Administration says it’s not enough, but will make do for this year
After three intensive budget meetings where there was more listening than talking, West Nipissing Council finally settled on a levy increase of 4.75%, which works out to a $53 average tax increase for approximately 65% of households, based on assessed value of $100K. The consensus was reached at the last budget meeting on March 22, and still needs to be ratified at a regular council meeting. The town’s total budget amounts to $32 million, however the municipality has control over just half of the expenditures, with fixed costs for existing infrastructure and contributions to regional boards such as the Health Unit and social services imposed by the province.
With eight of nine council members having never gone through a municipal budget process, it was evident that they relied heavily on the administration to guide them. Still, they insisted on whittling down the 6.75% levy increase first proposed at the March 15th budget meeting, noting that residents are already under financial pressure with rising inflation. Still, savings were hard to find in the face of required infrastructure improvements and capital expenditures for such items as essential fire service equipment, but they did manage to shave 2% off of the initial proposal.
Next up on the agenda are budget talks for water, sewer, and solid waste disposal, which costs are borne by users in the form of additional fees over and above taxes.
Salaries, wages and benefits increased across departments, as was expected. Employment training suffered throughout COVID shutdowns, and now staff across departments have to resume and upgrade their training, especially services such as fire suppression. These are not necessarily all additional costs, but compressed into the current fiscal cycle to address legislated requirements. That was the theme of all departments as they presented their cases – increased costs, overdue upgrades, replacing equipment, and more staffing in a couple of areas. Some of these expenses were covered by dedicated reserves, monies set aside in previous budgets for those calculated expenses but remaining unspent.
An example of the situations facing council was that presented by Fire Chief Frank Loeffen. “We should have been replacing two vehicles last year and one in 2023. Due to COVID [and] supply chain issues, that did not happen. I’m requesting …at least replacing one vehicle this year. [Because the ordered engines would have to be built] we’re looking at two years before we would see a vehicle because of suppliers being unable to get vehicles and cabs and chassis. That’s where that $550,000 (for one vehicle) is being proposed to council.” He was also asking for a utility trailer, mechanical, roof and facility repairs.
CAO Jay Barbeau told council that falling behind in fleet acquisition, significant price increases, and supply delays are all contributing to higher costs. “We knew we were going to run into trouble in a few years. It’s going to run into trouble a lot faster on our fleet replacement just due to the increasing cost of fire fleet.” Administration repeated its oft-cited message on the urgency of trying to stabilize expenditures by increasing the dedicated reserve; in the case of Fire, a $50K increase was recommended “to put into reserve this year to offset future expenditures that may come with fleet replacement.”
Director of Corporate Services Alisa Craddock outlined the imposed contributions to the town’s service partners, the Health Unit, Au Château long-term care facility and the District of Nipissing Social Services Administration Board (DNSSAB). “These are ones that we again have really no control over… We tend to get hit a little bit harder on DNSSAB than their actual levy increases because it was based on weighted assessment and as our assessment grows because …we’ve got new housing…we end up taking a little bit more of the pie on that.” Total levies for 2023 for these service partners sit at $6.074 million, a good chunk of the budget.
Also up for discussion was how the reserves are treated and where the dividends from West Nipissing Power Generation go. Formerly they went to subsidize water and sewer infrastructure, but going forward dividends will be going into the general budget. Election costs will see a transfer of $25K per year into a dedicated reserve to offset a large expense in one year.
Mayor Kathleen Thorne Rochon noted that insurance settlements were double the budget for 2022 ($153K spent and $75K budgeted). Craddock explained, “it’s when we have a lawsuit against us and we have a lot, not because of any fault just because people sue for all kinds of things … 2022 really was the anomaly and that is again because things got tied up in settling because of the courts not operating and then they all came through with a big swoosh over the last couple of years.”