.9 per cent tax increase to council for approval on Feb. 14.

Commissioner of finance Jim Clapp said the increase represents a $50 jump in property taxes on the average residential assessment of $424,500.

The increase meets the 2.25 per cent increase threshold set by council in October 2017.

“I truly believe 1.9 is reasonable and affordable,” Clapp told council. “We have one bill that pays for all kinds of services, whether its police, works, transit and on.”

In preparing the budget, Clapp said factors such as rising household debt and interest rates, and slower GDP growth were considered.

In the 2018 budget, the region is set to spend roughly $546 million in general property tax purposes, which includes police services, conservation authorities, and regional operations.

Additional expenses see a $55.8 million budget for Durham Regional Transit, and $42.7 million for solid waste management.

The region will also defer $4.8 million of its $19.4 million Federal Gas Tax allocation to road maintenance.

Clapp says with Federal Gas Tax allocations increasing, $35 million in remaining debt on the Durham York Energy Centre can be paid off by the end of 2020.

Police Services

With a $198.2 million budget, police services represent 31 per cent of total regional spending.

Clapp noted the department was able to meet its three per cent increase guideline.

Included in this year’s budget is $3.6 million for new vehicles and maintenance and $683,000 for the body worn camera pilot project.

Although the department’s capital asset requirements are only $1.5 million over the next two years, that number jumps considerably in the future.

Capital requirements are predicted at $82.5 million between 2020 and 2022.

Clarington Councillor Joe Neal voiced his frustration with not being able to question Police Chief Paul Martin, who was in attendance, about the budget.

However, Oshawa Councillor and finance committee chair Bob Chapman told his colleague when the opportunity to ask questions was presented, Neal did not initially respond.

Transit

Although accounting for only nine percent of the total budget, Durham Regional Transit has one of the largest budget increases at 7.5 per cent.

Overall DRT ridership was up approximately 3,000 in 2017 to 10.22 million riders.

This was 260,000 short of the budgeted ridership of 10.48 million, resulting in a fare revenue shortfall of $0700,000.

Oshawa Councillor Amy McQuaid-England suggested DRT should review its “fare structure” to drive up ridership.

“I really do think we’ve priced ourselves out of the market when it comes to transit and the ones who need it are having to walk.”

McQuaid-England says she continually sees lower-income residents “walking…because they cannot afford to get on the bus.”

In her view, these are the residents who require public transit on a consistent basis but are being driven away.

Neal called the “disconnect” between DRT’s ridership levels and budget requirements “astounding.”

“I see a lot of buses that have one person in them, and we’re probably paying the driver $50 plus an hour.”

Vincent Patterson, the general manager of DRT, acknowledged there was a shortfall of riders in various sectors, but ridership within groups that use transit most frequently had increased.

Both McQuaid-England and Neal believe not enough is being done to attract young people to use public transit.

“Uber is very easy for kids and younger people. If there’s four of them, they can jump in an Uber and divide it up between them,” Neal commented.

Patterson said DRT would be ramping up its efforts to promote its services this year.

“We are going to increase of our efforts to reach out and jolt the demand with various incentives,” he said.

McQuaid-England questioned whether DRT has appropriately considered the effect ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft are having on their business.

She contended “we have a disruptive market that is coming in and interrupting our share.”

To her, they cannot be confident of decision-making without legitimate study of the impacts of ride-sharing.

Patterson noted that because of Uber’s strict policies on sharing customer information it is “very difficult to identify trends.”

However, the Oshawa councillor referred to a Berkeley University study that “shows people who use ride-sharing services are less likely to use public transit.”

She also argued that residents who use Uber are not likely using the service to connect to DRT buses.

“If they are using Uber they are completely passing by our services to get to their destination.”

Finance and Administration

Although a relatively small fraction of the budget, a $206,000 item resulted in a lengthy discussion.

That amount is Durham’s annual allocation to Toronto Global, an organization that receives federal, provincial and municipal funding with the mandate of attracting international businesses to the GTA.

It replaced the Greater Metro Marketing Alliance (GMHA), a similar organization with a smaller mandate. Most recently, Toronto Global was responsible for putting forward a GTA-wide bid to attract the second headquarters for online retail giant Amazon. That bid included potential locations within Durham Region.

For Neal, the investment in Toronto Global has yielded no benefits.

“I think it’s time we do our own thing,” he said. “It’s $206,000 of taxpayers’ money that I don’t think is well spent.”

Kathy Weiss, director of economic development and tourism for the region, says Toronto Global has been in existence for less than a year and it’s too early to appraise its performance.

However, she did acknowledge the region “has not seen any results” so far from the partnership.

This led Neal to put forth a motion to rescind Durham’s 2018 contributions to the organization, as he believes the region has been successful on its own in attracting business.

Ajax Councillor Shaun Collier agreed that Toronto Global “had definitely run its course”, while Oshawa councillor Dan Carter said eventually there would be a point when council has to say “enough is enough”.

“We keep spending and spending and haven’t seen any results,” he added.

Oshawa Mayor John Henry was in support of staying with Toronto Global, stating local municipalities and the region don’t have the resources to successfully communicate with global investors.

Henry also contended that with the amount of developable land decreasing in Toronto, companies will be looking elsewhere.

He maintains properties around the Highway 407 in Durham Region will become “a selling point” for the GTA.

Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan said Regional Chair Roger Anderson, who was absent from the meeting and is Durham’s representative on Toronto Global, is of the opinion “we should continue on.”

Ryan said there is always challenges when a new organization starts up.

“Although there haven’t been any specifics for Durham Region, we’ve had the discussion before that good things in the GTA are good for all of us.”

Social Services

One of a few departments to decrease its budgetary needs, the social services budget is down 1.7 per cent from 2017.

Commissioner of social services Dr. Hugh Drouin said a considerable part of this is due to a $10.1 million funding increase for child care and early learning programs.

Through these investments, Drouin said the region has been able to “dramatically” reduce its wait list for subsidized child care spaces from 12 months in 2017 to two months currently.

Drouin told councillors he expects wait list times to continue to go down unless there are “significant changes” to subsidy funding.

Other items in the department’s budget include $1.21 million to assist lower-income households and emergency shelters, $200,000 for child poverty reduction programs and $412,000 for electronic health records software and training for long-term care homes. 

Paramedic Services

Paramedic services’ budget is up 7.5 per cent from 2017 with total expenditures of $25.8 million.

Highlights include the extension of a 16-hour vehicle to 24-hour service with a price tag of $274,000.

The department will also be replacing nine ambulances at a cost of $1.7 million and installing 50 defibrillators valued at $1.2 million.

Lastly, the region will invest $2.1 million to purchase land and prepare design details for future paramedic stations in Clarington and the Seaton community in Pickering.

Works

2018 will see $92.8 million in capital investments to roads and bridges, an increase of almost $12 million from 2017.

Included in these projects are $27.7 million for road expansions, $26.6 in road rehabilitation, $11.7 million in Highway 407-related projects and $7.4 million for bridge rehabilitation.

Four critical road rehabilitation projects in Clarington, Pickering, and Uxbridge were granted $7.2 million in immediate funding, comprised of $4.8 million from Federal Gas Tax funds and $2.4 million from reserves.

 

Councillors will have their final chance to air their opinions on the budget at this week’s regional council meeting on Feb. 14.