More investment is needed in infrastructure; a number of city assets could be pared; there is a call from the treasurer to address user fees, some of which are too low; and be prepared for several rounds of employee bargaining.
That’s the St. Thomas financial picture for the coming year.
With a minimum amount of fuss – read little spirited debate – and the complete absence of pencil sharpening, council this week approved a draft of the city’s 2020 budget.
Members were content to rubber-stamp the budget which will see a 2.43 per cent increase in the municipal property tax levy next year.
That’s dependant on the results of contract bargaining on several fronts at city hall. More on that momentarily.
A motion to accept the budget will be voted on at the Dec. 16 council meeting.
On the capital side, the city has $1.2 billion in assets broken down into 17 categories including the broad areas of water and sewer, facilities and streetscapes.
To maintain these assets, the city will need to increase tax-based capital spending from the current $4 million per year to $10 million over the next decade.
Something city manager Wendell Graves called “a challenge.”
His suggestion is to build in a $500,000 spending increase per year.
That alone would equate to an almost one per cent increase each year in the municipal tax levy.
As to reducing city assets, Graves pointed to the Fairview Avenue bridge over the former Canada Southern rail right of way as on example of an unnecessary structure along with any surplus real estate although Graves noted, “we’re not flush with assets.”
The city is proposing to spend just under $40 million next year on capital projects. The actual amount spent this year was $24 million.
Major undertakings include more than $4 million for runway and taxiway improvements at the airport and $10.5 million in the Complete Streets project, which will include water main, sanitary, storm and road work in the Barnes Street area and on Stanley, Centre and White streets.
Annual road rehabilitation comes in at $300,000 with another $200,000 for sidewalks.
More than $5.5 million is earmarked for transit improvements, with $3.6 million on the books for a childcare facility at 230 Talbot Street and $1.7 million for the reconstruction of the east end of Elm Street.
A sum of $450,000 has been set aside for repairs to the slate roof at city hall although property manager Ross Tucker admitted, “this might not be enough.”
Graves indicated a full analysis of the roof condition will be presented to council at a later date.
Improvements to or development of a new animal shelter were not recommended for inclusion in the 2020 budget. More on that in a following item.
Also nixed was a new ladder truck for the fire service at a cost of $1.5 million, ball diamond lighting at Burwell Park, a viewing platform at Lake Margaret, Phase 3 of improvements to the dance pavilion at Pinafore Park and improvements to the Jaycees pool parking lot.
On the operating side of the budget, it was not necessarily what is included but rather what appeared to be missing.
Upon close inspection, very few city departments included wage increases in their operating budgets for next year, something treasurer David Aristone, city manager Graves, Mayor Joe Preston and all councillors made no reference to.
Start exploring and you will find a sum of $906,158 as a labour relations line item in the Corporate Services section of the budget.
A strange place to hide projected salary increases and wage settlements for the coming year.
Both Aristone and Graves reluctantly admitted that figure was, indeed, what it appeared to be although neither would concede as to how that number was settled upon.
When asked about the rationale behind this, Graves indicated it was the result of the labour negotiations underway or pending in 2020.
“The last time we had most of our contracts come due, we grouped the allocations together in one corporate account,” explained Graves in a phone conversation yesterday (Dec. 6).
“All of our contracts except one come due next year. Next year is the year.”
As for community grants, last year’s absurd process for disbursement was replaced by a whatever-you-got-last-year-is-good-this-year process.
“It’s becoming more and more prevalent that municipalities are becoming one of the suppliers of funds to health care and that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing.”
So, the St. Thomas Elgin Public Art Centre will receive $70,000, the Talbot Teen Centre $60,000, the St. Thomas Seniors’ Centre $50,000 and St. Thomas Cemetery Company $55,000.
At the suggestion of Coun. Steve Peters, those numbers were bumped up by an additional 2.4 per cent to reflect the city budget increase in 2020.
Council did not deal with a $2 million ask from the Elgin Residential Hospice planning committee presented last month.
The money would be used to help build and operate an eight-bed facility.
The province is contributing $1.6 million to build the hospice at a yet-to-be-determined location and $840,000 annually toward operating costs.
The planning committee is fundraising an additional $9.5 million for construction and operating costs over a five-year period.
The city is in Year 8 of its 10-year $3.5 million contribution to The Great Expansion at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital and when that commitment is fulfilled, some of the annual $350,000 amount could be allocated to the residential hospice.
Although Preston cautioned, “It’s becoming more and more prevalent that municipalities are becoming one of the suppliers of funds to health care and that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing.”
A CONSULTANT . . . REALLY?
Several councillors, including Steve Peters, this week called for a review of all user fees now in place.
Are they too high, not enough, competitive with those charged by neighbouring communities and do they adequately cover costs?
We’ve been down this road many times. In fact, the debate seems to surface on an annual basis on the parks and recreation side.
Surely blowing the dust off previous studies would shed light on this repetitive request.
But no, this week council approved an expenditure of $35,000 to hire a consultant to undertake yet another review.
Used to be city managers and their staff would pick up the phone, make a few calls to municipal staff in Woodstock, Stratford, Chatham and other comparative communities and request user fee info that can easily be emailed back to city hall.
So, next year, we’re paying a consultant $35,000 to provide this service.
It must be nice to have money – ratepayer money, remember – to burn.
Once again city council and staff punted the long-neglected animal shelter to the sidelines during the budget debate Monday.
Repairs to the woefully inadequate facility – or, indeed a new home for cats and dogs – are not on the radar.
The Burwell Road shelter did not make the cut for capital projects included in the 2020 budget.
Coun. Joan Rymal raised the issue when she asked what is the status of the $400,000 set aside for a new/revitalized shelter.
The hundreds of thousands of dollars already spent on repairs, reports and consultants in the past decade could have funded a state-of-the-art facility the city would be proud of.
“I’m waiting for animal groups to fundraise and contribute to the cost of a new shelter,” offered Mayor Joe Preston.
He quickly added, “That is my opinion, not council’s.”
Is the shelter not a mandated service to be provided by the municipality?
“The government will continue to work with partners to ensure the best protection and support for animals.”
All of this in the same week the provincial government passed legislation that will “better protect animals from abuse and neglect by implementing the first provincial government-based animal welfare enforcement system.”
In a media release, Parliamentary Assistant Christine Hogarth stressed, “Our government has said how committed we are to the well-being of animals and we have proven our commitment by passing this new legislation.”
The release goes on to note, “This new animal welfare system was developed based on input from municipalities, police, industry, technical experts, veterinarian organizations, advocacy organizations, and the public. The government will continue to work with partners to ensure the best protection and support for animals.”
What are the chances the existing St. Thomas shelter will be referred to as an example of “the best protection and support for animals.”
It’s time the city’s animal welfare committee arranged for council and members of the media to tour the shelter and see what little regard is afforded the unfortunate inhabitants.
It would give Mayor Preston the perfect opportunity to throw his support behind the launch of fundraising efforts.
But then, that’s just my opinion, Joe.
IT’S ONLY MONEY
Speaking of money to burn, you have to admire property manager Ross Tucker’s what-me-worry response to almost $40,000 in embarrassing fixes to the new police HQ.
As reported last week, the facility on CASO Crossing has suffered a spate of issues that include heat-related problems in the building, hinges failing on vanity doors in a locker room, a leaking conduit, a sewer back-up, basement flooding due to a failed sump pump, cracked countertops, a leak in the skylight in the fitness room and rusted steel in the elevator pit.
So, during Monday’s (Dec. 2) capital budget deliberations, Coun. Lori Baldwin-Sands made it known “I was stunned to see the amount of fixes and repairs needed.”
She wondered why these weren’t covered by warranty.
It seems the one-year warranty has expired.
Coun. Linda Stevenson added, “Can we not come back on the builders? This is a bad list. Feels like we’re going down that arena (the Timken Centre/Joe Thornton Centre) road again.”
She continued, “Is there no warranty on any of these things?”
“Nothing I’m aware of,” chipped in the city’s property manager.
Finally, Coun. Jeff Kohler piled on with, “I’m very disappointed in seeing this. I’m surprised there is no warranty coverage on any of these items.”
Almost $40,000 in fixes and, no doubt, that amount is likely to keep climbing but Tucker had the ultimate council slapdown.
“Some of these are small items.”
Yup, taxpayers have deep pockets, Ross.
IS THAT ALL THERE IS?
The agenda for Monday’s (Dec. 9) council meeting is a paltry eight pages in length with just a single item for deliberation. With many meetings of late completed in well under an hour – in some cases under the 30-minute mark – how is that argument about so much work an additional councillor is required holding up? Or, are the tough decisions resolved in the office of the city manager?
Last week we referenced a $35,000 fine plus victim fine surcharge and court costs issued to the owners of Beatrice Manor in Welland for fire code violations. The home is operated by Niagara Supportive Living but, in fact, the fine was levied against the previous owner, South Bridge Health Care for Fire Protection and Prevention Act violations.
Still with Niagara Supportive Living and owner Vishal Chityal – who also operates Walnut Manor in St. Thomas – a private member’s bill originally introduced by Welland MPP Cindy Forster in 2017 is making its way back through the legislative process at Queen’s Park.
Bill 135 is an act to establish a framework for the licensing of supportive living accommodation.
It had passed second reading and was before committee prior to being sidetracked by the 2018 provincial election.
In a conversation with Forster in March of last year she explained, “This bill just provides a framework for operators and sets minimum standards that must be met so that vulnerable tenants no longer suffer from a broken system.
“The bill defines what a home is, requires home operators to be licensed, similar to retirement homes — failure to have a licence is a punishable offence of up to $1,000 a day — and would set a framework for inspection and complaint protocols.”
At Queen’s Park in May 2017 Forster had this to say about Chityal.
“He’s no stranger to city officials — substandard conditions. His tenants are high-risk— they’re usually on ODSP or social assistance; they often suffer from physical disability, mental health issues and have a strong dependency on operators — and Charlie Duke takes advantage. We get calls every day and complaints from them.”
Forster had much more to say about Chityal – also known as Charlie Duke – including the fact “(he) was forcing clients to sign over trusteeship, so he was having municipalities send the cheques directly to him. There were people there who weren’t just getting OW and ODSP; some of them were getting maybe $1,500 or $1,600 a month because they had worked in a job and had a bit of a pension. They were signing it over, and he was keeping all of their money.”
Read more about Forster and her original intent of Bill 135 here.
Have to admit we were not familiar whatsoever with The Nameless, a St. Thomas proactive outreach group focused on “building trusting relationships with those living with mental health and addictions,” according to their Facebook page.
“We are a community based, peer lead harm reduction group offering proactive boots on the ground.”
Seven days a week, volunteers do walkabouts from 7 to 10 p.m. at which time they “look for and properly dispose of any sharps and paraphernalia, offer personal care items, snacks, socks, footwear, blankets, support and in community referrals and clothing.”
That corps of volunteers numbers in the range of two dozen with an appeal for further community members to step forward with donations of time or money.
The Nameless operates with a minuscule budget of just over $400 per month and any help from residents will allow it to continue to do the work it does.
“The things we do in the shadows, while the night is dark, while the need is high.
“The things we gather that directly impact the lives of those we serve, and the transparency that we pride ourselves on.”
In conjunction with Fanshawe film students, The Nameless now has a promotional video that tells the story The Nameless don’t brag about.
You can watch it here.
Find out more about The Nameless and their online auction next Saturday (Dec. 14) on their Facebook page at The NamelessST.
A big shout-out to president Leticia Mizon. Keep us in the loop Leticia and this corner will gladly do some braggin’ for ya.
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