After 2023’s crippling 10.5% tax hike, St. Catharines’ proposed 2024 operating budget targets a more modest 3.67% increase; Grimsby seeks reimbursement from PCs for Greenbelt changes
Niagara Democracy Watch is The Pointer’s weekly feature aimed at increasing the public’s awareness and political involvement in the Niagara Region by highlighting key agenda items, motions and decisions.
Council (Budget) Meeting
Date: November 22 - 6:00 p.m. | Delegate | Full Agenda | Watch live
Staff proposes a 3.67% increase to the 2024 St. Catharines operating budget
After a controversial tax increase of 10.5 percent earlier this year, a toned down one is proposed by staff for 2024. On Wednesday, St. Catharines Council will receive presentations from staff on the 2024 operating, capital and water and wastewater budgets.
Unlike 2023’s double-digit increase, next year’s budget increase could see a 3.67 percent increase that would add approximately $4.04 million to the annual operating budget.
For a median household, assessed at a value of $258K, the staff proposed operating budget will mean a property tax increase of $62.71 over 2023 totals, equating to a $0.17 per day increase.
The related report does not specifically mention 2023’s 10.5 percent increase but indicates that “Staff have heard Council’s direction related to taxpayer affordability”, further indicating that proposed 2024 increase is below inflation and within the 3 to 4-percent guidance provided by Council to staff in June.
A subsequent motion of Council in September asked that staff present an alternative for 2024 for Council’s consideration that would see a zero percent budget increase. The Staff report indicates that a listing of the various items that would be required to accomplish the operating budget freeze will be part of Appendix 4 of the report, which is not yet available through the City’s website. Nonetheless, Staff is clear in indicating that they are not recommending any of the cost reduction items outlined in Appendix 4.
Although Councillors will undoubtedly be focused on budget impacts for next year, what is being presented, for the first time in St. Catharines is a three-year budget for 2024-2026. Previously, like most municipalities, a form of zero-based budgeting was used where departments started from a theoretical zero and built their budgets up line-by-line based on the services and programs provided.
In 2022, Council approved the multi-year budget policy but held off on implementation until this year, with council members entering the second year of their mandate.
The staff report states that multi-year budgeting is “a best practice that supports financial sustainability and long-term financial planning”. Contingency funds have been set aside for 2025 and 2026 to deal with any unforeseen circumstances and each subsequent year in the three-year budget will see a reconfirmation process that allows staff and Council to address changes that may be necessary from the initial 2024 to 2026 multi-year budget.
Provisional tax levy increases for 2025 and 2026 are slated at 3.85 percent and 3.6 percent for the next two years.
The other change with this year’s budget process is the impact of the Strong Mayor powers, which the Province extended to various municipalities, including St. Catharines, in June. Mayor Mat Siscoe will be formally tabling his budget on January 3rd, 2024. How the Mayor’s budget will differ is unclear, however, Wednesday’s staff report says that, “the information in this report and related appendices will be used to support and inform the Mayor’s budget.”
It could be the end of February before the 2024 budget is finalized. The legislative changes enacted by the Province allow the Mayor to exercise a veto over any Council amendments to his budget, which can then be overturned by two thirds of Council.
Before then, Staff will be rolling out what it describes as a “robust” public engagement plan on the budget, which will see public open houses at Seymour-Hannah Sports and Entertainment Centre and the St. Catharines Kiwanis Aquatics Centre, a telephone town hall and budget kiosks throughout the community.
The staff report can be read here.
Date: November 20 - 6:30 p.m. | Delegate | Full agenda | Watch live
Grimsby looks for reimbursement and clarity from the Province on Greenbelt lands
A discussion report on Monday’s Grimsby Council agenda details the long history of local lands in the Greenbelt, north of the Niagara Escarpment, and the changing approaches of the Province that have left Grimsby Councils frustrated for almost twenty years.
The lands in question are both north and south of the QEW from Kelson Avenue North to the west to Hunter Road and Casablanca Boulevard to the east respectively. The parcel north of the Q.E.W. is one lot measuring approximately 14.3 acres (5.8 hectares). The southern parcel is approximately 74 acres (30 hectares) consisting of multiple properties of varying sizes.
As far back as 2005, the lands had been identified as potential development areas for the Town to expand into, to accommodate growth; however, the introduction of the Greenbelt legislation, at the time, effectively removed lands, identifying them as a Specialty Crop Designation.
The Town’s Growth Management Study at the time noted inconsistencies between the Province and the Town’s mapping, the fractured nature of the land base with all of the existing development, and the lack of agricultural uses on the parcels.
During the 10-year review of the Greenbelt Plan in 2017, the Town of Grimsby requested removal of the lands in exchange for some lands in the southern portion of Grimsby, to keep the overall size of the Greenbelt intact. The lands offered by the Town were added to the Greenbelt but the lands north of the Escarpment that the Town wanted for urban expansion remained in the Greenbelt with the specialty crop designation.
The Town, seemingly, got its wish in December 2022, when the two parcels were part of the 15 areas of land that were removed or redesignated from the Greenbelt. Over the last several months, the Town has worked with proponents and the Provincial Land and Development Facilitator to outline a plan and agreement, which would have included the “up-fronting” of infrastructure by the proponents, and lead to a Ministerial Zoning Order to allow housing development to start no later than 2025.
The related plan and agreements were not concluded when the Province announced last month its decision to return the lands to the Greenbelt following a scandal that led to two investigations by provincial watchdogs and an ongoing criminal probe by the RCMP.
The staff report estimates that the Town expended $82,000 in staff time and third-party legal and consulting fees, while working with the Provincial Facilitator, pointing out that expense “was not budgeted for, took time away from other projects and priorities, involved many hours of overtime work to accomplish, and began and ended based on Provincial guidance.”
Grimsby Town Council has already passed two related resolutions: one seeking reimbursement of the $82,000 from the Province and a second one, which recognizes the Town’s long-standing position to have the lands north of the Escarpment removed from the specialty crop designation and able to be considered for development to meet the Town’s long-term need for residential growth, which is more acute now than in 2005, when the lands were first identified.
In addition to the noted resolutions, Monday’s report calls for the Town to be protected from legal liability, similar to the immunity provisions the Province enacted for itself and that the Province develop a municipal process with criteria for reconsideration of lands evidenced to be appropriate for future developments, that would result in no adverse impacts to the Greenbelt.
The report can be read here.
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