The bottom line: Sarnia taxpayers will pay 2.31% more on their tax bill in 2011.
They'll also pay slightly less (but not likely noticeable) for water and sewage.
And yes, there will still be a Children's Animal Farm in Canatara Park and a Strangway Community Centre in 2011.
Sarnia City Councillors, all of whom were re-elected in last November's election, spent Tuesday looking at the $116 million budget and asking questions, typically to Treasurer Brian McKay or other major department heads (including fire and police).
In the end, the budget increase, which translates into $19.66 per $100,000 assessment on a residential property, wasn't what zero percent increase advocates might have hoped for, but it might have been worse.
One of the biggest culprits from a category standpoint may be the cost of employee benefits, which continues to rise and, if nothing changes, is seemingly unstoppable.
Even as the city tries to shop for benefits providers, City Manager Lloyd Fennel said "we didn't get the quality of the bids" expected. "They see more risk than they did in the past."
On the good news front, the city will begin to tangibly benefit from its "fiscal fitness" program that included a strategy to pay down debt and move the money it had previously used to reserves, funds from which future capital projects will be paid.
"That is a great news story," Treasurer McKay told council, highlighting a new budget line that showed just over $410,000 going directly to reserves.
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley quipped: "Don't count on that being the headline."
Bradley did, however, acknowledge that the milestone is, in fact, newsworthy.
"It's a testament to this council and future councils that stuck to the fiscal fitness program," he said.
On the water and sewage budget (which is separated out from operating and capital budgets). Councillor Anne Marie Gilis urged council to adopt a lower ratio of fixed to variable water and sewage rates for 2011, citing an "unbelievable impact on people" affected by dramatically increased water and sewage rates in 2010, in some cases more than 100%.
Indeed, one comparison made by Councillor Terry Burrell showed a cost of $371 for water and sewage in 2009 going up to $843 in 2010.
Various councillors argued that to go back to previous formulas, or even to head in that direction, would be a step backward and would risk bringing back an issue that council believes it has finally wrestled to the ground.
"We nailed it last year," said Councillor Bev MacDougall, talking about the rate change that shifted the billing formula from largely consumption to the 80% fixed/20% variable costs that exist today. "I think they're fair now and we will adapt and move on."
Even the argument that large water users, who benefit from the new formula adopted last year, wouldn't find an increase unpalatable had its detractors.
"In a tight economy, those are the businesses we want to attract," said Councillor MacDougall. "They look at costs like this."
The slight (1.08%) decrease is largely the result of the Capel Street reconstruction being delayed this year.