THUNDER BAY – The belt tightening process is underway for city council as they work to lower this year’s proposed $195.7 million tax levy.
Thunder Bay city council met Thursday night for their second budget deliberation session of the week, trimming $40,000 in proposed spending from their financial framework.
Council entered the meeting facing a proposed municipal tax levy hike of 3.14 per cent, which had been lowered from the 3.25 per cent starting point earlier this week after administration recalculated with nearly $130,000 in provincial funding from their decision to opt in to allowing cannabis storefronts, a $41,000 reduction in the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation levy and the elimination of a $40,000 contribution to the recently cancelled Staal Foundation Open.
The levy is the total amount of money the city would need to collect from the municipal tax base. The levy increase does not reflect the rate of property tax increases.
The lone cut that was approved on Thursday was the cancellation of $40,000 of funding that would have been provided to Common Voice Northwest. The previous term of city council had decided to include that amount for consideration in the budget. Former councillor Iain Angus is the executive director of the organization.
Mayor Bill Mauro, speaking from the perspective of his days as a former provincial cabinet minister, questioned the need for another voice advocating for the region.
“There is more than enough, in my mind, organizations representing the interests of the district,” Mauro said. “Sometimes less is better. A more streamlined position is better and sometimes too many people talking and advocating on the same issues is not helpful.”
Coun. Kristen Oliver, who is also the executive director of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association, said Common Voice Northwest is not a lobbying body but instead a consortium of elected officials and subject matter experts.
“They’re more of a research arm,” Oliver said, identifying inter-community bus service, the energy sector and immigration as fields they’ve done work.
“In addition to reaching out to municipalities they’re also going to be trying to work with community partners like the college, university and hospital, those types of institutions that also play a part in obtaining some of the information that other community or lobbying groups like NOMA use in their discussions with ministers.”
Hanging over the budget process is a $1.08 million request for additional funding by the Thunder Bay Police Service, which would address some of the recommendations made by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.
That increase, on top of their initial budget increase of about $900,000, would drive the tax levy hike up to 3.69 per cent if approved.
Facing a ballooning budget, Mauro received council support to direct city administration to identify options for $3.15 million in cuts and reductions to end up with a levy increase of 2.05 per cent.
City manager Norm Gale said the elimination of the Common Voice Northwest funding would have been part of the reduction package that will be provided by administration later this month.
The budget proposes 15.6 new full-time equivalent positions, though 10 of those are completely federally funded through the Youth Inclusion Program. As well, 5.2 are new paramedic positions, which are 50 per cent funded by the province.
Council also voted in favour of a short-term hiring freeze, with hiring for any vacant positions between now and the ratification of the budget requiring Gale’s approval.
“Notwithstanding this motion, there will be vacancies and those vacancies will be filled,” Gale said, describing the motion as helpful and adding it gives him firm direction.
“This motion will not cause me to not replace paramedics, firefighters or police officers as part of the normal complement. You can throw in nurses and other types of workers. It doesn’t mean we’re going to stop hiring. It does mean that we’re going to be very careful about what positions we fill and there will be some vacant positions.”
A proposed one-time $80,000 allocation to the Thunder Bay Public Library to conduct a systematic review of culture and systems with staff and stakeholders relative to anti-racism, inclusion and decolonization also drew some scrutiny. Council was advised to revisit that planned spending later this month.
The budget review process continues on Jan. 23.