Note: Story update
The previous version of this story indicated $20,000 set aside in the capital budget to dismantle an outdoor rink. That total amount actually included the cost of removal of the Maison des Jeunes building and site clean-up. You can read about this close to the end of this story.
At the end of its Monday, February 11 budget meeting, Champlain Township council decided to schedule its regular monthly meeting earlier in the day, in anticipation of a predicted snowstorm. At its regular meeting, which took place on Tuesday, February 12 at 1:30 p.m., council reviewed its budget estimates presented as a result of the previous day’s meeting. With the changes council asked for the projected increase is 6.64 per cent, or $$428,921 more in operating fees compared to 2018, along with $444,170 in capital works to be undertaken in 2019.
At the February 11, 2019 budget review meeting which lasted more than three hours, Champlain Township councillors discussed everything from the sale of land and mutual aid fire protection to truck purchases and perhaps most important: what were they thinking as a bottom line for tax increases.
Here are some key points from that meeting.
Champlain Township Mayor Normand Riopel opened the February 11 meeting saying that despite criticism for going through the township budget line by line, “People don’t know how the budget works.” Riopel said he liked the line-by-line process.
At its first regular meeting of 2019, council voted itself a salary increase to compensate for new tax regulations which mean that 100 per cent of councillors’ salaries are taxable. For 2019, estimated council salaries are $268,513, representing a 29 per cent increase over the $207,620 budgeted in 2018. Likewise, employee benefits increase by 51 per cent to $21,105, up from the $13,973 budgeted in 2018.
While convention and other expenses for council had already been budgeted at 49 per cent less for 2019, compared to $35,000 in 2018,. Vankleek Hill ward councillor Troy Carkner asked for a $1,500 cut to his $2,000 in convention expenses. L’orignal ward councillor André Roy, Vankleek Hill Ward Councillor Peter Barton and West Hawkesbury councillor Gerry Miner also asked for their respective convention and expense allowances to be reduced by $1,000.
West Hawkesbury councillor Sarah Bigelow and Longueuil councillor Violaine Tittley have both registered for a municipal convention in Toronto and Bigelow offered to reduce her convention and expense allowance as well.
Carkner said that attending the conference would be a good thing for new councillors and that they would need the allowance to pay for their attendance there.
“I’m not attending this year, but don’t feel bad about attending. I think it is worth it for new councillors,” Carkner said.
Vankleek Hill councillor asked for a projected $130,000 in revenue to be removed from the budget.
“I would ask that we not move too quickly on this and to look at the option (of expanding senior housing) on the property. I would move that we hold onto that property,” Barton said. Former mayor Gary Barton had requested that council delay for about one year as the local not-for-profit senior housing organization looked for funding for the expansion, to meet the growing list of those waiting for senior housing.
Roy pointed out that removing that revenue from the budget would cause an increase (in the tax rate).
“I think we need to find cuts and we need to engage the staff,” Roy said.
“I would just encourage us not to act quickly. It is a big, beautiful piece of land and could do a lot for our community,” Barton said.
“I agree. It’s still an asset. It’s not going to disappear,” said Miner.
Mutual aid and fire protection
A lengthy discussion ensued about the mutual aid agreement in place between Champlain Township and the Town of Hawkesbury.
In response to questions from council, L’Orignal Fire Chief Vincent Sincennes said that L’Orignal volunteer firefighters are called to residential Hawkesbury fires about 95 per cent of the time. Sincennes said Hawkesbury is calling for back-up due to a lack of personnel.
Mutual aid fire protection agreements mean that neighbouring municipalities agree to help each other when extra fire-fighting support is needed. (An example would be the need for a municipality to call in water tankers from area municipalities to assist it in fighting a rural fire.)
When asked if L’Orignal called upon Hawkesbury’s services, Sincennes said “rarely.”
Councillors asked about Hawkesbury’s ladder truck but were told that the cost is prohibitive.
Council asked Sincennes to give Champlain Township CAO Paula Knudsen a report of the number of hours that L’Orignal firefighters were spending fighting fires in Hawkesbury.
“It sounds like that is not mutual aid,” said Carkner.
Gerry Miner suggested having the Ontario Provincial Police attend a meeting in order to ask some questions.
“I asked a person from Orillia if they have been mandated to save money …. I get the feeling that nobody is working to find a solution,” said Miner, who compared the township’s increasing policing costs to writing a blank cheque (to the OPP).
“We get 1.7 police officers for $1.7 million — try and find one on our roads,” said Miner, who said that it felt like the township was paying more for less services. “It seems like we can’t do a thing about it,” he ended.
For 2019, policing costs are expected to be $1,743,644, up from $1,657,945 budgeted for 2018, which represents an increase of five per cent.
The projected economic development department budget showed a 23 per cent increase in 2019 from 2018.
A new expense this year is $23,000 on long-term debt, along with $8,896 in interest on that long-term debt, which is related to the purchase of land to expand the Vankleek Hill Business Park.
André Roy suggested eliminating some of the projected expenses attributed to presentations and seminars, saying that many of the informational services were provided for free and were already happening at the local business association level.
Miner agreed, saying that $10,000 could be cut from the economic development budget.
Another increase in the economic development department budget is a projected $31,177 for signage, up from $1,200 in 2018.
Salaries, on the other hand, are set to be reduced to $32,739, a decrease from $55,830 in 2018. A portion of this salary was re-assigned to administration, as the township employee is doing expanded work involving communications.
André Roy broke away from the process to ask councillors what percentage each was aiming for (in terms of a tax increase).
The mayor said he was aiming for 8.5 per cent, not taking into account the UCPR rates.
That would be my suggestion but I think right now we are sitting at 14 per cent.
Longueuil councillor Violaine Tittley said she was dismayed at the money that was being spent to benefit a small group of persons.
“I look at the trailer park, the marina and the day care and they are all losing money,” Tittley said.
“But the marina brings people to our community,” Riopel answered.
Sarah Bigelow said she was trying for four per cent. “A lot of roads need something done right now. We need to look at our roads for sure. I would not want to see us shut down the day care. I think that is an essential service,” Bigelow commented, adding that might not be the case for the campground.
Longueuil councillor Michel Lalonde said he thought an eight per cent increase would be reasonable. “Everything goes up,” he said.
“If we look at the numbers we have here, including capital projects, we are at 14.58 per cent. We’re busted. You’re saying that we would put the taxes up by 8.53 per cent to give the same services as last year,” Miner said.
“It’s a lot,” Roy said.
Champlain treasurer Kevin Tessier pointed out that things can happen during the year. Policing costs could go up by $20,000, he pointed out. (Final policing costs are usually not available until the following fiscal year.)
Vankleek Hill councillor Peter Barton said he could live with a five per cent increase.
“But I agree with Mr. Miner. Policing costs are going up and the return is going down.”
“But I support Mr. McMahon’s (the public works director’s) understanding of roads. I would add my support to Mme Tittley that we need to look at the services we provide. I do agree that day care is an essential service and closing that could affect us negatively,” Barton commented.
At six per cent, nothing will happen in the municipality — this is stalling the municipality, Riopel said.
“Even for me to go line by line, we have glossed over the lines without an increase. If we reduce by 12 per cent, are we chopping the legs out from under them (municipal department heads)? I think we need to go back to the staff and ask where the opportunities are for savings,” Barton said.
Roy returned to a point he had made at a regular meeting several weeks ago.
“At our first meeting, we were looking at user fees without even looking at the budget. I think we should do it at the same time — and look at the year that is coming,” Roy said.
Council discussed the L’Orignal campground and the notion that a big investment was made to update the electrical infrastructure; that cost will will be paid off by 2024. Champlain Recreation Director Lisa Burroughs said that it was a challenge to “grow” the campground, adding that she has looked at other campgrounds, which offer activities and events.
“To make money, we have to spend money. Even if we sold the campground, it is right in the middle of the park. It is a difficult business to grow; we are involved in so many projects with a limited number of employees. For us, it’s on the corner of the desk.” Burroughs said that the public beach, adjacent to the campground, was something that she considered an asset to the park and to the campground.
Miner said that the previous council, after discussions, had decided to give it one more try.
“We had a lot of people from the Hawkesbury area using the campground because those people had a need. Those people are not there any more. Sometimes, a business goes out of style. The way I see it is that these are services that have a cost. That is the decision we’re going to have to make. I don’t have the answers, but we have to come up with a budget,” said Miner, who suggested that services could be discussed during the coming year before budget-time.
Michel Lalonde argued that the public library doesn’t make the municipality any money. “It doesn’t bring us anything. Maybe we should have user fees at the library,” Lalonde said.
Still discussing user fees, Lalonde talked about marina fees.
Burroughs agreed that user fees are a source of revenue, but said that the township was raising user fees in “baby steps.”
“I think if we look at services, as a taxpayer, I want to pay for something that has a benefit to me,” Burroughs added.
Tittley argued that the library and the arena were different in that they were not for exclusive use of anyone. But the marina and trailer park are for the exclusive use of those users, she argued.
Roy said he uses the Hawkesbury Public Library.
New trucks for Champlain Township
Councillors spent a lot of time discussing the purchase of trucks, whether to buy new or used and which departments needed new trucks.
A new pick-up truck for the public works department, the recreation department and the by-law department were included in the capital budget. Councillors discussed the idea of financing the purchase of vehicles themselves, from reserve funds. Miner suggested that some good vehicles were sometimes available as they were freed up from leasing agreements.
The public works department head James McMahon argued that his department needed a new truck, due to the mileage incurred by trucks which are often on the road 24 hours a day.
The by-law department said its two vehicles were 2011 models and after some discussion, Vankleek Hill councillor Peter Barton suggested that the by-law department could take the train to Toronto rather than purchasing a truck. “I am not singling you out, but maybe that is not the cheapest way to go (to a training conference),” Barton said.
The public works department also had a new plow truck on its list. McMahon said it was a smaller vehicle as he could not use a bigger unit in Vankleek Hill.
Burroughs said that the recreation department had a vehicle which was breaking down on the side of the road and that repairs were estimated at $8,000.
“If we finance two trucks, we can take that $8,000 out of the operating budget,” Carkner pointed out.
Council discussed deferring repairs to the brick on the Champlain Library building at 94 Main Street. A $60,000 cost is in the budget and McMahon said it was a question of safety, but said that a mesh could be put on the brick in response to the mayor asking if half of the work could be done this year and half next year.
Miner pointed out that the architectural look in Vankleek Hill was a source of pride to many, adding that he could not see the township not setting a good example.
“I am not saying no to the mesh if it was a temporary thing,” Miner said.
“I agree with taking the boards out; they have no reason to be there, basically,” said Miner.