St. Catharines invites public into budget process; Niagara Falls to shorten budget period; Region sends 2024 police requests back for review
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. This week a special budget-related Niagara Democracy Watch.
Strong mayor powers come to Niagara’s three largest municipalities
In the Fall of 2022 then Minister of Municipal Affairs & Housing, Steve Clark introduced legislation providing “Strong Mayor Powers” to the heads of Toronto and Ottawa municipal councils. The rationale was to provide the mayors the tools to “cut red tape and speed up the delivery of key shared municipal-provincial priorities such as housing, transit and infrastructure in their municipalities.”
In June of this past year, the strong mayor powers were extended to Niagara’s two most populous lower area municipalities, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, with third largest, Welland following at the end of October.
Although the stated rationale may have been related to supposedly speeding up housing starts, the legislation includes provisions for mayors to unilaterally hire key staff, exercise veto rights and to introduce the annual municipal budgets.
While regular observers of local council meetings may not notice too much of a difference in how the budgets are presented at meetings, usually led by the treasurer delivering a powerpoint presentation, the process surrounding budgets has changed.
The mayor is now required to propose the budget for the municipality each year by February 1. The proposed budget must be shared with the council, the municipal clerk, and made available to the public. If the mayor does not propose the budget by February 1, the responsibility falls to the council.
Councils can no longer approve a budget at the meeting when it is presented. After receiving the proposed budget from the mayor, council can amend the budget within a 30-day review period. The mayor then has ten days from the end of the review period to veto any council amendment, by providing a rationale, in writing, for the veto to council and the municipal clerk. Within a 15-day period after the veto, council may override the veto, if two-thirds of all council members vote for the override.
The council and the mayor can shorten the timelines related to the budget review, veto and override periods by council passing a resolution and the mayor providing written documentation to members of council and the municipal clerk shortening the veto period.
The following is a look at where the three large lower area municipalities are at in their budget processes and what public engagement has happened to date and an update from the Region.
Mayor promises changes to the budget, including council and public input
On Wednesday, November 22nd, the St. Catharines budget process began with staff presenting operating, capital and water and wastewater budgets. The related staff report stated that, “the information in this report and related appendices will be used to support and inform the Mayor’s budget.”
Upon conclusion of the staff presentations, Mayor Mat Siscoe stated the following:
“[S]taff have made their recommendations but at this stage it becomes a political document. I know that the budget I will be presenting in January, while it will look similar, it will have additions and it will have deletions. There will be changes. I will not be creating the budget in a vacuum, therefore, I encourage my Council colleagues to go to the budget workshops and bring ideas to me. If I feel they are workable I will incorporate them into the budget presented on January 3. That goes to the public, as well.”
On the matter of public engagement, a public survey is opening on Friday, November 24th, two public open houses are scheduled at Seymour-Hannah Sports and Entertainment Centre and the St. Catharines Kiwanis Aquatics Centre, a telephone town hall is being conducted and budget kiosks, with staff available to answer questions, will be available throughout the community.
The St. Catharines budget process does not appear to be considering any shortened timelines with the related schedule contemplating the final budget approval on February 26, 2024.
The budget public engagement schedule can be found here.
Special Council Meeting
Date: November 28 - 3:00 p.m. | Delegate | Full agenda | Watch live
Niagara Falls begins budget process and looks to get it done quickly
Niagara Falls begins its process with a special budget meeting on Tuesday, November 28. Being presented at the meeting are the parking and capital budgets.
The parking budget is traditionally a self-sustaining budget in which revenues from the parking operation offset expenses. However, the previous two-years saw a transfer from the tax levy of $156,512 (0.2 percent of the levy), due to COVID. 2023 will see a return of revenues in the parking operations, of more than $450,000, for the first time since 2019. The proposed capital budget for 2024 totals $66,653,419, up from $61.5M in 2023. A 1.5 percent special capital levy is proposed to be added to the operating budget, up a half a percent from 2023.
There is no current indication as to when the operating budget or water/wastewater budget will be presented, though the next scheduled Council meeting is December 12, with a special start time of 1:00 p.m. There has also been no indication on how Mayor Jim Diodati intends to present his budget. It will also be a change for Niagara Falls Council, as long-time Councillor Victor Pietraneglo has traditionally taken the chair for budget related matters, as long as Mayor Diodati has been Head of Council (December 2010).
To date, the only formal public outreach on the budget has been a survey on the City’s website, which closed on October 31st. Like St. Catharines and the Region of Niagara, there was criticism of the City of Niagara Falls for the steep increase in its operating budget in 2023, which saw a rise of 7.9 percent. Tuesday’s agenda includes a couple of petitions calling for a zero percent increase to the budget.
Niagara Falls is proposing shortening the timelines on consideration of their budgets. The staff report states,”[T]his Council typically does not take 30 days to review and amend any of the City's four budgets.” With each budget a recommendation for shortening the consideration period is being proposed.
Though it is traditionally the operating and, to a lesser extent, the water/waste water budgets that generate debate and Council amendments, a considerably shorter, five day consideration period is being proposed for the parking and capital budgets, from the thirty days contemplated in the legislation.
Special Council Meeting
Date: November 27 - 5:00 p.m. | Delegate | Full agenda | Watch live
Welland begins the amendment process
Welland is already into its budget process, with a staff report entitled “The Mayor’s Proposed 2024 Tax Supported Operating Budget” dated November 6, presented at a Special Council meeting on November 15. Mayor Frank Campion is proposing a 2.69 percent increase to the operating budget.
The Council amendment process is beginning at a Special Council meeting scheduled on November 27, where eighteen (18) amendments are proposed by various Welland Councillors. A second opportunity for amendments and their potential approval will occur at a December 5th Special Council meeting, in keeping with the 30 day consideration period outlined in the Provincial legislation.
Like Niagara Falls, Welland’s public outreach has been through its website. The public was invited to speak to the budget at the November 15 special meeting.
The proposed amendments can be read here.
Police budget sent back
The Region continued its weekly budget-related meetings Thursday evening, with presentations from the ABC’s (Agencies, Boards and Commissions). Prior to hearing those delegations, the Region’s CAO Ron Tripp did a presentation on the status of the Region’s general levy budget.
What started as a proposed 9 percent increase, and got as high as 10.7 percent, has been reduced to 7.3 percent. CAO Tripp intimated that it would be difficult to find further cuts related to the general levy budget.
Presentations of budgets from the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, Court Services and Niagara Regional Housing were approved, subject to consideration of the overall general levy, scheduled for December 7.
The proposed 7.1 percent budget increase approved by the Niagara Regional Police Services (NRPS) Board, which has a 2.8 percent impact on the Region’s general levy, however, was met with resistance.
Regional Chair Jim Bradley questioned some proposed new positions in the Police budget and described them as “more nice to haves, than essentially needed”. Chair Bradley even broached the possibility of the Region formally rejecting the Police budget, which could trigger an appeal to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) by the Police Board.
“It is a bit of a defeat (to go to the OCPC) but it is an avenue,” said Chair Bradley, who then made it clear that he was not talking about defunding the Police.
“Defunding the police? That is total nonsense. We are talking about funding the Police but not to the amount they are seeking.”
With the budget meeting approaching five hours in length by this point, a motion referring the budget back to the NRPS was approved.
Whether the NRPS Board will come back with cuts to their budget, remains to be seen, though retiring Police Chief Bryan MacCulloch was confident that the Board could come back with budget mitigation measures by the Region’s December 7 budget meeting.
A similar referral to the Niagara Transit Commission (NTC) was met with resistance earlier in the week. Transit Staff had suggested mitigation options that would have reduced the NTC’s budget increase from 7.8 percent to 6.3 percent, which were rejected by the Commission.
The CAO’s presentation can be viewed here.
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