While their might have been campaign promises to cut the fat at Shire Hall and deliver a much leaner 2019 municipal budget to beleaguered taxpayers, Rome wasn’t built in a day and the new Prince Edward County council discovered much can be said about course correcting the way taxes are levied and business is done at the seat of county government.
After a four day session where members of horseshoe debated between creating reserves, addressing infrastructure needs, supporting the Prince Edward County Memorial Hospital redevelopment and trying to trim excess from budget line items, Prince Edward County council voted Thursday afternoon of in favour of setting a municipal operating budget of $54.4 million and capital budget of $13.9 million.
The combined municipal operating budget and capital budget set by council will mean a 2.71 per cent tax hike after taking into account assessment growth.
On top of the 2.71 per cent increase, Council passed a 1 per cent levy dedicated to fund the $4.5 million committment for the redevelopment of Prince Edward County Memorial Hospital as well as a 2.5 percentage socked away in a growing capital reserves account that will be available for road and bridge repairs and improvements.
Overall, the 2019 budget tax increase after assessment growth is 6.31 per cent with an increase of 5.02 per cent increase for residential properties which is equal to a $44.39 increase on $100,000 of MPAC assessed value.
Money for the new PECMH and a reserve fund for the repair of hard beaten County roads and bridges seem like a wise investment in the ‘pennies of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ sense and anyone that regularly drives Prince Edward County roadways or values health care and council feels the same way.
But in terms of operations, there were certainly differences in opinions when it came to services levels, employee staffing and how council was supporting operations of boards, bodies and service providers.
In the end, with some councillors looking like they were voting begrudgingly (or perhaps just relieved to see the end of the week-long process), council unanimously voted for the increase.
In his closing remarks, Mayor Steve Ferguson thanked members of council for participating fully and showing diligence in diving into the budget material that was many volumes thick.
“Throughout this process, no one has been denied an opportunity to ask a questions and they were intelligent and dignified and very well taken. We looked at every item and analyzed it every way we could,” Ferguson said. “No one wants to pay more in taxation but I believe we’ve kept increases as reasonable as we could. We are trying to make up some lost time by making additional investments in roads and infrastructure.”
Ferguson said council took steps to took steps to make sure our own are taken care of, making investments in both food insecurity that affects so many people in Prince Edward County as well as support affordable and attainable housing measures
“We’ve made some small steps and over the next four years it’s my sincerest hope that we take take greater steps,” Ferguson added. “We should be satisfied we’ve taken the appropriate measures not only for the rate payers but the future of Prince Edward County and the people that will follow us.”
Among the highlights, council is spending $8.6 million in roads and bridge projects, including additional funding for Talbot Street reconstruction, construction of part of a new connecting road between Highway 33 and Talbot Street, sidewalk illumination along County Road 22, lighting enhancements at the intersection of Johnson Street and McDonald Drive in Picton as well as various road surface treatment work, and sidewalk construction and reconstruction.
With the not-for-profit County Affordable Housing Corporation preparing to ramp up operations and foster affordable and attainable housing projects in the Prince Edward, council continued with their path of investment, earmarking $250,000 for affordable housing.
In terms water and waste water measures, Council voted in favour of spending $3.4 million for the construction of a new water tower in Wellington to meet growing demand.
In total, $357,000 was earmarked for community, recreation, and heritage grants while the renewal of the Farming Assistance Grant Program for 2019 with $40,000 set aside in the budget.
As well, an aforementioned $20,000 was set aside for initiatives to address food insecurity in Prince Edward County.
But even in the final hour of deliberations, a pair of potential hires by the county to be added to the staffing compliment to the Fire and Rescue and the Bylaw offices, respectively, was up for debate.
The positions, a bylaw enforcement officer and a Fire Prevention Officer, is partly related to the Short Term Accommodation bylaws and licensing that will be delivered later this year and would be used to ensure compatibility and regulatory compliance amongst STA operators.
Expected to cost about $200,000 annually once fully staffed, Councillor Mike Harper put forward a motion to put off the hiring of these positions until council had fully dealt with and charted a course forward with their STA process.
“This money could help to reduce the base rate and I think it’s worth consideration,” Harper said in tabling his motion.
However, councillors Phil St. Jean and Bill Roberts said staff made it clear during deliberations there would be dire need for the increase in the staffing compliment once these regulations are enacted later this spring.
“It was made very clear to me that there’s a dire need for these two positions. We area going to be faced with enforcement requirements and we are going to recoup the costs when we initiate and STA program. I firmly believe those two positions need to be there,” St Jean said.
Roberts added policies and procedures that require enforcement have been enacted by council but what the muncipality has seen consistently is that these policies are weakened because there isn’t the enforcement capability available.
Councillor Ernie Margetson floated an idea of amending the motion and hiring the bylaw officer but holding off on new and second FPO until after the STA process was in place.
Councillor Phil Prinzen agreed and it was clear the new representative from Bloomfield and Hallowell wasn’t particularly satisfied with where the budget numbers were landing.
“I would support the original motion or an amended motion,” Prinzen said. “I believe as a new council, people elected us for change and to make the difficult decisions. Right now we are looking at a tax increase of 8.56 per cent before assessment. The tough decisions have to be made and I don’t think we’ve made any tough decisions.”
When asked to detail their requests further, Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Manlow said he’s put forward a request for a second FPO to council since 2009 and that there are difficulties having a single officer service 13,000 residences as well as commercial and public buildings.
And those duties don’t include public education events, reviewing site plans and creating the Fire and Rescue component for County Community Risk Assessment exercise Manlow said further.
“It’s not just the STA piece that’s driving this,” Manlow said, adding that inspections at area schools and dealing with hoarding situations can tie up full days of the FPO’s time.
Time that requires the FPO to have a certain level of training and accreditation.
“For some of the smaller stuff we can work ahead but you can’t just take someone off the floor when the FPO has holidays or is sick,” Manlow added.
In terms of the County of Prince Edward’s bylaw office, Chief Building Official Andy Harrison said the staff simply could not address and cover all of the department’s duties as it is prior to an STA regulation being handed over to them.
“We’re not keeping up with the demand of the public,” Harrison said. “We had discussion earlier with regards to marinas…We wouldn’t be able to accommodate those new STA requirements with the current amount of staff.”
Harper ultimately withdrew the motion, adding that he believed the STA was the impetus for the requests but understanding by way of the department head’s respective explanations that these positions were required before any STA regulations.
“I’m hearing enough evidence to withdraw the motion,” Harper said. “I’m looking for efficiencies and look the tax payer in the eye and being able to explain to the tax payer what we are doing and why we are doing it.”