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Council delivers 0.9% tax increase

Burlington 2011 Tax Increase
The 2011 tax increase – at 0.9% is the lowest in years.

Must be approved by council, April 11, 7pm, City Hall

Your tax bill will see the lowest increase in more than a decade, after councillors passed a 0.9% increase for 2011, implemented a head count freeze for the next four years, and increased funding to our hospital and Handivan, as part of budget deliberations last week. There are also now enough votes to defeat the councillor pay increase, which will be voted on at council on Monday.

Councillors also allocated a $9.3m surplus from 2010, with an extra $1.2m going to the Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital redevelopment project (on top of the $1.2m in our base budget), and an additional $500k going to infrastructure renewal (roads and buildings). Budget highlights and details on the surplus disposition are below.

My Take: During the election campaign, many of you told me you wanted the city to rein in spending, focus on priorities, and more closely align spending to economic realities. City taxes have increased by a whopping 75% since 2000 – about 5.6% per year, while our population has only grown by 18%, and inflation by 23%. This budget signals a new focus on fiscal restraint while maintaining or enhancing core priorities for our hospital and seniors.

Budget Highlights:

APPROVED: Handivan expansion & part-time driver

I advocated moving the expansion of our handi-van fleet one year earlier from 2013 to 2012, and adding a part-time operator given that the service is over capacity and serves the most vulnerable in our community.

APPROVED: A staffing “complement freeze”

Several of us suggested various ways to control human resources costs, including head count, wage or pay envelope freezes. We agreed to a “complement” freeze till 2014. Any new positions must be funded out of retirements, staff departures or other budget reductions, so there is a net zero impact on costs. The 12 additional positions that staff requested for 2011 will have to be funded through savings of about $400k elsewhere in the budget..

APPROVED: Library services to seniors and youth

I advocated continuing our visiting program to seniors, literacy programs for youth and library participation in community events. Much of this is carried out by volunteers but needs nominal administrative support (about $15k). Committee also added funding for several information technology improvements for the library, totalling about $36k.

DEFEATED: Extra 4 firefighters

The budget committee narrowly defeated adding four firefighters to Fire Station 8 when it opens, which would cost $344k. There are already 12 firefighters assigned there, rather than the full 16-person complement. This was a tough choice, but I supported the decision to hold off on the hiring given that the crew can be supplemented by extra firefighters at other stations.

DEFEATED: Performing arts startup costs from contingency

Counc. Dennison suggested that start up costs for uniforms and other items for the Performing Arts Centre (worth $262k) should be funded out of the construction contingency. That saves drawing it from taxpayer-supported funds. I agreed. These start up costs should have been anticipated and built into the budget. It didn’t have the votes to pass.

APPROVED: Reduction of travel budget for mundialization committee

Paying travel costs for visits to our twin cities in Japan and The Netherlands is a nice to have. This budget has been reduced by $15k.

APPROVED: Removing pre-paid return envelope for taxes notices

Increasingly, residents are paying taxes online and through direct debits from their bank accounts. Removing the pre-paid return envelope when tax notices are mailed out will save $21k.

APPROVED: Reducing CityTalk newsletter from 16 to 12 pages

Each councillor will now have 1 page, instead of 1.5. I supported the reduction, given that councillors have a variety of other means to communicate with residents, including email, Facebook, Twitter, phone and newspaper ads. All councillors also have budget to send our own printed newsletters direct to our ward, so residents will continue to receive important information via print. Saves $6k.

DEFEATED: Fee for street parties

Staff had proposed charging $30 for permits for street parties, worth about $1500 annually. I did not support the fee.

WITHDRAWN: Design competition for Old Lakeshore Rd:

The Waterfront Access and Protection Advisory Committtee, through it’s sub-committee on the Old Lakeshore Road, asked for $45k in this year’s budget to fund a design competition for this area of our downtown waterfront. The idea is that through a vigorous, city-wide process, and buy-in from residents, property owners, staff and council, we can bring all parties together to achieve a “wow” of design and function that everyone can support, which respects heritage, pedestrian scale and waterfront access. That hasn’t been accomplished to date, and prompted me to establish the Save Our Waterfront movement when I was a citizen organizer.

There was general support in principle from several members of council for a design competition, but they wanted to see a firm proposal of how it would work before committing the funds. I agreed to withdraw the item, and work with the committee to bring a proposal back.

Money is available in reserve funds if the project is approved.

Got a budget question?

Email or call me if you want more information or have a question about a budget item not listed above.

How we allocated the $9.3m surplus

Last year saw the largest surplus ever, of $9.3m, although the city has run annual surpluses since at least 2005 as follows: $250k (2005), $2.1m, (2006) $2.1m (2007) $1.9m (2008) $3.5m (2009), $9.3m (2010)

The 2010 surplus came from a variety of sources, including staff finding efficiencies to bring in projects under budget, higher than expected returns on investments, additional property taxes, and staff “gapping” – the difference in time between when a staff member leaves the organization and is replaced. Our budget policies call for salaries to be budgeted for a full year, even if positions are filled part way through the year.

Though some of these items are beyond city control, we set taxes based on budgets. When we run large consecutive surpluses, that means our budgets are too high and we end up collecting too much tax. So this year’s budget attempts to set a more realistic figure. I’m comfortable with a surplus running to perhaps $1m or less, but we shouldn’t be seeing large surpluses year over year.

Here’s how budget committee voted to allocate the surplus. What staff recommended is in brackets:

Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital: $1.2m (staff recommendation: $0)

The budget committee supported increasing our contribution to the hospital given that residents have said this is your top spending priority. There is an additional $1.2m annually built into the base budget for a total contribution this year of $2.4m (same as last year).

OMERS: $1.8m (staff: $0)

Burlington is required under municipal legislation to top up our contribution to the employee retirement fund for the next three years, by increasing increments of $600k each year. (employees must also increase their contribution). The city’s total contribution is $3.6m at the end of three years ($600k this year, plus $1.2m next year, plus $1.8m in year three=$3.6m). In order to reduce future tax impact, committee voted to add $600k each year to our base budget for the next three years (for a total of $1.8m) .

Infrastructure Renewal Reserve Fund: $972k (staff: $600k)

Given that we are falling behind in our ability to keep up with roads and building infrastructure renewal, budget committee increased the provision to this fund.

Contingency Reserve: $1.5m (staff: $2m)

The fund is used to cover legal and human resources costs.

Capital Purposes Reserve Fund: $1.5m (staff: $2m)

This funds capital projects, and any associated cost overruns. Budget committee reduced the amount, given the balance in the fund currently sits at $7.6m.

Strategic Land Acquisition Reserve Fund: $600k (staff: $600k)

Used to purchase land, for example when schools close (such as General Brock Park).

Severe Weather Reserve Fund: $530k (staff: $1.2m)

I supported the reduction given that the current balance in the fund will more than cover any extreme snow or storm weather.

Tax Rate Stabilization Reserve Fund: $691k (staff: $582k)

This fund is used to finance one-time projects that arise during the year and were not anticipated during budget talks.

Public Art Reserve Fund: $50k (staff: $50K).

I did not support this expenditure as we already have $50K in this year’s budget and $100k in the annual base budget for the next 10 years.

Employee Accident Reserve Fund: $0 (staff: $500K)

The increase was suggested to cover any claims from firefighters based on new “presumptive” legislation, which assumes that ailments firefighters experience are assumed to be caused on the job, thus are recoverable from the city. This was not supported by the budget committee, given that we don’t yet know the impact, if any, of potential claims.

Hydro Reserve Fund: $460k (staff: $460k)

Written by Marianne Meed Ward

I was inspired to seek public office because I believe, like so many of you, “I can do something about that” on the issues we face. As councilor, my role is to take a stand on what’s best for residents and go to bat for it. Pushback is inevitable from those who don’t have the community’s interests at heart. I will stand with you and for you, to achieve the best interests of our city, without caving to unacceptable compromise in the name of consensus.

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