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Massive tax hikes facing Burlington taxpayers

Taxpayers in Burlington are facing some big tax increases over the next five years. Burlington City Manager Tim Commisso and treasurer Joan Ford have doubled down with an aggressive proposed long term budget scenario that will see property taxes increase by nearly 7 percent in each of the next two years, dropping to an average annual tax increase of just under 5 percent in the subsequent three years. This is coming on the heels of a decision to take on an $80 million community centre project for Bateman School, the magnitude of which was kept from the public throughout the election year of 2023.

A news release pitching the big tax hikes, quotes Commisso and Ford stating, “We need to maintain and repair city infrastructure. For key services like bylaw enforcement, we are simply not meeting community expectations. The time is now to invest in needed improvements. The 2023 and 2024 budget will both be “catch-up” budgets. This will enable the city to make investments that protect and improve our future.”

Community consultation

The reference to community unmet expectations is the result of a survey that attracted about 500 responses that was up on the city’s website from July to December. The survey showed an overall satisfaction with the city services.  Just over half said they were willing to pay more taxes to enhance or maintain services and that appears to be what staff are hanging their hat onto in claiming support for the spending increases.

In dollar terms the city’s spending in 2023 will increase by nearly $26 Million, jumping from$191.6 million to $217.3 million.  The report recommends increasing staff by 51 FTEs. The report suggests Burlington has HR challenges with burnout, and uncompetitive compensation. Like other municipalities Burlington is challenged by staff who are no longer willing to work in person. Municipalities are competing for talent using number of remote work days as an inducement, and Burlington is no exception with a number of senior staff working remotely.

In late November and early December the city’s departments staged a series of council briefings in which they recapped their activity and spending for 2022. The briefings also discussed the unique challenges faced by the city divisions but did not discuss 2023 spending.

Burlington councillors receive operating and capital budgets in a format that stresses service category instead of department by department.

Debt growing, reserves shrinking

The $80 million Robert Bateman community centre project is one reason the city will probably have to increase its self-imposed debt ceiling of 12.5 percent for a couple of years. The Bateman projects will cost $8 million in debt charges and operating costs over the next four years. The magnitude and cost of the project was never shared with the Burlington public until after the October election. Early in 2022 Councillor Shawna Stolte was sanctioned for blurting out a possible price tag of $50 million which was apparently shared with council at an in-camera presentation in December 2021. As it turns out the councillor was $30 million short in her estimation of costs for the renovations to the former high school.

All this comes as the staff report calling for the tax increase, notes that the reserve fund for capital projects has dwindled to $28.8 million against the $104 million that should be in the fund if the city were to adhere to the target of 2 percent of the value of city infrastructure per year.

Tight timelines

Burlington Council won’t have much time to drill down on the budget. Staff are recommending the budget be approved by committee by February 9 and by council on February 14. Shortlisting contractors for the Bateman project will take place in the next few weeks. The plan appears to be to front-load the really bad news into the first two years of the current council term, but the projected tax increases in the last two years are only slightly better. Taxes will increase a total of 24 percent in the next 4 years –double the combined increases in the past four years.

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