JAMES CULIC/Niagara This Week
After weeks of heated debate Fort Erie councillors finalized the 2013 operating budget and general levy on Tuesday.
Six hours of tinkering later and council settled on a budget increase of 4.1 per cent, which means the average Fort Erie household can expect to pay about $28 more in taxes to the town than last year.
The evening began with a 4.6 per cent increase but was whittled down largely in part by two contentious 4-3 votes which slashed infrastructure funding and turned a full-time job into part-time.
Councillors and staff have been sparring for months over how much money to allocate to the town’s reserves, which were significantly drained to fund the restoration of the Point Abino Lighthouse.
To meet incoming provincial legislation which sets minimum requirements for reserves — which the town is currently far short of reaching — staff have been strongly recommending that $500,000 be placed into reserves each year for at least the next five years. Failure to do so, warned staff, could result in the town being forced to make a one-time tax hike in a few years of as much as 13 per cent to meet the requirements.
The debate over reserves led to the first 4-3 vote of the night, when councillors Bob Steckley, Paul Collard, Don Lubberts and John Hill voted to reduce the reserves contribution down to $400,000. This was preceded by a failed motion from Lubberts and Collard to knock it down to $350,000, which led Martin to accuse the other side of trying to “nickel and dime” the budget process.
Naturally, opposing sides of the debate each had their own view of what happened.
“It was an effort to try and address the situation, without really addressing it,” said Martin, who argued strongly in support of the staff recommendations for full reserve funding and a full-time health and safety position.
“We were told specifically: this is what we have to do, but that never seems to be acceptable to some parts of council,” said Martin.
There are two sides to every coin though, and in this instance, the other side said it wasn’t trying to nickel and dime anything.
“We take the $400,000 now, and we make up the rest when the economy turns around, I’m not trying to nickel and dime anything here,” said Steckley.
“I know we have an infrastructure funding gap, but there’s a difference between what we want, and what we can afford,” he added.
Another thing the town can’t afford — according to one side of the debate — is a full-time health and safety staff position, which was denied via 4-3 vote.
Last year, the town’s expensive and controversial third-party operational review concluded the town was understaffed in the human resources department, and could face hefty fines if they are audited by the Workplace Safety Insurance Board.
To avoid the costly fines, the recommendation was to create a full-time health and safety position, which would cost about $85,000 annually.
The town’s one-man human resources department, Tom Mather, previously said St. Catharines found itself in a similar situation which he said cost the city “well into the six-figures to come into compliance” and contained more than 100 health and safety orders.
According to the WSIB, an employer is considered being “at-risk” if its frequency of serious injuries exceeds 1.99 per year for every 100 employees. Fort Erie exceeded that guideline for two of the last four years, with an average of 2.21 in 2011 and 3.11 in 2008.
Despite the pressure to add a full-time health and safety person to the roster, council eventually opted to save about $37,000 and go with a part-time position.
“You have to learn to walk before you can run,” said Hill, who was in favour of opting for the part-time position for one year to assess the town’s actual health and safety needs, and explore making the position full-time in the 2014 budget.
“We can evolve this into a full-time position if we need to, but first let’s take a year so we can better understand the responsibilities and requirements of the role, because maybe this person will be quite capable of doing what needs to be done on a part-time basis,” said Hill.
Collard said he was pleased with how the budget turned out, even if people didn’t always get what they wanted. Collard, for example, pushed for funding to support the town’s many abandoned cemeteries, but was blocked by the other side.
“I don’t think anyone is going to walk away from the budget process truly happy, because everyone had things they did and didn’t want to see in there,” said Collard.
“There was some give and take, and I’m pleased to see the $400,000 go into reserves, it was a good compromise and gets us started on working towards closing the infrastructure gap,” he added.