Transit Commission to reconsider budget, again; Welland trail strategy sparks outrage among councillors; Fort Erie studying problem flooding
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.
Special Niagara Transit Commission Meeting
Date: December 12 - 3:00 p.m. | Delegate | Full agenda | Watch live
Transit Commission to reconsider budget…again
On Tuesday, the Niagara Transit Commission (NTC) will, for the second time, consider budget mitigation measures to reduce Transit’s 2024 operating budget.
In October, the NTC approved a proposed 2024 gross operating budget submission of $83,234,433 and net base Special Levy of $59,348,376 for a net increase of $4,295,426 or 7.8 percent.
On November 9th, Regional Council, in its Budget Committee of the Whole format, passed a motion that the proposed budget be referred back to the Commission. Regional Council suggested options to reduce the budget including an increase in fares, a reduction of service capital reserve transfers and revenue generation opportunities through advertising.
Transit Staff suggested four mitigation options at the time: increasing the use of Provincial Gas Tax monies to fund operations, despite the goal of reducing the unsustainable funding source, which is at the whim of the Provincial government, a reduction in the transfer to capital reserves, in keeping with Regional Council’s suggestion, a reduction in the budget for legal claims based on 2023 actuals and a delay in the implementation of a local route to replace an existing WEGO route in Niagara Falls. The proposed mitigation measures would have reduced the NTC’s budget increase from 7.8 percent to 6.3 percent.
Transit Staff recommended against other mitigation measures suggested in the Regional Council’s motion. Fare increases were rejected as the Region and majority of local area municipalities had approved the uploading of Transit under the premise that fees would be harmonized in 2025. Similarly, it will not be until 2025 that the NTC looks at advertising opportunities. Niagara Transit had inherited a number of third party advertising contracts from the three local municipal transits (St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland) that have yet to conclude.
The Niagara Transit Commission, which consists of fifteen members, eleven who sit on lower area municipal councils and four members who are on Regional Council, three who also serve as Mayors, rejected any changes offered by Staff. A correspondence to the Regional Chair and Council confirmed their original budget submission, with the 7.8 percent increase.
At the November 30 Budget Committee of the Whole meeting, ostensibly to finalize the approval of the Transit budget, a number of Councillors were clearly upset over the lack of movement on the part of the Commission.
St. Catharines Regional Councillor Peter Secord: “This budget needs to drop a bit. We were told (last year) that (the Regionalized Transit system) was going to find efficiencies. That never happened. We need to hold their feet to the fire.”
Transit Commission Chair and St. Catharines Mayor, Mat Siscoe, delivered an impassioned speech to Regional Council that evening, arguing that to foster a Transit culture, with increased ridership and route frequency, the proposed budget increases were necessary. Despite his pleas, Regional Council voted 16-6 to send the budget back to the NTC for a second time.
On Tuesday’s Special Transit Commission meeting is an update report from Staff that includes the mitigation suggestions originally proposed and an additional one related to a $500,000 reduction in the budget for an upcoming Specialized Transit Request for Proposal (RFP), $300,000 of which would be taken from the proposed 2024 budget.
The goal of the RFP is to consolidate the various specialized contracts (On-Demand and Paratransit services) in the Region under a single contract and provider. The staff report notes that Specialty Service contracts represent 12.3 percent of NTC’s operating costs but account for less than 2 percent of the overall system’s ridership.
The original budget for the RFP came from NTC “using the existing budgets uploaded from municipalities for service delivery”, implying that those estimates may have been generous. Nonetheless, staff are cautioning the budget reduction could result in proponents offering reduced specialized service, leading to possible increased wait times and/or potentially unavailable trips for users.
The adoption of the proposed mitigations will result in a net budget increase of $3,148,760 or 5.7 percent, a decrease of 2.1 percent or $1,146,666 from the original budget submission. Once assessment growth is applied, the net budget increase will be 4.1 percent, according to the staff report.
The Transit budget is a stand-alone special levy budget, separate from the Region’s operating budget, which was approved last week. Should the Commission again reject coming forward with any reductions, Regional Council will then be able to determine a dollar or percentage reduction at its December 14th meeting.
The Niagara Transit Commission report can be read here.
Special Council Meeting
Date: December 12 - 5:00 p.m. | Delegate | Full agenda | Watch live
The first Mayor’s budget gets approved, while Council gets a legal opinion on a Motion to Rescind that caused tempers to flare.
After a number of weekly budget related meetings, Welland Council has a Special meeting added to their schedule called for Tuesday. Included in the agenda is a report prepared by the City’s legal staff related to a proposed Motion to Rescind that had caused tempers to flare between Councillor Tony DiMarco and Mayor Frank Campion at Council’s September 5th meeting.
Councillor DiMarco had wanted to rescind a by-law approved by Welland Council earlier in 2023, which authorized the Mayor and Clerk to execute a contribution agreement with Infrastructure Canada, for approximately $1 million in funding, the majority of which would be allocated to the North Welland/Niagara College Trail Link.
On August 16th, a “virtual public engagement session” was held, which the City’s website described as “lively and informative”. Some residents expressed opposition to the trail, which is part of the City’s approved Trail Strategy.
At the September 5th meeting, Councillor DiMarco’s attempt to rescind the related by-law, and possibly thwart the project from going ahead, was ruled “out of order” by Mayor Campion based on a legal opinion he had received. The Mayor explained that the agreement had been signed with the Federal government and that approximately $200 thousand in funds had already been expended for professional services and site survey work. DiMarco, dissatisfied with the ruling, uttered an obscenity directed at the Mayor and was eventually ejected from the Council meeting.
At the meeting the week following, DiMarco’s fellow Ward 4 Councillor, Bryan Green moved a motion that the legal opinion be shared with Council, so that the public could learn why a rescinding motion was not possible.
Tuesday’s report from the City Solicitor echoes the Mayor’s previous comments related to the executed agreement and monies already expended on the project. The report points out that a rescinding motion would have only been available at the Council’s two meetings subsequent to the January 25th by-law approval, as per the City’s Procedural By-law. The City Solicitor concludes that should such a rescinding motion be approved it would have reputational and cost implications, while jeopardizing future funding applications with the federal government.
Councillor DiMarco has remained undeterred in his opposition to the City moving forward on the Trail Strategy, bringing forward $461,000 in potential cuts to the Mayor’s Operating Budget at a Special Meeting last week. None of DiMarco’s amendments were successful.
Mayor Campion’s budget, the first under the “Strong Mayor Powers” afforded to Welland by the Province, originally proposed a 2.69 percent increase. Welland Council introduced 52 changes through amendment motions, during special council meetings on November 27 and December 5, with 14 (12 tax supported and two water/wastewater) being adopted.
After the first special meeting, the budget increase was up to 3.43 percent, largely due to an amendment which would see the hiring of the seven additional firefighters. After the second special meeting, the deferral of design work to the Civic Square revitalization project dropped the increase to 3.15 percent.
Mayor Campion could veto any of the amendments but he has put forward a mayoral decision shortening the veto period to ten, indicating that he will not exercise his newly provided veto powers. The operating budget increase equates to an approximate $56 annual increase for an average home assessed at $230,000.
Welland became the first of Niagara’s three large municipalities to finalize its operating budget under the Strong Mayor Powers. In a media release, Mayor Campion was laudatory regarding the budget process:
“[C]ouncil worked diligently with staff to create a budget that supports city services, programs and sustainability while at the same time addressing affordability.”
The related report can be read here.
Fort Erie studying mitigation measures for seiche effect flooding
Fort Erie Council agendas list future meetings and open houses. Monday’s Council-in-Committee Meeting notes that on Thursday, December 14, at 5:00 a Public Meeting will be held at Crystal Ridge Library related to Six Mile Creek Flooding Municipal Class Environmental Assessment (EA).
The meeting marks the official project commencement, under the EA process, to address the flooding in the Thunder Bay area, specifically in the Six Mile Creek subwatershed. As indicated in the Town’s Notice, flooding has been experienced over the past decades, and more recently in 2019, 2020, and 2022. It is suspected that the localized flooding occurs primarily due to the seiche effect, the disturbance of water levels, from Lake Erie.
The Town’s consultants, Matrix Solutions, will prepare a Project Report, anticipated between May and September of 2024, for submission to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. The Project Report will be available for public review and comments for 30 calendar days, after its release.
The public notice can be read here.
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