Mississauga approves its 2020 budget, finally
It took nearly seven months, separate staff recommendations and one deferred vote, but Mississauga City Council has finally approved its 2020 budget.
It’s another stiff increase, well above inflation, with the city budget rising by 4.52 percent. When blended in with the Region of Peel’s budget increase, and the province’s education portion (which is expected not to increase), the overall hit to residential property owners will be a 3.24 percent tax increase for 2020.
Based on an assessment of $688,000 for a family home, it is expected to cost residents an average of $178 more per household, according to city budget documents. An extra two percent charge for stormwater collection was also approved. This adds just over two dollars to the average cost for a total price of $108.20 annually per unit.
The city’s budget increase of 4.52 percent is reduced from an initial recommendation by city staff of 4.98 percent. In early December, this increase proved so unpalatable to council, it opted to defer the budget vote until January to allow for more time to come up with a reduced figure.
The overall approved increase, when blending the region’s portion and the provincial education portion together, still pales in comparison to nearby Hamilton, which, in October, proposed a more than five percent tax increase to address financial pressures, according to a media report. Even Toronto — which has historically resisted upping property taxes beyond the rate of inflation, and is among the lowest taxed municipalities in the GTA, able to rely on its high commercial tax base, municipal land transfer tax revenues and much larger population density — is facing unusual budgetary pressures.
Mayor John Tory has proposed a two percent tax increase to help pay for future infrastructure and offset other mounting expenses.
City staff and council members have in recent years tried to distance themselves from sharp increases in the city budget, which have consistently been above four percent for almost a decade, by using the blended figure. However, this number is reduced significantly by historically low Region of Peel budget increases and the province holding the line on its education portion for about two decades. City staff are only responsible for managing one budget — city hall’s. When looking at single-tier municipalities such as Toronto and Hamilton, a more accurate comparison of how well local leaders are managing Mississauga’s finances is by only looking at the city budget. For this year, it is going up by more than four-and-a-half percent, which is more than double the rate of inflation in Ontario.
Mississauga Ward 2 Councillor Karen Ras sought to drop the tax increase even further by introducing a council motion to reduce funding for the city’s “new initiatives,” and take $3 million from this year’s budget surplus to offer more tax relief to residents.
“I think we can do a little bit of belt tightening here [...] to demonstrate that we are still spending in key areas, but also respecting the taxpayer,” said Ras during the Jan. 22 meeting.
While council is well in its right to re-allocate monies to reduce the tax increase, City Manager Janice Baker strongly recommended against such a move, saying the money will ultimately have to be paid back in the future, leading to further budget pressures.
Baker advised council not to think of the surplus as a savings account to bail out the city during tough times, but as a way to project for future expenses, noting, for example, that $5 million of the reserve has already been allocated for “labour gapping,” covering potential costs for hiring new city employees who historically have had a high turnover rate.
One unintended effect from taking surplus funds could be lessening the impact of other tax mechanisms like the city’s infrastructure levy, putting it in a larger financial hole, said Baker.
“The idea that somehow we can find […] magic money to make it look like those costs aren’t going up, it’s just not a good financial strategy, and I think the pride we have now in the budget [...] is solid and has a firm foundation,” said Baker.
“There is nothing left over. We look for every nickel we can find and if there was money lying around I guarantee it would have been in the recommended budget.”
The motion was defeated 8-2 with Ras and Ward 6 Councillor Ron Starr having been the only councillors to vote in support.
To get to an agreeable enough number, city staff recommended a number of creative measures to streamline expenditures. These measures include reducing the timeline to complete its speed limit reduction plan from three years to one and funding the project from its capital reserves instead of its operating expenditures, resulting in cost savings of around $1.7 million.
Also included in the revised 2020 budget is a one-time $1.3 million reduction to the city’s fire services budget, money which there isn’t a need for yet, Jeffrey Jackson, city treasurer, told The Pointer. The money must be repaid in the future to ensure no there are no further delays in the construction of six new fire stations. As reported by the Pointer last year, Mississauga has fire response times well below other cities’ standards mainly because of its dearth of essential infrastructure.
Mississauga Fire Fighters Association President Chris Varcoe could not comment on the revised numbers as he had not yet read the recommendations. But he hopes the city continues on its path of infrastructural renewal.
While Varcoe lauded Mayor Bonnie Crombie and Fire Chief Tim Beckett for their efforts to lessen the city’s fire infrastructure gap — decades-old concerns which they inherited — he warned any delay building new stations will be a major step backwards for improving Mississauga’s fire preparedness as the city grows.
“Now is not the time for council to be taking its foot off the gas pedal fixing these problems,” said Varcoe during an interview Jan. 27.
The 2020 budget also contains enough new funding to expand MiWay bus service and hire an additional 22 drivers. MiWay’s budget will allow for new routes to accommodate the growth in annual ridership to an estimated 59 million rides in 2020.
Christian Parisé, a transit watcher who has tracked MiWay budget allocations since 2006, says while expansion is a good step, staffing remains a key issue for the service, particularly in regards to “non-essential personnel,” such as mechanics and other workers responsible for maintaining the quality of service.
A MiWay bus in downtown Mississauga
“The biggest takeaway I would like to put out there is that you can add quantity all you want, but it also takes resources to maintain quality and that's something Mississauga has not done well,” said Parisé.
Parisé shared a spreadsheet with the Pointer that tracks the hires made by MiWay between 2009 and 2018. While 333 new bus operators have been hired over that period, eight mechanics were also added to the employee rolls — just two since 2014.
Focusing on expansion rather than maintaining the quality of service has had its consequences, said Parisé, who pointed to data obtained through a freedom of information request, indicating Mississauga buses are cleaned half as often as those in Toronto and Brampton.
“My chief concern is, as MiWay adds service, its ability to provide that service in a quality manner erodes as service expands,” said Parisé.
Frank Stendardo of the Mississauga Seniors Council, which represents some 12,000 seniors, was disappointed by the tax increase, which he fears will have a negative impact on his members, many of whom rely on fixed incomes.
“We’ve tightened our belts so much there’s nothing else to squeeze,” said Stendardo.
While city tax rebate programs exist for seniors, only those considered low-income who earn less than $20,000 per year are eligible. That’s also the case for matching subsidies offered by the province.
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