City budget on agenda sooner rather than later
St. Catharines is moving up budget talks this year with the goal of getting its money matters finalized before Christmas.
Coun. Mat Siscoe, chair of the standing budget committee, said the new timeline — which will see council debate and finalize the 2018 budget in late fall instead of next March — will make it easier for staff to plan their year.
Staff has access to new budget dollars each Jan. 1, but in some cases the budget isn’t approved until March 31.
“It’s always been a little bit strange to me that our staff would have spent a quarter of their budget before the budget has actually been set,” Siscoe said Wednesday.
“We decided we wanted to have a budget in place beforehand, so staff knew exactly what’s on the books and what they’re able to spend.”
The downside for council is they won’t know the actual city revenues until early in the new year. Siscoe said they’ll be working with the expenditure budget and revenue forecasts from staff.
In the long run, he said it’s still better for staff and the city to know what dollars are budgeted before the actual calendar year begins.
City council passed an operating budget with a 3.06 per cent city tax increase in 2017. The expenditure increase was 1.6 per cent, less than the rate of inflation.
Challenges cited were less revenues and changes to property reassessments. This year, the budget standing committee — made up of six councillors including the mayor — set a goal for staff to hit an expenditure increase of 1.5 per cent, based on rate of inflation.
Siscoe said that number likely won’t be the end result because there are mitigating factors, particularly the province’s changes to minimum wage.
That increase in wages — currently set to rise from $11.60 in October to $14 in January — will impact parks and recreation the hardest because it hires a lot of summer students.
Siscoe said they’re hoping staff can make the rate of inflation but realistically it’s going to be hard to keep it there.
“We’re trying to mitigate expectations and just let everybody know that unfortunately, when the province raises wages for everybody there’s an impact on the tax bill.”
Siscoe said a two per cent expenditure increase is probably closer to where the city is at when all is said and done, unless there’s an appetite for service cuts, which he doesn’t believe is the case.
Other challenges may be utility costs and again, property assessment appeals.
Siscoe said the city’s revenues are on track and they’ve built up a relatively healthy reserve over the last three years for emergencies.
Because of the new operating
budget timelines, public engagement is being sought earlier in the process. Open houses and a telephone town hall are being held in October instead of January.
Siscoe said the town hall has been well received in the past and he hopes they get a good response again.
“Hopefully people give us their opinions, because at the end of the day we prioritize the dollars to go to places where people tell us are the priorities.”