City bud­get on agenda sooner rather than later

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - FRONT PAGE - KARENA WAL­TER STAN­DARD STAFF

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.”

Sis­coe

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