Gary Barton is mayor of the Township of Champlain and Warden of the United Counties of Prescott and Russell. He urged council to come to an agreement on a proposed tax rate they could "live with." (File photo: Francis Tessier-Burns).

UCPR laments past decisions to keep taxes low during 2018 draft budget presentation

5.4 per cent. 

That number was nothing less than reviled at the United Counties of Prescott and Russell’s latest Committee of the Whole meeting, where council was presented the first draft of next year’s budget.

That number represents the proposed tax increase. 

And, according to UCPR treasurer Julie Ménard-Brault’s presentation that number represents a $21.71 increase per $100,000 evaluation.

Stéphane Parisien, the Counties’ CAO, says that 5.4 per cent is calculated before the Counties receive the final growth total evaluated by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC). He adds that even if council did approve the 5.4 per cent increase—spoiler alert, it didn’t—that figure would likely drop before tax bills were sent out because new growth would be taken into account. That new figure is what’s known as the notional tax rate.

Ménard-Brault was less than a quarter of the way through the budget presentation when the mayor of Clarence-Rockland, Guy Desjardins, categorically refused to even entertain the idea of a 5.4 per cent increase.

“I’m already competing with Orleans when it comes to taxes,” he said. “I’ll never approve a 5.4 per cent increase.”

Yet, it seems the mayors have no one else to blame but themselves.

Council requests

“Collectively, you’ve asked us to put things in the budget, so we’ve put them in,” said Parisien.

He was referring to, among other council requests, that next year the Counties’ will be taking on the costs of fire dispatch services—an estimated $472,000 responsibility.

The budget presentation also refreshed council’s memory when it came to setting aside $500,000 for future County Road 17 repairs and an extra $500,000 for the new Prescott and Russell Residence to be built by 2025.

Other council requests included in the draft budget were: a total of $2 million in donations to the eight member municipalities; donations to various organizations totaling $645,000 ($500,000 of which is going to the Centre d’accueil Roger-Séguin (CARS)); and the acquisitions of two pieces of land in the Larose Forest for a total of $701,600.

That last item proved to be a point of contention among the mayors, with some like Desjardins and Jeanne Charlebois, from Hawkesbury, saying the Counties should borrow the money to buy the land.

The proposed budget is balanced, with UCPR not incurring any long-term debt.

Mayor Kirby, of East Hawkesbury, wanted to keep it that way.

“I won’t support a budget that creates debt, it’s not in my mentality,” he said. “I feel that if it takes five per cent then I’ll support it.”

Nonetheless, Charlebois stood by the idea of borrowing.

“As for the debt, I agree with Mr. Desjardins, it’s not the end of the world,” she said before suggesting taxpayers “can live with it.”

“I’m not talking hundreds of millions, I’m talking a few million here and there, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s something that can be paid over the years,” she added. “I think it would offer us an option to do these things that we had proposed to do, that we had asked to include in the budget. It’s up to us to decide, if we want these things done, are we prepared to borrow… I think the taxpayer could see that as being reasonable with a one per cent to two per cent increase.”

Deviating from the plan

In her presentation, Ménard-Brault said there was no money set aside to follow the Counties’ asset management plan.

Developed last year, that plan is essentially UCPR’s infrastructure vision to “ensure core services provided to citizens, business, and institutions attain sustainability.”

Although we are putting some money into our roads, and our bridges, and our social housing repairs, we are not fully following our asset management plan,” said Ménard-Brault.

Counties’ Warden, Gary Barton asked how much would be needed to follow the plan.

“Crazy amounts,” replied Parisien.

“At least $2 million this year for sure, just for this year,” clarified Ménard-Brault.  

Following the presentation, Russell Mayor Pierre Leroux, brought back the fact the budget didn’t cover the asset management plan.

“Essentially we’re making the decision of not including that $2 million,” he said. “How far can we keep kicking the can down the road before we have to do it?”

Parisien reminded council that money was in the budget—just not as part of the asset management plan.

“We do have that $2 million to put in, but we’re giving it back to local municipalities,” he said. “I’m not being nasty, just pointing it out.”

There were a couple of other important omissions from the proposed budget. No money is being set aside for the plans and eventual acquisition of property for the new Prescott and Russell Residence. Though Ménard-Brault said there was $3 million in reserves that could be used to cover those costs.

Also, there was no amount dedicated to fire dispatch equipment; the $472,000 previously mentioned is solely the cost of the contract between UCPR and Hawkesbury for offering the service.

On the flip side, due to the longstanding dispute between UCPR and Ottawa emergency services, billed services to Ottawa and Cornwall—a potential revenue of nearly $1 million—were also left out of the budget.

Proposed cuts

Mayor Leroux was the first to bring up the fact the increase was the result of years of previous councils deciding to “stay at zero at all costs.”

He said this year council could “make a decision” to bite the bullet and keep the proposed increase. Suffice to say, not many were keen on the idea.

Later Leroux suggested cutting the two $500,000 transfer to reserves for County Road 17 and the residence, as well as the $500,000 donation to the CARS in half. That alone would save about 1.5 per cent.

Mayor Kirby echoed Leroux in saying that not increasing the tax rate in years past was a mistake.

“If we would have charged a two per cent for cost of living, we might not be here today,” he said. “There’s some catching up to do and I’m ready to support it.”

Talks of borrowing to purchase the land in Larose Forest came back around, and Ménard-Brault clarified that the forest’s reserve fund totaling $500,000 had been emptied to finance part of the acquisition, leaving $200,000. Council didn’t come to a consensus on how that amount should be obtained.

“What I’m trying to get from council is what they’re prepared to live with,” said Barton, before finally suggesting settling at a 3.5 per cent.

“Can we live with 3.5?” he asked. Mayors Charlebois and Desjardins were still against that rate, others seemed more willing to entertain the suggestion.

“Nobody likes a tax increase,” said Barton. Later he added, “In the past we’ve said, ‘No, no, no, keep it low.’ We probably should’ve been increasing, but you know what? Woulda, coulda, shoulda, but it’s gone, it’s done, we have to live with what we’re faced right now.”