As city residents transitioned from Christmas celebrations to life under a minimum 28-day province-wide shutdown, we chatted with Mayor Joe Preston on how this will impact the administration’s game plan for 2021.
Considering council and administration accomplished much in a year we would otherwise like to forget.
That includes a new transit system that will begin to take shape this month, the impressive number of building permits issued in 2020, construction projects underway like the residential development on the Alma College site, new industries like Element5 springing up, affordable housing projects and a new civic park project to be developed on the site of the former police headquarters.
Always upbeat, Preston began by pointing out city hall will remain open during this time while other municipalities have chosen to keep their administrative offices closed.
Picking up from Monday’s 2021 city budget deliberations, council had directed administration to pare back the municipal property tax levy from 2.48 per cent to 1.5 per cent in deference to the economic impact on ratepayers of the coronavirus.
That request by council translated into cutting about $572,000 from the proposed capital and operating budgets.
Council indicated a priority would be to maintain as much as possible the tax-base contribution to the capital budget and minimize the impact on service delivery in the operating budget.
In other words, find the savings without cutting services.
To deliver on council’s request city manager Wendell Graves and department heads held a pair of meetings on Tuesday of this week to ferret out possible sources of savings.
As a result, council grants to community groups and organizations will be cut by $75,000 in the new year. Leaving about $210,000 in the grant kitty to distribute in 2021.
It was agreed to reduce Community Improvement Program funding by $200,000.
With the observation, “Our assets are the strongest link to the new city branding,” a pair of St. Thomas railway-based entities are seeking an exemption from paying municipal property taxes. Matt Janes of The Railworks Coalition – representing the Elgin County Railway Museum (ECRM), the CASO station and, in the near future, the St. Thomas Elevated Park – made a pitch to city council at Monday’s (Jan. 20) reference committee meeting requesting tax relief. While no decision was made at the meeting, there was no shortage of questions and comments from members of council combined with a healthy dose of skepticism from several quarters. In an email to City Scope on Tuesday, Janes outlined three objectives behind the deputation to council. Topping the list was the need to, “Stress how important the Railworks’ assets (ECRM, CASO Station and Elevated Park) are to “The Railway City” brand, and the economic activity generated by our organizations.”
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.
In past years, this corner closed out the calendar with a review of the previous 12 months through memorable quotes, often humorous and even insightful at times. This time around, with a newly installed council – which, after just a pair of meetings is proving more dynamic than the previous edition – we will peer ahead to the coming year and the corporate business needing attention in fairly short order. First on the agenda – with an initial run-through beginning 5 p.m. Jan. 7 – is the city’s 2019 budget. As outlined during the Dec. 17 reference committee meeting, the goal is to hold the municipal property tax levy to an increase of between 1.8 and 2 per cent. The capital budget target for 2019 is $4,045,000, up from $3.4 million in 2018. However, keep in mind council will have to wade through tens of millions of dollars in requests.
The paperwork was ready Monday, however members of council were hesitant to seal the deal.
The desire by two councillors for further information on a tax-exemption request for church-owned property at 320 Highbury Ave. led to temporarily shelving a ready-to-endorse bylaw.
Councillors Joan Rymal and Linda Stevenson sought input from city staff on possible repercussions from the pending bylaw to waive the municipal property tax at Bearing Precious Seed, where printed material produced for Bible Baptist Church is assembled for mailout to households across Canada.
Mayor Heather Jackson backed both councillors, noting she “supported further dialogue.”
A motion to postpone proceeding with the bylaw was approved by a narrow 4-3 margin with councillors Jeff Kohler, Mark Burgess and Gary Clarke opposed to further delay.
Coun. Steve Wookey was absent from Monday’s meeting.
Rymal told the Times-Journal on Tuesday, “I am just pleased we can at least get the input from staff. I think it’s a bit dangerous of council to go ahead and make a decision without getting all the input from staff because we’re not the experts.”
Rymal added she has heard feedback from some ratepayers on the request from Bible Baptist Church.
“I’ve heard concerns we are setting a precedent and we’re going to be having all sorts of organizations . . . looking for the same tax relief.”
Stevenson, meantime, had asked for a staff report last week following a deputation to council by Pastor Al Stone of Bible Baptist Church. Continue reading →