THUNDER BAY – The fledgling term of Thunder Bay city council has closed the book on its first budget, which seems likely to chart the course for its three remaining fiscal frameworks.
The 2019 city budget, which was ratified by city council on Monday night, requires more than $4.3 million from its tax base than the previous year, which amounts to a total 2.29 per cent municipal tax levy hike.
After factoring in growth the increase is pegged at 1.98 per cent for existing taxpayers, just barely under the two per cent threshold that multiple councillors suggested was their goal during their deliberations.
During the course of its month-long examination of the financial plans, council brought the levy down from the original starting point of 3.25 per cent.
The $194.1 million municipal tax levy is the total amount of money that the city collects from its tax base and does not reflect the rate of property tax increases. The ratified budget would result in the median household paying $71 more in property tax, based on the 2018 tax ratios, though that amount can vary depending on any changes to property value assessments.
Coun. Mark Bentz, back on council after a four-year hiatus and returning to his former role as budget chair, said the timing of going through the process so soon into their mandate wasn’t easy.
“This council walked into this budget. We were handed the budget when we basically took office,” Bentz said.
“Now the work begins. I think we’ve sent a good message to administration that this council is very cost conscious. We do expect to see inflationary increases in every year as we go forward in this term of council.”
The additional $1.08 million ask by the Thunder Bay Police Service to address recommendations from the Office of the Independent Police Review Director report also presented a challenge, Bentz added.
Bentz voted against the budget’s ratification, along with Coun. Rebecca Johnson and Coun. Peng You. Coun. Trevor Giertuga and Coun. Albert Aiello were absent on Monday.
Mayor Bill Mauro, who during the lead-up of this term taking office spoke about the importance of its first budget, said he doesn’t believe there were any major structural or foundational changes made during this round.
Mauro indicated that the budget should send a message to both city administration and the community that this council supports community services, as well as the need to rein in spending.
“I’m not sure this was really tough,” Mauro said.
“We should say here’s our starting point and maybe we’re going to go up, maybe we’re going to go down but let’s not bring in something at four or five per cent that everybody knows is not going to be acceptable to the community and then we go through this exercise that at times can be perhaps a little longer than it needs to be.”
The budget remained largely unchanged from what was approved at the lengthy, eight-hour Jan. 30 meeting. Council voted to reinstate picnic table delivery for non-profit events and organizations, as well as Christmas lighting in Westfort and the south core, at a combined figure of about $22,000. A total of $4,000 was also added to the property tax and water credit programs for low-income homeowners.
Mauro received backing to change the mayor’s executive assistant position to part-time, which will result in savings of $30,000 this year and $55,000 annually going forward beginning in 2020.
There were some ultimately unsuccessful 11th-hour pushes to take a more significant bite out of the levy increase.
Coun. Rebecca Johnson revived an effort to put the remaining $235,000 from Tbaytel’s special performance dividend into offsetting the levy, rather than directing it to the Renew Thunder Bay reserve fund. Council had previously decided to put $265,000 of that amount into lowering the increase.
“I don’t see any pain in taking this money and using it for delivering a tax reduction,” Coun. Aldo Ruberto said. “We’re arguing over $14,000, or $30,000 or $20,000 but here’s $235,000 with no pain.”
Bentz said the decision made by council on Jan. 30 to split up the dividend was a compromise between lowering the tax rate while putting some away.
“Another way to pay back the people is to renew their infrastructure and lower their future costs,” Bentz said.
Bentz had proposed directing administration to remove one per cent from its $44 million tax-supported purchased services and materials budget, but that was not supported.
Coun. Shelby Ch’ng tried to restore the $150,000 capital funding for the public safety command centre, which stemmed from recommendations from the Seven Youth Inquest but fell one vote short.