Tax levy ot­ter in­crease?

Grant­ing Aquatar­ium re­quest for $400,000 would bump levy hike to 3.3%

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - FRONT PAGE - RON­ALD ZAJAC

In­clud­ing the Aquatar­ium’s new $400,000 re­quest in the 2018 bud­get would add more than a full per­cent­age point to Brockville’s tax levy in­crease, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port by city staff.

Putting only half that re­quest in the bud­get would add 0.57 per cent, the re­port adds.

As of the most re­cent up­date Nov. 28, Brockville’s 2018 bud­get cur­rently projects the levy, the to­tal dol­lar amount raised from prop­erty tax­pay­ers, at $35,369,222.

That’s a 2.17 per cent in­crease over last year, rep­re­sent­ing an im­prove­ment over an ini­tially pro­jected in­crease of of 2.99 per cent.

The staff re­port notes provin­cial reg­u­la­tions re­quire the city to make im­prove­ments to the sign at the mu­nic­i­pally run ceme­tery, adding $2,000 to the bud­get and bring­ing the levy hike to 2.18 per cent.

The Aquatar­ium re­quest is the other bud­get add-on now in dis­cus­sion – although it’s by no means likely to be the last of what coun­cil calls “in­cre­men­tal items” to be dis­cussed be­fore pass­ing the bud­get.

Last week, Aquatar­ium ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Bill Roger­son warned the fa­cil­ity will run out of cash head­ing into next spring if it doesn’t get an ex­tra cash boost of $400,000.

Of­fi­cials at the Aquatar­ium are ask­ing city hall for that amount to cover higher-than-ex­pected costs.

Roger­son last week told coun­cil the fund­ing, along with some flex­i­bil­ity on the timing of pay­ments in order to en­sure cash flow, could al­low the Aquatar­ium to get to where sim­i­lar fa­cil­i­ties are, with reg­u­lar rev­enue com­ing in from pri­vate sources and an en­dow­ment fund as well as ad­mis­sions.

The Aquatar­ium, a $25.5-mil­lion river-themed ma­rine in­ter­pre­tive cen­tre, held its grand open­ing May 6 of last year.

Higher-than-an­tic­i­pated costs now mean that, for the first two years of op­er­a­tion, the Aquatar­ium is pro­ject­ing a deficit of $150,000, as well as a year-three deficit of $250,000.

City coun­cil last year in­creased its cap­i­tal con­tri­bu­tion to the fa­cil­ity by an­other $1 mil­lion, bring­ing its to­tal con­tri­bu­tion to $4,643,000.

Along with that cap­i­tal con­tri­bu­tion, the city ’s an­nual con­tri­bu­tion to the Aquatar­ium’s op­er­at­ing bud­get is $210,000, $60,000 of it in kind rather than cash.

Aquatar­ium of­fi­cials plan to lobby the prov­ince to in­crease the fa­cil­ity’s sta­tus to “Science East,” mod­elled on Science North in Sud­bury, a des­ig­na­tion that could open the door to more fund­ing.

Aquatar­ium man­age­ment is also sug­gest­ing it take over tourism ser­vices from the Brockville and Dis­trict Cham­ber of Com­merce, an idea that has met with some early re­sis­tance from coun­cil mem­bers.

The re­port headed to coun­cil presents two op­tions.

Adding in the en­tire Aquatar­ium re­quest for $400,000 would bump the levy up to $35,771,222, for a year-over-year in­crease of 3.33 per cent.

Giv­ing the tourism at­trac­tion half that amount – per­haps putting off the other $200,000 to the 2019 bud­get – would bring the levy to $35,571,222, for a 2.75-per-cent in­crease.

There was, as of late Mon­day af­ter­noon, no mo­tion on the agenda call­ing for ei­ther of these mea­sures.

Coun­cil­lor Ja­son Baker, one of the more cau­tious voices dur­ing last week’s Aquatar­ium dis­cus­sion, said he wants more de­tails from Aquatar­ium of­fi­cials.

“I want to hear more about how we’re go­ing to change things,” said Baker.

That in­cludes more de­tailed fi­nan­cial re­port­ing and a busi­ness plan.

“To me, they had a lot of eggs in one bas­ket,” added Baker, re­fer­ring to the Science East plan.

Giv­ing the fa­cil­ity money “doesn’t fix a sin­gle thing,” he said, but merely buys the Aquatar­ium time to come up with a plan to be less de­pen­dent on at­ten­dance as a rev­enue source.

“None of us know what the plan is,” added Baker.

Coun­cil­lor Jeff Earle, who sits on the Aquatar­ium steer­ing com­mit­tee, said there is a plan, but work on sus­tain­abil­ity has been de­layed by the fa­cil­ity ’s re­cently com­pleted cap­i­tal cam­paign.

Mean­while, the steer­ing com­mit­tee and Si­mon Fuller, a part­ner in the Aquatar­ium and owner of the ad­ja­cent Tall Ships Land­ing con­do­minium tower, are still try­ing to get to the bot­tom of an elec­tric­ity billing is­sue that has caused part of the short­fall and af­fects both prop­er­ties, said Earle.

Mayor David Hen­der­son said the en­tire is­sue bears fur­ther dis­cus­sion.

“It might make more sense from our point of view that we loan them the money,” said the mayor.

Hen­der­son down­played talk of clos­ing the Aquatar­ium, a prospect Roger­son brought up dur­ing last week’s dis­cus­sion, say­ing the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor was merely speak­ing plainly about the fa­cil­ity ’s fi­nan­cial chal­lenges.

In fact, the city is un­der an obli­ga­tion to keep it run­ning for a num­ber of years be­cause of its fund­ing deal with the provin­cial and fed­eral gov­ern­ments, said Hen­der­son.

“There is an el­e­ment of too big to fail now,” he added.

FILE PHOTO

Mayor David Hen­der­son: Aquatar­ium "too big to fail."

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