Budget sessions will offer a look at city’s path forward
Approving a budget is the biggest event in the annual cycle of city council business.
The $282-million operating budget Peterborough city council is about to consider carries even more weight than usual. A newly elected council will be looking at a spending plan drafted under the guidance of the council it replaced.
And this council is headed by a new and much younger mayor, has several new, more liberal councillors and was elected on a general community perception that it would be more progressive.
That suggests the budget could undergo more than the usual amount of change when it is poked and prodded during several nights of debate beginning Monday.
Homeowners are most interested in the tax increase they will face.
The current proposal is for a 2.5-per-cent tax hike, which is roughly in line with inflation and continues a trend of several years that the community seems to accept.
Council is unlikely to stray far from that reasonable target, which translates to a tax increase for the average homeowner of just under $100.
If there is an appetite for higher taxes to pay for new services or projects, every extra percentage point would produce $1.6 million.
In other words, bumping the tax hike to 4.5 per cent would generate $3.2 million for new programs and cost an average homeowner an extra $80 on their tax bill.
Another way to pay for new work is to chop or defer items now in the draft budget.
That doesn’t apply to all $282 million, however. Large chunks of revenue and spending are dictated by programs the provincial and federal governments pay for and the city manages, as well as fees collected for specific purposes.
Take those away and council has $150 million to move around. If just five per cent of that money is considered “in play” for cuts and shifts, council has $7.5 million to work with.
Change on that scale, even within an existing budget that held taxes in line, would be monumental compared with past history.
However, it would just about satisfy the 20 people who showed up at a public meeting Wednesday night to urge council to put money into areas they believe are high priorities.
Many of those projects were related to housing and homelessness. Another was an ambitious “ask” for a $32 surtax on every household that would create a $1.3 million “green” fund to pay for carbon reduction initiatives.
Then there are the $770,000 worth of projects that various city departments identified as high priorities but aren’t in the budget, ranging from longer library hours and more ambulance service to an extra $104,000 for the local public health unit.
Paying for one new service without a tax increase doesn’t necessarily mean cutting somewhere else. Council also has the option of shifting its priorities in capital and operating spending.
This year, $10 million in revenue from the city-owned electrical utility and the new Shorelines Casino will all be dedicated to paying for current and future capital projects. That’s a prudent approach, but council could decide to shift some of the $10 million toward current needs.
Budgeting is a council’s most effective tool for setting the city’s future path. What comes out of next week’s sessions will indicate to what degree, and how quickly, this council wants to change that path.