THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay’s city council made no changes to the proposed 2022 budget during the third of four meetings to review the document on Thursday, while punting a decision on funding for a controversial proposed police headquarters to next week.
Councillors also roundly rejected a call Wednesday to further boost the police operating budget, which is already rising significantly.
The tax levy increase remained at 2.3 per cent after growth, unchanged from the previous review meeting and just a hair above the 2.29 per cent in the proposed budget drafted by city administration.
Unusually, council has made no significant changes as it approaches the finish line on the process to set the 2022 budget. Two chances remain for councillors to propose amendments: a final review meeting on Feb. 1, and a ratification vote on Feb. 7, after hearing public feedback on Feb. 3.
The 2022 budget has been characterized by stagnant growth, expansions to EMS services, long-term care, and bylaw enforcement, rising emergency services spending, and new funding for parks and trails. It also includes a freeze on public transit fares and opens free rides to all children 12 and under.
Thursday’s meeting saw council review budgets for police, the city manager’s office, mayor and council, the Thunder Bay CEDC, and the Waterfront District and Victoria Avenue BIAs.
Councillors at times struggled to find their bearings as they discussed funding for the proposed police headquarters Thursday, after a surprise move by the Thunder Bay Police Services Board announced just hours beforehand.
The board withdrew its request that the city approve full funding of a proposed $56 million headquarters in the 2022 budget, saying it would delay the process as it confronts a growing internal crisis.
“The police services board met yesterday and simply made a decision that given everything that’s going on, this is just not the right time for a capital project of this magnitude to move forward,” said Mayor Bill Mauro, who also sits on the police services board. “Fundamentally, that’s why the decision was made."
“I appreciate that council will not see a need to ask questions about that, because so much of that is confidential in nature,” he added.
Councillors did not press Mauro or police chief Sylvie Hauth, present to answer questions on the budget, on the crisis.
With an estimated price tag of $56 million, the police headquarters was the biggest decision on the table during the 2022 budget review, and several councillors had expressed hesitation over the commitment.
Instead, a final decision on the matter will now likely rest in the hands of the next city council chosen in the Oct. 24 municipal election.
In the meantime, the board asked for council to approve $2.4 million to continue moving work forward on the new headquarters in 2022.
That drew skepticism from some.
“So we’re being asked to invest $2.4 million into a project that could be rejected by the new council in 2023?” asked Coun. Mark Bentz, with city manager Norm Gale confirming “that could happen.”
Councillors voted Thursday to refer the question of funding for the headquarters to the next budget review meeting on Feb. 1., asking for more information on what the funds would cover.
On Thursday, Gale said the amount would pay for purchasing land for the new headquarters, as well as design and administration costs.
Coun. Mark Bentz said the delay would also give councillors time to hear from the public on the issue, which he said would be important in making a decision.
Meanwhile, a proposal from Coun. Aldo Ruberto to add just short of $1 million to the proposed Thunder Bay Police Services budget didn't proceed to a vote, after failing to find a seconder.
Coun. Peng You moved to second the motion before being reminded by deputy city clerk Dana Earle that he had declared a conflict on the police budget, because a family member is a frontline police officer. No other councillors stepped forward.
The Thunder Bay Police Service's operating budget is already set to increase by over 3.4 per cent in 2022, rising to $48.75 million.
That does not include the request for $2.4 million for the headquarters, or the Thunder Bay Police Services Board's separate budget, which is more than doubling to $453,700.
Most of the increase is related to "purchased services" including legal and consultant fees, said board chair John Hannam on Thursday. The board wildly exceeded its budget last year, with estimated actual expenses of $656,600.
A TBNewswatch analysis indicates city spending on police has risen by 16 per cent in three years during the current city council's term, more than twice the average rate for other city departments and outside boards. That does not include the 2022 budget.
Police chief Sylvie Hauth told councillors around $3 million of the police budget was for overtime costs.