St. Catharines' final budget proposal to be released this week after zero-increase requested by some councillors 
City of St. Catharines

St. Catharines' final budget proposal to be released this week after zero-increase requested by some councillors 

When the dust finally settled on the 2023 budget it included a 10.5 percent tax increase that was historic in scale and divided council down the middle.  

An amendment introduced midway in the year put in place a retroactive property tax increase that shocked and angered citizens. The motion to implement the increase was put forward by Councillors Caleb Ratzlaff and Robin McPherson. After a long and polarizing debate council’s vote ended in a 6-6 tie with the deciding vote falling to the mayor. Mat Siscoe’s support of the motion not only resulted in large tax hikes, but the size of the increase had the effect of removing provincial rent control ceilings leaving tenants at the goodwill of landlords.  

Staff and council members seemed equally ignorant of the full impact of the decisions they were making.   

The six councillors who opposed the increase spoke of hyper-inflation, poverty, skyrocketing housing costs and the overall burden of the taxpayer. They spoke of constituents calling them in tears to say they could not afford the unprecedented burden. Their arguments did nothing to sway the vote of the six councillors and the mayor who supported the double-digit squeeze. In subsequent months citizens mobilized en masse to address the issue of the tax increase at city council; their attempts failed.   

Residents remarked how council had “used procedure to shut down delegations from citizens, stop debate amongst councillors, and preclude any hope of meaningful solutions to the exorbitant increase”. The tax increase became entrenched, and a new tax base was established that was more than 10 percent higher than previous budgets.   

Council has remained divided on the issue of the budget ever since.  

Recognizing the burden the 10.5 percent spike had on their constituents, in September Councillors Carlos Garcia and Joe Kushner put forward a motion directing staff to prepare a scenario that would allow council to consider a zero percent increase for 2024.  

The motion met stiff resistance by three councillors.  Ratzlaff described it as “cowardly” for council to make such a request of staff, he subsequently apologized for directing the comment at Garcia and Kushner, however he remained steadfast in his opposition to any efforts being proposed. Councillor Greg Miller remarked, “I‘ve never had anyone in the city ask me to reduce service levels”, and Councillor McPherson who has repeatedly voiced her faith in the city’s budgeting system also voiced her displeasure with the zero percent motion.

As they did last year, Ratzlaff and McPherson have voiced their opposition to councillors’ efforts to mitigate the tax burden on citizens this year. Miller has supported them throughout the process. Despite the efforts of these three councillors to block any consideration of a zero-budget increase, the motion to consider a freeze did pass and now the budget discussion slated for early January will include this option.

City staff initially recommended a 3.7 percent increase for 2024. They have also prepared a list of items for removal or reduction if council wants to find ways to avoid any  increase in 2024. But rather than seek efficiencies across the board, for example by looking at management contracts or by limiting any increases to staffing, or by reducing costs for City automobile fleets or cutting back on perks such as council expenses, staff only suggested cutting services and increasing user fees. Some of the items on the list include: Reduction of the Port Dalhousie carousel schedule to weekends only; eliminate funding for the Labour Day parade and volunteer recognition; cuts to heritage grants; the closure of one elder-adult centre; increased parking fines; charging a fee for fire services at motor vehicle collisions. Absent is any effort by staff to mitigate labour costs, which make up the lion’s share of the budget. 

Notably, not included on the list for consideration is the Mayor’s office budget. As reported earlier by The Pointer, the mayor’s office has a proposed increase of 536 percent or $111,000 for “civic receptions” in 2024. Curiously, staff have not identified the Mayor’s office budget on their list of items to be removed or reduced. 

Staff also left untouched the large corporate CIP grants. These corporate giveaways, which have been shown to benefit private companies without producing the stated benefits to the community, have no discernable upside limit and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have been granted to corporations who have used public funds to help build luxury condos in the city

Instead, Staff recommended cancelling grants to assist small businesses who are doing facade upgrades in the commercial cores ($10,000 maximum) and homeowners who are adding an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on their property ($20,000 maximum). Assisting the development of ADU’s has been identified as one small way to address the housing crisis in the city. 

Budget preparation is always fraught and has the potential to divide council, the needs can seem infinite while the funding is limited, and so it will come down to priorities and compromises. St. Catharines residents are consistently ranked among the highest taxed in the province and last year's 10.5 percent increase only exacerbated the troubling trend. Those on council who fought against that increase have voiced the need for citizens to have relief from the heavy taxation burden as exemplified by Councillor Bruce Williamson when he said: “Typically, I would not be supporting a zero-base budgeting process, however we just saddled the taxpayer with a 10.5 percent property tax increase, it’s not sustainable to a lot of people and not affordable to a lot of people, not responsible in a lot of ways…we have a duty to try and minimize the increases to people, this has affected a lot of people in a negative way.”

The Mayor and six councillors have remained steadfast in their defence of last year's crippling increase (many residents on fixed incomes have said they simply cannot afford it), while the remaining six councillors have anchored themselves as firmly opposed. The final proposed budget for 2024 will be released today, January 3, and council is expected to debate it on January 10.



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