By Sue Tiffin
Budget discussions have begun at the county level.
Budget overviews were presented by chief administrative officer Mike Rutter, director of corporate services Andrea Bull, and county department heads during the Nov. 10 online committee of the whole meeting, the first in which the county’s 2022 draft budget was discussed.
The draft budget contains a 3.53 per cent tax rate increase at the upper-tier level, a $956,952 increase over last year’s levy. Reserves are expected to be $5,565,191 at the end of next year.
Bull noted staff’s goals and objectives were to keep tax increases as low as possible; continue to provide efficient service delivery; enhance financial sustainability by focusing on long-term financial planning; put an emphasis on zero-based budgeting and incorporate directions from council with respect to service delivery.
Rutter said positions added by the service delivery review and budget to fund up to three positions related to the shoreline preservation bylaw make an impact. He said the county has utilized debt to catch up with paving and surface treatment in the past few years, and now has a plan to address the infrastructure deficit in the county’s bridges including $5.1 million in debt and almost $400,000 in debt repayment this year.
In addition, the budget includes just under $300,000 for new affordable housing units.
“Approximately two-thirds of that is for the second half of our commitment to the Kawartha Lakes Haliburton Housing Corporation project off Highway 35 in Minden,” Rutter told the Times. “The balance will fund projects under the Affordable Housing Targets Program. We also have $252,000 plus or minus to fully fund the asset management program to maintain existing affordable housing units.”
County warden and Algonquin Highlands Deputy Mayor Liz Danielsen said she was pleased to “see the starting point that staff has offered us, and to offer my appreciation on behalf of council for the hard work that’s been done by all of our staff to give us a budget that is a lot more reasonable as a starting point than I thought we might be looking at.”
Rutter spoke to the challenges the county is facing this year, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, he said it is a time of transition for county staff with new faces around the table, as well as new accounting software.
“In some ways, this draft budget tries to respond to a changing community,” he said. “We’ve heard council talk a lot about how things have changed, and they really have. This budget is recommending more investments in housing – we continue to see the need for housing of all types but affordable housing in particular, the demand is going up dramatically. We have more investments as a result of climate change, more investments responding to growth, such as additional staffing of EMS and council is also looking to the future with a master plan in that department. And then of course, economic development as well.”
Rutter said the draft budget tries to “progress toward sustainability in key service areas,” with money being spent “all with the goal to save money in the longterm, but in order to do that we have to make investments in the short-term.”
“We’ve done all of this during a global pandemic, knowing that our community is really struggling, people in the community are really struggling,” said Rutter. “So we really have made an effort to mitigate increases where we possibly can, and phase them in over time, sometimes – sometimes it’s been deferring things.”
He said there have been both recruitment and retention challenges, and that it has been difficult to meet service demands, noting for example that a whole new cohort of EMS recruits couldn’t write the provincial exam in a timely way.
“There are many challenges behind the numbers, and I want to recognize that we do acknowledge that the community is struggling in many ways,” he said.
The 2021 budget containing a tax increase of 3.84 per cent was passed in February this year.
This year’s budget process and timeline includes updates at the December and January committee of the whole meetings, with a proposed adoption of the budget at council in January or February. The full Nov. 10 meeting is available on YouTube under the County of Haliburton page.