COVID-19 and the financial mess will throw a big wrench into Mississauga’s transformative plans
Grim, pixelated faces stared blankly into screens Wednesday afternoon as staff at the City of Mississauga virtually presented a bleak forecast at the first budget committee meeting of the year.
A slidedeck scattered with red ink painted a dreary financial picture for the country’s sixth largest city, with dramatic shortfalls across the board as a result of COVID-19. Particularly significant revenue hits in transit and recreation, both of which have been unable to collect user fees for three months, make up the bulk of losses predicted to be between $95 million and $120 million as a direct result of the pandemic.
The shortfall, predicted to echo into budgets until at least 2023, is forcing the city to contemplate a variety of cuts.
For months, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie has been pleading with the federal and provincial governments for a bailout. In that time, relief has been announced for small businesses, big businesses, commercial tenants, students, the unemployed and many more. The queue for those eligible for funding ahead of municipalities seems never ending.
With no word on help from above, aside from an early payment of the Gas Tax cities were getting anyway, a dire, worst case budget document is being assembled inside City Hall.
A projection for the City’s operating budget across the next four years sees it jump 9.2 percent in 2021, 7.1 percent in 2022, 2.8 percent in 2023 and 5.1 percent in 2024. That budget is just for the delivery of services and does not include long-term capital projects, including a number of new fire stations, the city desperately needs.
Mississauga’s preliminary budget has been built on three assumptions: that indoor facilities open on June 30, September 30 or December 31.
With Mississauga given the greenlight to enter Stage 2 of reopening on Wednesday, and community centres allowed to reopen under that category, it is unclear exactly when the city will hit its indoor reopening.
Mayor Bonnie Crombie has said that putting all the burden on the city's taxpayers is not an option
Staff explained that, while some activities were beginning again including swimming, few would bring any revenue surplus over the summer as a result of COVID-19 physical distancing measures and extra costs of cleaning. Stage 3, they said, is when recreational facilities may be able to yield some level of revenue again.
Various COVID-19 impacts, including a hiring freeze and the layoff of part time workers in the recreation department, mean the final budget deficits projected for June or September reopenings are relatively similar. If doors open in June, staff are predicting the City will end the year $58.9 million in the red compared to $60.7 million for a September start.
The reason for this is that transit, which is estimated to cause Mississauga between $43.6 million and $44.8 million in losses this year, depending on the reopening schedule, won’t see previous revenue levels for years, likely not until 2023. Orders to work from home, reduced capacity and a cautious attitude among the public, mean the 2021 projected budget still includes significant losses for transit.
“We have assumed with the return to fare collection, which happens on July 2, that our ridership will climb from 25 percent to 50 percent by the end of the year,” Gary Kent, Commissioner of Corporate Services and Chief Financial Officer, told councillors. “And to 75 percent by the end of 2021 and during 2022 it will average 85 percent.”
By 2023, staff hope things will return to normal.
Almost in tandem, as transit returns to normal service and revenue levels, a second blow is expected to hit Mississauga’s coffers. Payments in Lieu of Tax (PILTs) are paid by Toronto Pearson Airport to the City of Mississauga in place of standard commercial property tax. The system means the airport pays $0.94 per passenger moving through the airport, with a maximum payment increase of 5 percent per year. The caveat is that there is no limit to how far payments can fall, meaning that drastically lower air traffic at Pearson as a result of the pandemic will damage the city for years to come (read that story here).
Empty planes are going to cost Mississauga dearly
Projections suggest the city will lose $18.4 million in 2022 as a result of the arrangement and $17.8 million the following year. The current formula would only allow revenue to increase by 5 percent every year from that low.
Jeff Jackson, Director, Finance and Treasurer at the City, told councillors that without the province changing the formula to eliminate the 5 percent cap, it would take “a generation” to return to pre-COVID-19 revenue levels. Effectively, because of the 5 percent limit to PILT payment increases, the city’s taxpayer will be subsidizing all the services and property costs for the airport for years.
“We continue to advocate for reforms,” Crombie told The Pointer at her weekly press conference. “[It] doesn’t take into account increased passenger counts and it doesn't take into account the cargo that comes through the airport as well, which of course has a great impact on our roads through the transport trucks that drive it out.”
Crombie added that she hoped the eye-watering size of the deficit PILTs will create in 2022 will spur Queen’s Park to do the right thing.
The financial pressure of COVID-19 losses, the looming impact from the airport’s loss of passengers and potential future decreases from reduced development and revenues linked to a recession will all hit the city hard. City leaders are considering drastic action.
“In the absence of any new Provincial or Federal assistance, it will be necessary to pause the rollout of the master plans to reduce pressure on the tax rate,” staff wrote in a report to the committee. “This means that 2021 will be a year to reassess and complete the investments already made rather than funding new ones.”
In Mississauga, a series of master plans govern the long-term framework of investment in almost every area. Examples include parks, recreation, fire, transportation, parking and transit.
Staff added that, in most areas, service levels would also not be increased beyond what is absolutely necessary. “The focus should be to protect those service levels before considering investment in higher or new ones. It may also be necessary to review existing service levels and reprioritize spending if the deficit cannot be overcome with other measures due to its magnitude,” the report states.
The concern around pausing the investment in master plans and service levels is that city planning doesn’t happen in a year. Budgets look ahead for the next few years and master plans often project out over a decade, in anticipation of all the demands future growth and infrastructure renewal will create. Each step is carefully planned in the bigger picture and delays and cuts have a ripple effect down the line.
Even before COVID-19, Mississauga was playing a precarious balancing game. Asked by Crombie about delaying or cancelling capital projections planned to be funded by taxes and returning that money to services, Kent pointed to the $900 million in announced and unfunded projects the City already has over the next 10 years. That money is badly needed but not yet found.
“It’s pretty tight already,” Kent said.
Operating costs face a similar reality. For example, the 2020 budget for the transit system proposed hiring an additional 34 bus drivers in 2021 to accommodate planned growth. It forecast spending $3.6 million next year to maintain a 2 percent growth in service. It also planned for a 2021 capital investment of $72 million for new buses.
Some or all of those things could be in doubt when staff return in the fall with specific budget reductions for councillors to consider.
An area of the city that has been woefully neglected for years is Fire and Emergency Services. In January, The Pointer reported that 2020 was the first year since 2006 Mississauga had added desperately needed infrastructure, failing to keep up with rapid growth.
According to the 2020 budget, the city’s fire service responds to calls in 536 seconds on average (almost nine minutes) instead of the established standard of four minutes, to ensure safety in life or death situations.
To deal with the chronic underfunding and dangerously trending response times, the city resolved in 2019 to build six fire stations across the next 12 years and institute a rigorous regime of proactive education and inspection. Some funding for both initiatives was scheduled for 2021; whether it goes ahead or not remains to be seen.
Fire response times in the city are more than twice what they should be
“The Mississauga Fire Fighters Association recognizes the significant financial crisis that municipalities have had to face given the pandemic and the subsequent shut down,” Chris Varcoe, President of the Mississauga firefighters union, told The Pointer. “We are, however, always concerned when much needed infrastructure is delayed because it means we continue to fall behind in our ability to provide service to our residents and ensure that fire protections are there when our community needs it.”
He added his voice to calls for the federal and provincial governments to step in with funding assistance.
Delaying, deferring or cancelling capital projects is made harder in Mississauga, where 70 percent of infrastructure spending goes into maintaining a state of good repair. Delaying such projects is not just about slowing down the delivery of an anticipated new community centre or transit line, it can allow aging roads, bridges and buildings to slip into decay.
“A review of the capital budget will consider the appropriateness of deferring or cancelling projects to free up funding to offset the deficit, or to avoid new operating costs or participate in recovery programs,” staff wrote.
At City Hall, the Mayor and her Council continue to pray for an injection of cash from above to cover losses. If it doesn’t come, the impact will be felt for years and be wide-ranging throughout the city.
Ambitious dreams to transform into a modern, urban centre could be on hold for years.
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