By Sue Tiffin
Minden Hills councillors returned to the deliberation table last week to talk about the 2022 budget, the first public budget discussion since last October.
Since December, staff have been working on decreasing the tax levy from $10,541,870, representing an increase of $1,328,540 or 14.4 per cent, and presented a third version of the draft budget on March 24 with a $9,581,235 levy, or 4.0 per cent increase.
CAO/clerk Trisha McKibbin presented the draft budget alongside Oscar Poloni of KPMG, the township’s auditor. Additionally, Greg Bedard attended the virtual meeting, having joined the township in the role of director of finance four days prior. McKibbin noted council did not have an opportunity to discuss the second draft of the budget package at a Dec. 9 meeting, but that its content was included within the agenda at that time and also within the updated package presented last week.
“You can see we had some pressure points on that budget including new staff positions, increases in salary and hours,” she said, noting new positions included in the budget – one in administration, one in finance – a deputy treasurer position – and positions in the building and bylaw planning department at a cost of $246,364. Other pressures in the budget, said McKibbin, include increases in salaries and hours at a cost of $303,516. Special projects, or consultants, for a pay equity review, short-term rental review, recruitment, planning consultants and landfill consultants were included at $225,650. Capital funded through taxation was $310,185 and includes IT, fire department turnout gear, property projects such as painting at the cultural centre. Road debenture costs – the Scotch Line transfer station, resurfacing projects, culverts and drainage improvements were included at $221,730.
McKibbin said strategies considered to reduce the overall increase in the municipal levy include adjusting the budget by $182,330 to reflect timing of hiring versus full year salary for new positions – or pro-ration of salaries; use of $220,000 of reserves for one-time special project operating costs; increased utilization of reserves of $275,000 for tax-funded capital projects and adjustment of operating costs and revenues to reflect expected levels in 2022.
She said the continued ability to draw down on reserves and utilize debenture financing is limited, and cost pressures will continue to challenge the municipality into future years.
“The proposed 2022 budget attempts to balance affordability with the township’s needs in a sustainable manner,” said McKibbin in her report to council, noting numerous times that the proposed 2022 budget is “transitionary in nature.”
“This is to move us forward in 2022, recognizing that we have a lot of work to do in 2022, but we’re looking at using some reserve accounts and debenture for financing,” she said. “We’re also aware of cost pressures – we know that expenses are going up, we know we are increasing some of the programming we’re doing, we have a brand new building that will be fully operational … recognizing all of that and the pressures that we’re under, we know that in 2022 really we need to be focusing on four areas and having some really in-depth conversations and planning.”
Those four areas, she said, are a service delivery review; asset management planning; reserve and reserve fund strategy and a user fee analysis.
“These are four major items we should be talking about every year, and should be part of our budgeting process as we move forward,” she said.
Councillor Bob Carter, speaking to McKibbin’s report, said that while he recognizes the budget is a transition budget, that transition is more internal “and doesn’t mean an awful lot to the taxpayers.” While he agreed with a need to discuss reserves going forward, he questioned the way the budget was presented.
“I recognize what you have done here to come up to the four per cent, is, fine, but I think that’s a bit of an artificial and totally arbitrary number,” said Carter. “One of the things you don’t really mention in here is that you’re using borrowing to get to that number. There’s some things that you’ve deemed to be capital projects that should be debentured, and there’s a debate on whether they should be debentured or whether they should be handled out of our operating budgets.”
He said the budget as presented is based on projects and decisions that have not yet been approved.
“Until we get through all of that, it’s really difficult to say what this number really, really is,” he said, saying that he wants to know before making decisions what the effect will be next year as a result of that decision.
Councillor Jennifer Hughey said she was impressed with the number being presented, and also wanted to know what effect decisions would have, up until 2025.
Councillor Pam Sayne said she liked the new presentation of the budget, noting it’s available online for the public to access, thanking those who had worked on it.
Mayor Brent Devolin thanked staff and the KPMG team.
“Obviously the timing, basically since the beginning of the year being without a director of finance, to pull this off is a minor miracle, to put it lightly,” said Devolin. He acknowledged the turnover and challenges with staff retention the township had faced.
“I expect that at whatever point we approve our 2022 budget … the good work toward next year’s budget with some longer term elements, i.e. road needs study, asset management, all of those elements, that this council and staff can work toward the end of our term to set the table so that a lot of that information is available and a bunch of the work is done for the council that will follow us.”
Minden had started deliberating early compared to prior years, in October rather than December, which McKibbin said was so that council could have the same number of meetings to review and discuss the budget as in the past, in order to approve the budget during the month of January. The first draft of the budget showed a 14.5 per cent increase over the 2021 levy, with that number historically decreasing through discussion and deliberation.
Last year Minden’s budget was passed in March after five rounds of talks, the levy increase being 3.75 per cent over the 2020 budget, equating to a tax rate increase of 3.08 per cent for residents.
The county as well as the other three lower-tier municipalities passed their 2022 budgets this month. The next budget meeting in Minden Hills is scheduled for Wednesday, April 20 at 9 a.m.