Welland grapples with first ‘Strong Mayor’ budget—councillor concerns signal what might unfold across Ontario
The fallout from the PC government’s determination to get 1.5 million houses built by 2031 is being felt by members around Welland’s Council table.
The thinking behind Doug Ford’s plan is to give individual mayors unprecedented power to control municipal budgets, and the polices that fall under them, so land-use planning and other local processes can speed up the construction of homes the PCs, and the building sector, desperately want approved.
The developer-driven approach has been highly criticized and scandals resulting from investigations by provincial watchdogs have caused widespread backlash. Now, at the local council level, the effects of PC legislation aimed at giving residential home builders what they want, are being felt, as mayors present their version of municipal budgets intended to cut red tape and expedite the construction of new homes.
Legislation passed by the PCs last year outlined how mayors can use their new powers to push any provincial priority, but it’s the housing file that was top of mind for Ford and his colleagues.
Last Monday, Welland became the first of three lower-tier Niagara Region municipalities to formally go through the amendment process, when councillors got to push back against the 2024 budget presented by the mayor. This budget season marks the first time Niagara’s three most populous municipalities will be considering budgets under the strong mayor powers introduced by the Province.
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 give 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.” But other provisions included in the legislation gave mayors unilateral power to hire key staff, exercise veto rights over certain Council decisions and introduce the annual municipal budget.
In June of this past year, the strong mayor powers were extended to St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, with Welland following at the end of October.
Councils can no longer approve a budget at the meeting when it is presented and now have a 30-day period to amend the budget introduced by the mayor.
Welland Mayor Frank Campion introduced his budget on November 6, which proposes a 2.69 percent increase to the property tax. This past Monday marked the first of two special Council meetings for possible amendments.
While the Provincial legislation provided the various timeline requirements related to the budget, Council amendments and mayor vetoes and overrides, it was not as prescriptive when it came to the execution.
As a result, consternation was expressed by some Welland councillors.
Staff outlined a process where councillors would be required to submit a Budget Amendment Resolution Form by noon on November 23 for consideration at the November 27 special meeting of Council. Eighteen such amendments related to the operating budget were submitted by six of Welland’s twelve councillors in time for inclusion on the agenda. The proposed amendments were a mix of items to be added or removed from the Mayor’s tax supported operating budget.
Staff explained at the outset of Monday’s meeting that the councillors would have the chance to introduce and explain amendments, then, provided another councillor seconded the item, it would be discussed and debated. If no seconder, the item would be removed from consideration. Amendments duly seconded would be voted on and if passed would be considered “strictly conditional” and would be brought forward at the second budget amendment meeting slated for December 5. That meeting would also provide an opportunity for councillors to introduce amendments, if submitted to the clerk’s office by noon on November 30.
The two-step process was questioned by councillors. Ward 3 Councillor John Chiocchio asked why the amendments were being considered that evening if they would not be final until December. He felt that it would be difficult to assess the value of the evening’s amendments when other amendments were “in the pipeline”.
“This puts a monkey wrench in things,” he said.
Staff responded that they did not want to limit council’s opportunity to make amendments within the 30-day window outlined by the legislation and did not want to have the problem of too many amendments to handle adequately in one meeting.
When Ward 5 Councillor Graham Speck asked if there would be further debate on amendments from November 27 at the December 5 meeting, staff explained there might be discussion on whether an item should remain in the budget or be removed, but there would not be debate on the merits of the “strictly conditional” amendments again on December 5.
What will happen on December 5 is that amendments from the 27 and any approved that evening will be read out by the Clerk for a final “line by line” decision by the Council.
With Councillors Claudette Richard and Jamie Lee not present at the meeting, Councillor Speck also challenged the two-step process and the inability for the absent Councillors to debate the items they missed from the November 27 meeting.
”[I] think this is strongly discouraging debate. While I appreciate that staff is being fastidious for time I do not believe it is procedurally correct,” Councillor Speck said.
Chief Administrative Officer Rob Axiak, who was appointed by Mayor Frank Campion in November, under the Strong Mayor powers, empathized, ”[T]his is new for staff. We appreciate council’s patience.”
With the concerns on process exhausted, the Councillors finally settled in, to consider the eighteen amendments to the operating budget, with half of them being approved for “strictly conditional” status and final consideration at the December 5 meeting.
Three of Ward Six Councillor Bonnie Fokkens amendments cumulatively reduced the Mayor’s budget by approximately 0.7 percent.
A heater proposed for Rosie Smith Pool reduced the budget by $225,000. Councillor Fokkens rationale was that since there was no expansion of programming at the pool and with heated municipal pools on each side of the canal, the expenditure was not necessary in 2024. An additional $75,000 was cut from the Public Works budget, in light of no additional hires slated for 2024, and $50,000 related to dog park improvements was cut in half.
A number of amendments related to staffing were brought forward. Ward 1 Councillor, Adam Moote successfully argued for two of three additional staff he proposed for the Building Department. The new hires were characterized by staff as having no financial impact on the operating budget, as they would be funded through building department revenues. Councillor Chiocchio questioned the wisdom of the hires if there was to be a downturn in the economy and building permits, but the amendment passed.
A staffing decision which did have a financial impact on the Mayor’s budget was the hiring of seven probationary firefighters. Ward 2 Councillor, David McLeod introduced the amendment that would fulfill a recommendation from a 2021 fire and emergency services staffing plan, enabling the fire department to have 12 full-time firefighters on at any given time. The approved amendment added $670,000 dollars and an approximately 1.5 percent increase to the operating budget.
While Councillor McLeod’s amendment had the most impact on the Mayor’s budget, he was less successful in attempting to get changes to the water/wastewater budget. None of the three amendments he proposed got a seconder, prompting him to sarcastically respond, “This is awesome!” He apologized after Councillor Speck took exception to the outburst, characterizing it as “derogatory to Council.”
With all of the November 27 amendments dealt with, the Mayor’s budget increased slightly from the 2.69 percent increase proposed at the start of the evening to a 3.43 percent increase, largely due to the hiring of the seven additional firefighters.
The Mayor will have a right to veto the amendments and more will be considered on December 5. It would appear that the Councillors may be more comfortable with the process the second time around, as twenty-two additional amendments have been submitted for consideration at the second, special budget meeting.
Despite the expressed frustration and occasional outburst by some Council members Monday night, Mayor Campion seemed satisfied, commending councillors for a job well done at the conclusion of the meeting.
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