By J.D. BOOTH
When Sarnia City Councillor Jon McEachran made a motion last month to have city staff provide the blueprint for a zero budget increase, it was about providing a dose of reality and "what it would take" answers to the no tax increase question.
McEachran and his fellow re-elected councillors, who unanimously endorsed the Nov. 15 motion, got just that this week in the form of a comprehensive report from City Director of Finance Brian McKay (pictured at right with Mayor Mike Bradley).
The answers aren't pretty.
Indeed, Bradley, who along with McKay and City Manager Lloyd Fennell sat with media representatives on Tuesday (after councillors received the requested information), called elements of the requested "recipe" for a zero-percentage increase "draconian."
To be sure, city staff, Fennell emphasized in a cover letter to the report to council, are not recommending that course of action, which would require a budget reduction of just over $2.1 million to achieve a "zero" increase in city taxes.
Staff recommended instead a series of cuts/adjustments that would result in a 3.38 per cent increase, including a 1.89 per cent increase in existing programs and services, a shade below the all-Canada rate Consumer Price Index of 1.9 percent and a full 1 percent below the Ontario average of 2.9 per cent.
But even though councillors did receive the "zero tax increase" option they requested, at least one of the "scenarios" that McKay offered—a nearly $550,000 cut in the fire department—would in all likelihood be disallowed by the Ontario Fire Marshall's Office (which by law has oversight authority).
Other possible "zero tax increase" options include a scenario where two storm sewer projects (Jean Ave. and Colborne Rd.) would be eliminated (slashing a total of $360,000 from the 2011 capital budget) plus another $700,000 in capital projects involving rehabilitation of various city structures and shoreline protection.
That scenario also includes $700,000 being stripped from money planned for construction work on city streets and a $100,000 contribution to reserve funds.
There is, McKay's report outlined, a cascading effect to some of the cuts needed to bring forward a zero tax increase, including future projects that would be otherwise be funded from reserves (but wouldn't because the reserves would be largely depleted).
The same scenario that would involve reductions in the fire department would call for cutting nearly $100,000 in salary and benefit costs in the finance department, and roughly $55,000 from the clerk's department (covering a variety of planned reserve contributions along with printing, casual salary and even cemetery maintenance).
Councillors meeting next Tuesday for a comprehensive budget meeting will also be able to consider cutting nearly $950,000 from the city's engineering and public works plan, the biggest item being $700,000 in planned construction costs under the heading "street maintenance."
Even the Strangway Centre and the Canatara Animal Farm were not immune from staff scrutiny in their quest for the quest for a zero tax increase formula (both city icons were put on what is at least a potential chopping block for council to consider).
For his part, McEachran, the motion's sponsor, said he was pleased by the comprehensive nature of the reports to council. "While I’m not in favour of making cuts to the Animal Farm, the Strangway Centre, infrastructure renewal or most other options listed by staff, this report gives council the tools we need to diligently 'turn over every stone' so that when we conclude our final budget deliberations, we can honestly tell the people that we have considered every option."
Bradley, although agreeing that the proposed cuts "send the wrong message" to a city that he sees as progressing, not going backward, nevertheless sees the exercise as a positive one.
"I do think (McEachran's) motion was appropriate because it paints the picture—if you're going to have a zero-percent tax increase budget, these are the things you're going to have to cut."
But Bradley also said the results of the last election—where not only he but the entire council was re-elected—should be considered a vote of confidence in staying the course. "The voters essentially said they were pleased with the direction of the leadership of the city."
McEachran said he and his fellow councillors now have an answer to questions asked by numerous taxpayers. "They want to know why there should be any increase in the budget at all. Having staff prepare that report means council will be looking the cold hard facts in the face instead of making abstract guesses and ignoring those who are most familiar with the administrative needs of the city."