St. Catharines’ proposed budget changes include scrapping mayor’s move to axe forestry service & possible zero percent increase; Niagara Falls eyes 6.2% increase for 2024
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: January 22 - 6:00 p.m. | Delegate | Full Agenda | Watch live
Budget Standing Committee Chair Presents Amendments to get the St. Catharines Operating Budget to Zero
After a January 10 meeting that saw Council Chambers filled to capacity, a crowded overflow room and ten delegations, St. Catharines City Council begins the formal amendment process of Mayor Mat Siscoe’s budget on Monday night.
With the Province introducing legislation imparting “strong mayor powers” to the heads of council of various larger sized Ontario municipalities, one of the results has been the requirement for the mayor to propose a budget for the municipality, an exercise traditionally undertaken by the financial bureaucracy within the municipal corporation.
In November, City of St. Catharines Finance staff presented a budget “to support and inform the Mayor’s budget” that proposed a 3.67 percent increase to the City’s 2024 operating budget. When the Mayor’s budget was released with its posting on the City’s website on January 3, it did not differ substantially from what had been presented by staff.
The most striking difference in Mayor Siscoe’s budget, however, was the elimination of the forestry section of the City’s Municipal Works department, with the services to be contracted out. The removal of forestry in-house would realize $465,000 in projected savings to the 2024 operating budget, with savings expected to rise to approximately $700,000 annually in the subsequent two years.
The purported forestry savings, which were disputed by a number of delegates on January 10th, along with some other budget mitigation measures introduced in the Mayor’s budget, would bring down the increase to the City’s 2024 operating levy to 1.49 percent or $25.47 to the median household.
All of the speakers that addressed the contracting out of the forestry services at the January 10th meeting were opposed to the proposal. Later in the meeting, when Mayor Siscoe had an opportunity to defend his budget he pointed out that 60 percent of tree cutting is already being contracted out and that all stumping and tree planting is done by outside forces. The Mayor characterized the contracting out as “not a cut in service but a reduction in cost and a change in philosophy.”
The tenure of the meeting indicated Council support for retaining the forestry services in-house and possibly even enhancing the services, however, under the new “strong mayor powers” municipal councils can no longer approve a budget at the meeting when it is presented.
This Monday’s meeting will be the first opportunity for Council members to formally propose amendments to the Mayor’s budget. As indicated at the January 10 meeting, St. Patrick’s Ward 4 Councillor, Caleb Ratzlaff is bringing forward an amendment to “keep forestry public”. Not on the agenda, however, is an amendment intimated by Merriton Ward 1 Councillor Greg Miller to return some of the forestry-related services, such as stumping and tree planting, “in-house”, though Council has a second budget meeting for the purpose of amendments slated for January 31. Also not on Monday’s agenda is a promised memo from staff responding to some of the forestry-related matters raised during the public delegations on the 10th.
Forestry issues aside, Councillor Miller has brought forward an amendment to increase Council’s grant to Niagara Folk Arts Grants to $70,000 a year, adding $24,300 or 0.02% to the operating levy for 2024. St. Patrick’s Councillor Robin McPherson delivered an amendment promised at the January 10 meeting to slash business licence and patio fees by 50 percent. The tax levy impact for 2024 will be $65,000 or 0.06%. Councillor McPherson is also proposing that the Neighbourhood Funding Micro Grant Pilot Project be funded through the Civic Project Fund, which has no impact on the operating levy.
The amendments that have the most potential impact on the operating levy are three related amendments being proposed by Budget Standing Committee Chair, Port Dalhousie Ward Councillor, Carlos Garcia.
The purpose of Garcia’s amendments is to reduce the City Net Tax Levy in 2024 over 2023 to zero percent. Taking into account the $1.4 million increase from the Mayor’s proposed budget and the total value of the amendments proposed by Councillors Ratzlaff, Miller and McPherson, $1,955,185 is required to achieve Garcia’s goal.
In November, City staff had provided Council with a series of cost reduction items that could bring the operating budget down to a zero percent increase. The measures included reduction of service levels for winter control, closing the West St. Catharines Older Adult Centre, not funding heritage grant programs and only operating the Port Dalhousie carousel on weekends, amongst other cost-cutting items. Despite the list, staff was clear in indicating that they were not recommending any of the measures they had suggested.
Councillor Garcia’s amendments would not be funded through any reduction in service levels or elimination of existing programs. The funding sources for his amendments are through wage gap savings, the Special Tax Mitigation Fund that Council approved in August to reduce the tax burden on residents, and use of the Tax Rate Stabilization Reserve.
Mayor Siscoe’s budget already commits $500,000 of gaping dollars from unfilled part-time and summer positions in 2023, over the three-year budget. Councillor Garcia’s amendment would use $188,000 of wage gap savings toward achieving a zero increase in 2024.
The majority of Garcia’s budget reduction, $1,541,200, would be through the use of uncommitted funds in the Special Tax Mitigation Fund. The Mayor’s budget utilizes $1.431 million from the fund in 2024, with $3.91 million being committed in the subsequent two years of the three-year budget. A related staff memo on Monday’s agenda indicates that the Special Tax Mitigation fund will be depleted if Garcia’s amendment is to pass.
Although Councillor Garcia’s proposed use of $225,985 from the tax rate stabilization reserve has a minimal impact of a 0.19 percent decrease to tax levy, staff cautions that:
“[H]istorically, this reserve has been used for non-recurring or one-time expenses. This approach eliminates the impact on future budgets. Utilization of the Tax Rate Stabilization Reserve in the manner expressed in the amendment does not meet these criteria as using funds from the reserve in 2024 to reduce the general tax levy has an impact on future budgets.”
Should any of Council’s proposed amendments to the Mayor’s budget be approved, Mayor Siscoe will have ten days after the amendment period to exercise his veto powers.
At the January 10 meeting, he indicated that he would not veto keeping forestry services “in house” but he did present the scenarios in which he would exercise his veto powers: amendments that may harm the residents or services they depend on, amendments that may harm the City, amendments not submitted under the appropriate deadlines, amendments contrary to previous Council decisions, amendments that are too broad or vague and amendments that would raise the levy by an unacceptable amount.
Arguably, none of the proposed amendments are captured by the scenarios in which the Mayor Siscoe would exercise his veto power. However, will the cautions raised by staff on the depletion of Special Tax Mitigation Fund and use of the Tax Rate Stabilization Reserve, not in keeping with the normal criteria for using such funds, be enough for the Mayor to reconsider?
The related staff report can be found here.
City Council Budget Meeting
Date: January 23 - 3:00 p.m. | Delegate | Full agenda | Watch live
Potential for a 6.2% tax increase for city’s share of 2024 Niagara Falls budget
With St. Catharines Council engaged in the budget amendment process and Welland Council having passed their budgets prior to Christmas, Niagara Falls is the last of the three larger Niagara municipalities with “strong mayor powers” to present an operating budget. Tuesday’s Council meeting is dedicated primarily to the Mayor's Proposed Draft 2024 Tax Levy Supported Budget.
As of Friday afternoon, only one of the supporting reports related to the operating budget was available. A “variance analysis” report authored by the City’s Director of Finance summarizes the key changes in the 2024 budget in comparison to the 2023 budget.
It is only toward the very end of the 24 page report that the potential impact of the proposed changes is highlighted: a requirement of $5,339,296 to fund the 2024 operating and the capital/hospital levies, which would mean a 6.2 percent levy increase for the city’s share of the overall tax bill (the Region’s share and the education portion have to be blended in for the total amount).
Like St. Catharines and the Region of Niagara, there was criticism in 2023, when the City of Niagara Falls came in with a 7.9 percent increase.
The staff report on Tuesday’s agenda admits that the proposed increase for 2024 is in excess of the guidance previously given to staff that would limit any potential increase to between 4 and 5 percent. A 1.5 percent increase is contemplated for the capital/hospital levy, with the remainder allocated to the operating budget.
Staff promises that the other report slated for Tuesday will present options to reduce the proposed increase within the 4 to 5.5 percent range.
Some other items of note in the Variance Analysis report:
27 new positions were requested for 2024, 12 of which are being recommended for approval. While it is not entirely clear what the specific impact of the new positions are, staff indicate that half of those positions will be funded from reserves and have no impact on the 2024 operating budget.
A number of positions not being recommended are contingent upon the City receiving funding under the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Housing Accelerator Funding and could be added if the Federal funding eventually comes through.
While City of Niagara Falls benefits from monies it receives from the Ontario Lottery & Gaming Corporation, for hosting Fallsview Casino and Casino Niagara, staff have kept revenue estimates at a conservative $14 million, down from pre-pandemic levels of $23 million, and accounting for potential impacts from online gaming and the Woodbine Casino.
Overtime in Fire Services in 2023 was approximately $1.7 million which equates to 2 percent of the tax levy. The staff report states that the Fire overtime is an
“area that staff is monitoring as it has skyrocketed in the last 6 years from a reasonable $418,000 to a peak of $2.28 million in 2021.”
The related staff report can be found here.
Regional Council Meeting
Date: January 25 - 6:30 p.m. | Delegate | Full agenda | Watch live
Regional Council Asked to Support Resolution Delving Into International Affairs
While St. Catharines and Niagara Falls Councils are engaged in municipal budgetary matters within their purview, Regional Council is being asked to consider a matter outside of its normal jurisdiction related to the prickly issue of foreign affairs.
Regional Councillor Haley Bateman has provided a motion for Regional Council’s consideration at their Thursday meeting “respecting support for Israelis and Palestinians living in Niagara”.
The proposed resolution calls on Region Council to support a request for an immediate ceasefire to the current conflict in the Middle East via the United Nations Security Council, which would allow for humanitarian aid in affected areas and that the Federal government remove the cap on the number of Palestinians “who can seek refuge with their Canadian extended family members from the violence in the Gaza Strip.”
The resolution also tries to ensure that its intent is not “used to foster all forms of racism, antisemitism and targeting of Jewish people living in Niagara, their businesses, and religious institutions or anti-Palestinian racism, or Islamophobia.”
Representatives from Niagara Movement for Justice in Palestine-Israel(NMJPI), Independent Jewish Voices and the Niagara Palestinian Coalition are slated to appear as delegations in support of Councillor Bateman’s resolution.
Mississauga and Brampton Councils have recently passed similar resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, increased humanitarian relief and the promotion of peace and understanding across local faith communities.
The resolution can be viewed here.
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