A long and sometimes frustrating process for city council brought an approved budget and the proposed tax levy increase this year down to 3.02 per cent Tuesday night.
That number was at 3.45 per cent when deliberations began a week ago. After three meetings totaling nearly 20 hours councillors removed around $695,000 from the proposed $5.5 million increase, a majority of that coming from the end of budget meetings Tuesday night.
Coun. Linda Rydhom said it was a struggle to get to that number, which isn't close to the 2.76 per cent council wanted. It's unclear what the increased levy will mean for individual property owners as those numbers are done through assessment. Rydholm said an increased levy made for a surprising tax bill last year to people who had their property assessment go up.
"Many of us who were in that condition are now wondering what's going to happen this year," she said.
Mayor Keith Hobbs said he's happy where the budget ended up, stressing that when growth in the city is factored in the levy is actually around 1.69 per cent. But the process was difficult this year compared to budgets past.
"It was frustrating. I think there was some posturing, it's an election year for sure. That's always going to happen in an election year," he said.
Budget chair Coun. Mark Bentz said while this year's budget is responsible, the frustration is partly because the cost of everything keeps rising. This council has done a good job of trimming where needed while addressing badly needed infrastructure needs, more than $2.5 million of the levy will head to the enhanced infrastructure renewal fund, now at more than $7 million, in order to fix roads, bridges and storm sewers. But the balance is getting harder to maintain.
"After awhile there's very few places to find those easy cuts and we are there," Bentz said. "This council wasn't interested in cutting a lot from this budget."
No one around the table knows that better than Coun. Rebecca Johnson.
Throughout the process she recommended more than $1 million in cuts, most of which would have come out of the Community and Emergency Services and Thunder Bay Police Service budgets. She asked police chief J.P. Levesque, Thunder Bay Fire Rescue chief John Hay and Superior North EMS chief Norm Gale if they could find $200,000 worth of cuts in each of thir budgets.
Coun. Iain Angus called the idea arbitrary, especially when Gale told council that removing that money would really be more like a $425,000 cut when matched funding from the province and towns in the region were factored in.
"It is foolish quite frankly to tinker with such a vital service to the city and the district,” he said.
She proposed cutting the $105,000 Meals on Wheels program, which also didn't see support. Hobbs said it's not something that he wants to see in the hands of another organization that could cut it out of the city altogether.
"It would be rude if we did this," he said.
Not one of the amendments were passed, some not even seconded. Around six hours into the meeting Tuesday, Johnson gave up.
"I really tried," she said. "I'm tired."
Eventually council did cut $500,000 from the budget for this year, usually put into its Post Employment Reserve Contribution. Another $150,000 will be found by removing three full-time equivalent jobs, either from the proposed 20 new ones this year or through attrition. Those cuts are on top of an $80,000 study removed last week.
The one addition in the budget was $35,000 for Shelter House's SOS pilot project, which helps the city's homeless during the winter. Since its inception this year, around 304 calls have been made, getting people out of the cold and into places like Shelter House or the Salvation Army.
“They're in real danger. They could die and this program is saving lives,” Coun. Andrew Foulds, who introduced the funding proposal said.
The program has also been used by hospital staff, freeing up space for people who actually need emergency services. Hobbs said when he was a police officer he wished there was a program like SOS to call. The $35,000 could save hundreds of thousands of dollars by not having people in hospital beds or jail cells who don't need to be there.
A public post-budget consultation meeting will be held Wednesday at city hall starting at 6:30 p.m.