Calm before the storm
County council began poring over the proposed 2017 budget this week. In terms of services and operations the municipality provides to residents, there are no major surprises. There is additional spending proposed in social services, community development and planning and development services, but much of it is in the category of catching up in businesses that have undergone significant transformation in recent years.
Specifically, there are added dollars for medical and nursing resources at McFarland Memorial Nursing Home, the assumption of visitor services in community development and increasing capacity and resources in planning and development services to streamline and promote residential development.
The County’s works department is looking to spend $11.6 million on capital expenditures 2017—that is repairs, rehabilitation and reconstruction of things it owns, assets including roads, bridges and buildings. This is separate from waterworks, a municipally managed utility but funded entirely by users of the system. On the docket for next year is the reconstruction of Bloomfield’s Main Street, Wilson and Danforth Roads— or portions of these—much of it using Federal Gas Tax funds.
Taken together, the tax levy—the amount property taxpayers fund— will rise 2.8 per cent to $33.2 million in 2017, compared to the amount budgeted for this year. But it represents an 11 per cent increase of the actual amount spent in 2015. That points to an average increase of 5.5 per cent over the past two years.
Perhaps the most eye-catching item in the reams of budget documents posted last week was the prospect of rebuilding Highway 49 in 2018 at a cost to taxpayers of $22 million. This election-year megaproject represents, in one item, a 100 per cent increase over 2017’s entire proposed capital expenditures for roads, bridges, vehicles, buildings and land. It first appeared in the 2016 budget with $14 million to come from grants. When that funding didn’t transpire, the County’s municipal leaders figured the entire $22 million cost, plus overages, shall be borne by property tax payers either as a direct expense or as debt.
There will be other items that are certain to raise eyebrows among local government watchers. Shire Hall is proposing $150,000 to be spent over two years on consultants and experts to help the County prepare a long-term financial plan. By the County’s own count, its infrastructure needs exceed $600 million. The municipality spends about $10 million a year on capital improvements. This deficit widens each year as roads and building decay. There is no plan that can bridge this gap.
County officials know that on its own, the municipality does not have the ability to tax, borrow or charge enough money to narrow this deficit. They have yet to make a persuasive case as to how a long-term plan or a boatload of consultants will alter these basic facts.
Meanwhile, folks who toil in employment without a benefit package will likely note with interest the proposal for a new Shire Hall position dedicated to administering benefits on behalf of County employees. The new position would begin with a budget of $74,850 rising to $91,807 in five years.
Council is also being advised to set aside $125,000 to defend its size-of-council decision at an Ontario Municipal Board hearing this spring.
Meanwhile it is allotting only $25,000 for Canada 150 / PEC 225 celebrations next year. But it intends to spend $50,000 this year and every year into the future to pay physicians to set up practice in the County.
On the capital side in 2017, the County intends to spend $484,000 on a new roof and HVAC system at Shire Hall. It wants to spend $625,000 on an array of studies related to: the County’s official plan, development charges, West Lake shoreline management, and wetlands management.
Shire Hall is looking to spend $1 million on vehicles next year, more than half this amount on two vehicles; a tandem dumptruck for the roads crew and a pumper truck for the fire department.
The 2017 capital budget raises, too, the prospect of major infrastructure development project on the west side of Picton. The total project is estimated to cost $16.5 million— spending just $600,000 this year on design and pre-development. The bulk of this work— $6.2 million on roads, $9.2 million on waterworks— is set for 2019. It is once again, a single project targeted to consume an amount roughly equal to the entire capital expenditures the County typically spends each year.
Taken together the work’s department’s capital plans for 2018 and 2019 total nearly $40 million, with another $7.7 million planned for the year after.
It is a similarly unremarkable budget proposed for the County’s waterworks utility. The forecast calls for a slight decline in operating costs to $5.2 million this year and approximately the same next year, as compared with the $5.7 million it cost to keep the water flowing in 2015.
Coincidentally, savings expected in operating costs next year are identical to proposed increase in capital expenditures.
It is a different picture for capital expenditures where the utility is looking to spend $3 million; $1 million for underground works, $861,000 on plant upgrades repairs and a whopping $720,000 on studies. The utility also has its eye on a new vacuum truck to clean sewers and pull sludge out of its two wastewater plants. This vehicle is estimated to cost $325,000.
For 2018, the waterworks utility has earmarked $1.5 million to run municipal water service to Macaulay Village on the Heights overlooking Picton.
The County had planned to spend $39.2 million on roads this year—of that $22 million was tagged for Highway 49 and $10 million for County Road 3. The County received 60 per cent of the money to pay for County Road 3 from the province. It had hoped to get $14.6 million from Queen’s Park for Highway 49—but that didn’t happen. So this project was put off. The County didn’t have $14 million lying around.
Aside from these major projects—one begun, one deferred—about $6 million in capital repairs and rehabilitation were made this year to a variety of arteries, including County Road 1, Luck’s Crossroad and Union Road, About half was funded from gas tax revenue. By the end of the year, County ratepayers will have spent about $7.5 million on its roads this year—including its $4.5 million contribution to County Road 3.
Next year it will spend $6.6 million.
In 2018, however, the County’s works department is proposing to spend $27 million on roads—the bulk of it on Highway 49. This time, however, the entire cost—$22 million—will be foisted onto the backs of County taxpayers in the form of debt. The year after that, it will spend $6.2 million on building out a road network on Picton’s west side on top of about $4 million in other road work in 2019.