‘Maybe there has to be a total review of what we’re doing’: Mississauga Council postpones budget vote
Having previously hoped to pass the 2020 budget at a meeting today, councillors at the City of Mississauga voted to delay their budget decision until early in the new year. Though council’s decision to defer action on the city budget was unanimous, the reasons for doing so were anything but.
Councillor Ron Starr was at the heart of the decision, blasting the budget for its increases, telling staff and his fellow councillors that there are problems at the very heart of the document.
Councillor Ron Starr, right
“I am not voting for a 3.8 percent or 4 percent or 3.65 percent increase for our taxpayers – it’s just not right,” Starr told those present at Wednesday’s meeting, though it is not clear exactly where his figures came from. “I think we’ve got to get right back to the core and say ‘how do we reduce it?’... I’m not sure how we do that, but it’s got to be that, if we have to cut and maybe suffer a little bit, maybe that’s what has to happen. Maybe there has to be a total review of what we’re doing.”
When asked earlier about changes, staff warned councillors that cuts to the budget will mean direct impacts on services in the city, with little to no wiggle room in the current budget. Options floated by staff during the budget process so far include freezing an increase in MiWay operating hours to save money, something few councillors seem to have an appetite for.
However, the tone of Starr’s comments imply he is willing to consider changes which go deeper. Though he did not explicitly state it, Starr’s words suggest fundamental changes which might range from staffing reviews to service cuts. Labour costs remain, by far, the biggest cost for the city. One particularly interesting fact in the budget document is that only 37 percent of employees at the retirement age chose to stop working in 2018, suggesting the most expensive employees, with the most experience, who not only draw higher salaries but also get extremely generous municipal benefits and pensions, are choosing to work as long as possible.
Just like the province of Ontario, it might be time for cities such as Mississauga to ask if they can continue paying salaries, benefits and generous pensions, out of line with the private sector, where company pensions are rapidly being eliminated.
The City’s 2020 budget proposes 5,721 full-time staff and an additional 2,000 (mostly students) to be hired for temporary work in the summer. The full-time figure is an increase of 112 staff compared to 2019. Instead of staffing reductions in the face of severe financial pressures, bureaucrats are asking to increase their numbers. Critics have long suggested that Mississauga’s labour costs are bloated, with some departments possibly over-staffed with salaries for many positions far outpacing salaries for similar positions in the private sector.
One example is some of the staff in the city’s communications department, who, according to the Ontario public salary disclosure list make more than $100,000 to work on various written pieces of communication. It’s likely that these employees have more experience than entry-level staff.
By comparison, professional writers who work for the country’s largest journalism outlets, which usually require a minimum of a masters degree, are now routinely earning between $35,000 and $80,000 to produce deadline-driven articles every day.
Salaries for communications officers working in the city’s fire department, handling emergency calls and dispatching, also raise eyebrows. Many make more than $130,000, according to the provincial public salary disclosure, with some making more than $170,000. One such communications officer with the city, as an example of skyrocketing salaries for some public sector employees, saw his base salary go from $106,000 in 2014 to just over $170,000 in 2018, with the exact same job description listed on the public disclosure.
To put that into perspective, the average Canadian medical doctor, including specialists, earned about $250,000 in income before paying taxes in 2017-18, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
Bus drivers are another example of high-paying jobs in the city, with almost a hundred Mississauga transit operators who in 2018 made between $105,000 and $120,000 in salary, according to Ontario’s public salary disclosure list. These employees represent the highest earning staff, likely with the most experience, among the city’s complement of bus drivers.
A scan of online job site Workopolis shows the range of bus driver salaries across the GTA in the private sector is between $30,000 and $45,000.
The transit system, MiWay, proposed an operating budget of just over $200 million (this does not factor revenues that will offset much of the operating cost) with labour expenses accounting for about 75 percent of the total.
The city proposes an overall gross operating budget including storm-water services of about $970 million for 2020 (which does not include projected revenues that will create a net operating budget of $582 million).
It’s clear that if the city doesn’t get its staffing costs under control, taxpayers will continue to see stiff hikes.
The issue is, few on council agree on the right course of action. At the meeting Wednesday, some councillors expressed an interest in passing the budget as is, others wanted to wait for the region’s 2020 budget (which is projected to be responsible for around 45 percent of the residential property tax bill), with Starr voicing the strongest view. The unanimity of the deferral motion masks divisions on a council which holds vastly different views on the role of the city, its taxpayers and how things should move forward.
Offering changes far less significant than those later outlined by Starr, the city’s Director of Finance, Jeff Jackson, showed council how it could reduce its 2020 increase a fraction from the previously announced 4.98 (1.7 percent tax impact) percent down to a 4.64 percent (1.64 percent).
In the same presentation, Jackson also outlined more extreme options to make savings. In particular, the option of reducing the city’s infrastructure levy from 2 percent to 1.75 was modelled. A graph shown to council illustrated that reducing the levy by just 0.25 percent for one year would lead to the city falling below its capital reserve targets, while reducing the levy permanently would all but empty them.
The infrastructure levy has been included in the budget in order to address the city’s rising infrastructure gap of $274 million, while servicing and maintaining the city’s debt levels.
Oddly, there was no mention of a comprehensive audit of all city departments to evaluate if current staffing levels are bloated and to look at salaries, benefits and pension costs being covered by the city’s property tax payers.
Reassuring council that they could take their time on the budget, City Manager Janice Baker said a delay until January was relatively immaterial, though waiting until February could begin to pose problems.
Councillors Carolyn Parrish, left, and Karen Ras
In a draft motion, which was not heard in the end, Councillor Karen Ras, who appears to favour tweaks to the current document, made several suggestions for areas she felt could be cut. The four recommendations laid out by the Ward 2 councillor include reducing The Public Safety Fire Program from a 1 percent increase to 0.75 and reducing “new initiatives” from 0.9 percent to 0.6. The third was to offset the city’s tax increase using the 2019 budget surplus of $3 million, while also reducing the stormwater levy from 2 percent to 1 percent.
Though not all suggestions were discussed in depth and the motion was not moved, staff expressed some reservations. Jackson suggested that though he has yet to model the numbers, reducing the stormwater levy would hit reserves in the same way tinkering with the infrastructure levy might, while Baker said using a surplus to reduce the impact this year could leave a gap in the budget this time next year.
At the other end of the spectrum to Starr and Ras, Councillor Carolyn Parrish pushed to approve the budget in its current form, echoing the position of Mayor Bonnie Crombie. Both argued that the regional budget, which as proposed has a tax impact increase of 2.1 percent in Mississauga (on the region’s share of the bill), was the area which required change. Speaking to her fellow councillors, Parrish said that “short term mistakes” to appease those worried about tax increases would lead to “long-term huge problems” in the city. “The problem with budgets is [that] they’re in the hands of politicians,” she said, adding that some of her colleagues may listen to those who vocally oppose taxes and give them a little too much credence.
Councillor Pat Saito made similar points, calling changes to the current budget “false reductions” which would end with the city paying more in the long-run. The Ward 9 councillor said the public needed to understand councillors are “taking care of their future” with responsible tax increases, suggesting her colleagues ask their constituents what vital services they would cut from the city.
Although budget discussions were taking place inside the bubble of Mississauga’s city hall, a similar conversation is taking place across the country. In Mississauga, the list of unfunded projects sits at $1.5 billion (with roughly $600 million of that hopefully to be covered by the federal government’s Investing in Canada Plan infrastructure fund), while the city’s infrastructure gap grew by a further $16 million this year.
On the other side of the country, Vancouver City Council is considering an 8.2 percent property tax increase which comes in at 9.3 percent for a median, single-family home when the city’s utility fees are factored in. Equally, the Toronto Star reported that Toronto Mayor John Tory is contemplating increasing a special levy within his city budget from 2.5 percent over five years to 10.5 percent over nine.
With aging infrastructure and build-out an issue across the country, some councils are taking a brave and politically unpopular stand in order to keep their cities from crumbling.
Although she voted for the delay, Mayor Bonnie Crombie described herself as “not thrilled” with the decision to put the budget off until January. Speaking after the meeting, Crombie told the media she would prefer to start the new year with a confirmed budget, but that she understood the process which needed to take place.
Mayor Bonnie Crombie
With some frustration that the budget did not pass before the turn of the year, questions would reasonably be asked as to why the city’s Budget Committee did not sit on November 25, as it had been scheduled to. At the last meeting, November 20, disagreement arose between Councillors such as Karen Ras who wanted to meet one last time, as scheduled for November 25, to tweak the budget, and Mayor Crombie who wished to pass a budget recommendation to be considered at council.
A spokesperson for the city confirmed that, in total, the committee convened on June 26, October 2, November 18, 19 and 20.
In the end, a recommendation for the budget in its original form was passed by the committee on November 20 with only Ras voting against it. With the budget now delayed until the new year and Ron Starr advocating for wholesale change, that move looks premature. But at least, unlike Brampton, which won’t even start its budget process till the new year, with councillors there currently blind on what staff will propose, Mississauga now has a clear understanding of what it’s facing.
“Given the increase at the Region of Peel, it is worthwhile to take a second look at it [the Mississauga budget],” Crombie said. “The increase at the Region of Peel is a lot higher than anything we’ve experienced in previous years and some of that is due to the downloading from the provincial government… I prefer to start the year, obviously, with a passed budget. I think what came out of today is that we need to begin the process of reviewing the regional budget first.”
While Crombie is clearly in the camp of councillors who feel the onus for cost-cutting is on the region, others such as Ron Starr want to see significant reductions in the city’s portion too. Asked if she was worried about division within her council at this stage of the process, the mayor said she was not and argued that councillors concerned about increases were merely reflecting their residents.
“Councillor Starr has raised a very important issue,” Crombie said. “There is a lot of confusion between the budget increase and the impact on the tax bill… of course he is representing the view that we have heard [from residents].” Crombie went on to say that residents demanding cuts are often the same to call for more city services such as leaf collection and snow clearing which are funded through municipal tax dollars.
The city’s current proposed budget increase still sits at 4.9 percent, with staff guidelines for how to reduce it to 4.6 on the table. The reduced option would result in an increase to the overall property tax bill, when blending the region’s share and the province’s education portion (which has not increased in two decades) of 1.64 percent. The final tax increase for residents is calculated by combining that number with the tax increase for the region’s share, while the province’s education share is not expected to rise.
Although the numbers can quickly become confusing, the city’s budget increase is an important insight into how the municipal corporation is managed. The region’s portion serves to illustrate the same role. However, for those not interested in the politics of it all, the final blended amount upon the passing of the regional and municipal budgets is the key figure to focus on.
That blended figure will be clearer later in the budget process, with cuts now looking likely at the region and the city.
While Ras’s draft motion provides some direction to staff on which areas may need to be cut, it seems consensus is still some way off for the City of Mississauga. With the budget now delayed until January 22, councillors will have to put it on the backburner and turn their attention toward the Region of Peel, where they hope to make changes by acting as a united front and voting bloc as soon as tomorrow, December 4. It remains to be seen if staff at either level of local government will be asked to look in the mirror when making their budgetary proposals to elected officials. The answers to the financial woes might lie in making cuts to the single biggest cost.
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