Half-a-million bucks of taxpayers’ money isn’t exactly chump change. That’s why Burlington Ward 2 Councillor Marianne Meed Ward believes some of it should have been spent to assist senior citizens, some of whom are struggling to make ends meet.
The City’s $152.8 million budget, approved recently in a 5-2 recorded vote, includes $550,000 for project management to supervise changes at City Hall designed to implement Burlington’s 25-year Strategic Plan.
Only Meed Ward and Ward 4 Councillor Jack Dennison voted against the budget
City manager James Ridge said two or three experienced project managers, people who have the skills to manage more than one project at a time, will be hired. The Strategic Plan was created following heavy input from the community through a series of workshops.
Ridge said the City has almost 140 business systems, many of which are going through transition at any one time.
It has 1,000 employees altogether. Between 300 and 400 of them have to be re-trained.
“There might be some money for consultants, but very little,” he said. “We only hire consultants where we don’t have the internal expertise. The vast majority of our consultants are professional engineers.”
Meed Ward has a different point of view.
“I think this could have been done internally,” she said. “And we couldn’t find money to give free transit to seniors in off-peak hours. We need to do better for our senior residents.”
During preliminary budget discussions Meed Ward had advocated providing free bus rides to seniors between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. from Monday to Friday.
Ward 6 Councillor Blair Lancaster, however, stressed the importance of the $550,000 set aside for the strategic plan, calling it a major move forward, and said otherwise she believes the budget represents what city residents want.
Ward 1 Councillor Rick Craven said he can understand why Meed Ward is disappointed her recommendation for seniors was not approved.
“But our job is to listen to all the people, as she frequently reminds us,” he said. “We have a seniors advisory committee recommending we do this, but on the other hand an integrated transportation advisory committee that is recommending we not do it.”
Mayor Rick Goldring said Burlington’s lack of assessment growth is the major reason the tax rate cannot be lowered. This year the increase in the City budget is 4.42 per cent.
Goldring said only a 1.5 per cent growth in assessment has been predicted for Burlington in 2017, but staff is forecasting four times that amount in later years.
He said there is no more green space left in Burlington for building, so the City must focus on intensification (filling in empty spaces) for its growth.
“But the cost of intensification is 38 per cent less than building on greenfields,” he said.
The mayor also said a report done in the U.S. a few years ago concluded that if all municipalities in Ontario want to keep up their existing services and deal with the $60 billion provincewide infrastructure deficit, it would take an 8.5 per cent budget increase per year for the next 10 years.
“That will not happen in Burlington,” he said.
The City has set aside $1.25 million for infrastructure improvements this year.
Dennison praised City staff for being able to cut $1 million from the budget before it even got to a committee of council.
Dennison said although he is not happy with the 4.42 per cent budget increase, he is encouraged that the City’s annual contribution of $4.8 million for expansion of Joseph Brant Hospital will start to decline in 2019 and the savings will eventually make their way back into infrastructure.
He also said he is disappointed revisions to the leaf collection program did not make it into the budget.
“The leaves are being kept on trees longer by moderating temperatures near the lake,” he said.
Dennison’s ward includes a lot of heavily treed large homes on Lakeshore Boulevard. In the last couple of years city workers have been collecting leaves well into December.
Ward 3 Councillor John Taylor said the City’s 20-year goal is not going to be met unless council introduces more than a 1.25 per cent increase on infrastructure spending.
Ward 5 Councillor Paul Sharman pointed out that although the City’s spending increase will be equivalent to 4.42 per cent, the actual increase taxpayers will see on their bills is only 2.56 per cent, since there is no increase in the education portion of the bill and the Region of Halton’s hike is minimal.