West Nipissing municipal budget deliberations are underway and the administration has switched up its usual process – rather than presenting an opening gambit of a double-digit tax increase, and then whittling it down, they started with an opening tax increase of just 2.37% in what they hope will be a more “concise and simple format”.
In an opening memorandum, CAO Jay Barbeau explained that the budget was already cut down to bare bones and would not need major alterations. “Council should accept and appreciate that staff have submitted budgets that are necessary for the continued effectiveness of the organization,” he wrote. “The line items which form the budget are operational and necessary. There is no excess…” Council was in general agreement that the new process would move things forward expeditiously, as long as they could ask questions along the way. Lise Sénécal, chairing the deliberations in her role as chair of General Government, did insist she wanted an OPP report during budget deliberations.
Two meetings were held, March 2 and March 8. The March 2nd meeting proceeded smoothly with the Public Works capital projects and infrastructure budget approved so that projects and quotes could be put forward before the season gets too far along and contractors already committed. In 2021, the budget deliberations went over an extensive, and sometimes contentious, 9 meetings. Contention was not avoided entirely as the March 8 budget deliberation closed abruptly with Sénécal losing her temper during the last 10 minutes and expelling Coun. Rolly Larabie from the meeting for speaking when it was not his turn to do so. When he would not remove himself, she shut down the meeting.
Budget surplus in 2021
On the bright side, the town begins the year on sound financial footing, as 2021 ended with a budget surplus of $1.466 million. CAO Barbeau called it a weird year, with both savings and expenses due to the pandemic. “COVID took a lot of our time. Do we open a rink or do we close a rink?… Revenues are different and expenses are different.” He noted that enhanced cleaning, screening for passports, etc., added to operational expenses, and COVID impacted training in many departments. Coun. Chris Fisher pointed out, “For the fire department, especially, training has been so difficult.” Monies for much needed operational training are reflected in the 2022 budget.
Corporate services saw an increase in revenue in 2021 due to an increase in construction in West Nipissing. Additionally, there were challenges in staffing, with vacancies and timing of hires affecting wages and benefits. On the down side, the municipality used to collect about $120K under the Provincial Offenses Act, and that’s dried up. “Now it’s almost costing us,” said Barbeau. “But it won’t affect the budget.” Insurance and legal costs were up in 2021. However, there were less tax write-offs.
Public Works posted a 2021 surplus of $214K, largely due to job vacancies that weren’t filled, and winter materials (salt, sand) being lower than usual. Community Services posted a surplus of $806K, having the benefit of COVID relief funding to offset revenue losses. They also had a strong year at the marina and underspent in wages as positions went vacant. There were significant savings in utilities as facilities like arenas were shut down, and no community events or initiatives. The Fire Department posted a surplus of $158K, largely due to wage savings, reduced training availability, underspending in facility maintenance, and a lighter fire season. Regarding facilities, Fire Chief Richard Maranda told council, “We had a hard time to get contractors… still planning on finishing the Lavigne station as soon as possible.” In 2022 the Fire Department is looking at proceeding with more work at more stations.
Building and Planning exceeded their revenues by $146K, which came as a pleasant surprise. A lot of building took place in 2021, and municipal Treasurer Alisa Craddock noted, “Permit revenue was substantial, and planning revenue – consents, zoning, amendments.” Along with the extra revenues, lowered expenses allowed Building & Planning to post a 2021 surplus of $205K.
Economic Development started with a budget of $262k and only spent $57K, leaving a 2021 surplus of $205K. Manager of Economic Development, Stephan Poulin said that those funds would carry over to 2022 for studies that were supposed to close in 2021, and some of the savings were also in relation to unspent marketing dollars.
The policing budget zeroed out, no surplus or deficit, and the OPP will soon move to the Calls for Service billing model. In 2021 the new OPP building was completed, OPP moved into the facility, and maintenance of the building was contracted out as “it’s easier than deploying our staff”. CAO Barbeau told council that the policing contract with the province is being finalized, and the detachment construction team under Johnny Belanger “got the building on time and on budget.” The construction expenses, initially drawn from reserves, were then transferred to term loans. Craddock explained that in 2021 the municipality budgeted for loan payments, but “because those were pushed back, it was less than we anticipated because the transition was over a longer period.” Responding to a question posed by Coun. Rolly Larabie, CAO Barbeau said the new billing model will take effect in January of 2023.
With a $1.466M surplus in 2021, municipal reserves climbed to $5.6M, characterized as an enviable position for West Nipissing, although many of the projects planned for 2021 will be carried over to 2022. The 2.37% increase for 2022 already factors in the surplus. Barbeau told council, “We used that surplus for reducing the tax burden to the residents.” Craddock said that even with that measure, there will be an increase to the reserve, to $4.4M. With the reserve position is trending upwards, Coun. Dan Roveda urged cautioned. “The more you have in reserve, the government expects you to empty your reserve”. Mayor Savage added, “We have a few large projects where they will ask for contributions from the municipality.”
For 2022, the proposed budget expenditures are $31,534,873, with a deficit of $431,603, requiring the 2.37% tax increase. A 1% increase is equivalent to $182,000.
Council began with a look at Capital expenditures for 2022. The outlays for Building and Planning, and for Public Works were justified by the department heads, with a request to approve the proposed budgets as soon as possible. Shawn Remillard, manager of Public Works, remarked that the earlier the better to guarantee best pricing and availability from contractors. “The longer we wait, the more contractors we lose to other potential projects in other communities.” Council smoothly went through the proposed streets, bridges and facilities that needed tending to in 2022, including those projects that started in 2021 and require completion in 2022. The full list of projects and infrastructure is on the municipal website. Coun. Rolly Larabie made the motion to accept the proposed Capital expenditures of $3.59M, and council approved.
The budget deliberations of March 8 began with the same willingness to move expeditiously, but ended in a blow-out. Planning & Building requested an assistant because of the increased activity and commensurate revenue. Community Services signed a new lease agreement with Statistics Canada at $358K, which more than covered their request for an additional maintenance employee at $176K; the rest would go into a reserve for dedicated services. The ensuing discussion on dedicated reserves had the Treasurer, Alisa Craddock, explain that the dedicated reserve position assists in long term planning, “Last year they had an $800K transfer to reserve for facilities, equipment and fleet [which] brings it up to just over $1M for current and future capital needs… Now we’re getting on top of better long-range plans for facilities.”
This year is an election year for the municipality. Craddock told council, “An election on average costs about $100K. What we’ve been doing is taking $100K out of general reserve during the election year. Our recommendation is to propose budgeting to do ¼ apportionment – so $25K this year for the election and take the other $75K out of General Reserve and next year there won’t be a tax increase.” She suggested putting aside $25k each year as a means of better budgeting for elections. Voting in 2022 will be by mail.
Economic Development is proposing to re-introduce the Community Improvement Plan for $50K, which will allow businesses to apply for matching funds for façades and signage, capped to $15K for façade improvements. Coun Fisher noted the program was very popular in the past.
Special Projects requested $125K, with $70K going to beautification ($40K to Sturgeon Falls). Discussion ensued about making sure fund distribution took into consideration all West Nipissing communities. This is the point where discussion became somewhat contentious, as the mayor raised the issue of whether certain funds should be considered Capital or Operational. The same discussion in 2021 had council members trying to direct accounting procedure. CAO Barbeau nipped the discussion in the bud, declaring that accounting was a professional activity that answered to a mandated standard. “It isn’t council’s authority to direct funds to capital or operations, it’s an accounting function; what is classified as capital and operation is a function of the treasurer…”
Another issue that came up was the $10K for a party to recognize the volunteers of the 2019 International Plowing Match. Coun. Larabie asked, “If they made money why tack it on the taxpayer?” Immediately following that question, Coun. Denis Sénécal asked, “Why does Sturgeon Falls Beautification get $40K and Community Events get $25K?” Coun. Lise Sénécal commented that the $10K for volunteer recognition was a “big fuss for $10K for people – not even a dollar each.” She added that regarding the $40K for Sturgeon Falls Beautification, “We don’t have what they are asking for.” What ensued was a discussion on how to distribute beautification funds equitably by creating policy, noting that each community will have their own volunteer groups and special requests.
Community Services requested a new propane Ice Resurfacer at $100K, rather than an electric one, because of a $60K price differential, and being more comfortable with the proven technology. They will keep the spare Zamboni, which is still functional, in the event of breakdowns or for occasional use on area outdoor rinks. Projects carried over from 2021 include the Field outdoor rink ($150K), AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) projects at the Cache Bay Community Centre, Verner Arena, WN Recreation Centre, Verner Municipal Building ($140K) and the town hall for Statistics Canada ($175K). Coun. Rolly Larabie noted that these projects are ongoing, with deadlines from 2025 to 2030, and asked if more funds should be added. Stephan Poulin responded that there was an AODA report for every municipal building, while parks and playgrounds are being examined, and “We will have a 10-year plan to comply with the legislation… We have 23 reports right now that we’re compiling into a manageable report.”
Including the 2022 projects, the total capital budget for Community Services was proposed at $1,010,000. Large items were town hall HVAC upgrades ($190K), the roof replacement at the Sturgeon Falls Arena lobby, and Community Services Operation Garage upgrades. What followed were the items not on the list. Mayor Savage brought forward the painting of the flagpole at Minnehaha Bay, fencing at the Cache Bay ball park, decking and fencing at the Cache Bay Trailer Park pool. Community Services manager Steph Poulin responded that the flagpole was included in facilities maintenance rather than capital, that baseball had not been played in Cache Bay for 10 years, the trailer park pool was a project for consideration, and “the Pickleball group asked for a more permanent facility”. CAO Barbeau intervened, saying “the issue is we have a proposed expenditure level… If council wants to increase expenditures or projects – if council wants to make adjustments” they were free to do so, but “the pickleball facility is not a 2022 project.”
After a few more suggestions, Chair Lise Sénécal suggested that new items for consideration be put on the agenda at a later date. It was at this point that Coun. Larabie reiterated that the AODA requirements and the accessibility needs of handicapped persons should take precedence and more funds should be set aside. “There’s a lot of projects that need to be done… If we skip one year, we’re going to be running behind… I’ve kind of got a hard time looking at doing parties, cooking hamburgers and hot dogs for events and having fireworks all over the place, when we have problems with handicapped not being able to access buildings and having a hard time.”
Sénécal said she resented “the way you said about volunteers – without volunteers in WN there would be so many things not happening… $10K for 1500 people and you’re saying you’ve got a problem with that?” Larabie denied her charge, and the discussion quickly devolved, with Larabie saying, “My view is we should be taking care of people.” Sénécal asked how many buildings in the municipality were acceptable, to which Poulin said all the buildings were acceptable but accessibility could be improved. Mayor Savage also responded, “I don’t agree with the comment that we don’t care for people,” and that more funding than ever has been spent on AODA initiatives over the last year. Coun. Larabie wanted to respond immediately to the mayor’s comments and was told by Chair Sénécal that he didn’t have the floor, to which he responded, “I’m taking it” and continued talking. Sénécal told him if he said another word, she would ask him to leave. “It’s not your turn!” After a few more exchanges between the two, Sénécal told Larabie to go or she would end the entire meeting, giving Larabie ten seconds to leave. Sénécal then started a countdown. Larabie did not leave and the meeting was abruptly adjourned.
Budget deliberations are set to continue late next week.