City tax increase at 4.42%; three reasons I voted against it

Goes to council Jan. 23

The city portion of your taxes will see an increase of 4.42% if council approves the operating budget on Jan. 23. The budget received preliminary approval at a budget committee meeting Jan. 19 on a 5-2 vote, with myself and the Ward 4 councillor voting against. Once the city portion is blended with the region and education portions, the overall tax increase is 2.56%.

The total operating budget is $251,794,527 with revenues primarily coming from government grants, user fees, and property tax. Property tax revenue funds 65% of the total budget. The tax levy for this year is $152,794,527, a 4.42% increase over 2016.

The capital budget was approved in December, at $56 million, with a debt requirement of $9.7 million; $33.2 million of the capital budget comes from the operating budget, the balance from reserves, government funding and other sources.

Some key highlights of both budgets are below, with My Take:

Operating budget:

  • 1.25% increase for infrastructure funding
  • $4.8 million for the annual levy for the Joseph Brant Hospital redevelopment (2% of the 2017 budget)
  • Inflationary pressures of 2.09%, including higher electricity and water rates, and union and non-union compensation increases. Human resource costs represent roughly 45% of the base budget; the HR increase was 2.7% which includes performance adjustments, payroll tax, pension and group benefits. There is no automatic cost of living increase.
  • $561,000 for upgrades to the city’s AMANDA information technology system.
  • $550,000 for project management resources including new staff to implement the strategic plan.
  • $254,000 for care of the urban forest to keep up with demand (including pruning, plantings, removal).
  • $5000 per ward in funding for ongoing community events recommended by the ward councillor and approved by council. A staff direction I brought to provide some criteria for ongoing events was defeated.
Draft rendering of the Elgin St Promenade.

Capital budget:

  • $2.2 million in renewal of stormwater infrastructure plus $3.6 million related to growth projects. Assists with low impact development and the rehabilitation and preservation of the city’s creeks and streams.
  • $1,406,075 for Customer Relations Management system.  The system will give customers easier access to city staff and the services the city provides, and provide measurements on how the city is delivering services to help support business decision making.
  • $450,000 for the Elgin Street Promenade, a bike/walking path that will extend from the Centennial Bikeway through to Brant Street. The first leg crosses the parking lot on the North side of Village Square between Elizabeth and Pearl streets. Canada 150 funding amounts to $37,000. The Burlington Downtown Business Association is contributing $50,000.
  • $450,000 for parkette at J.W. Boich School. In 2012, council approved the purchase of a portion of the surplus school board at this school. Funding is for tendering and construction of the parkette which will include a creative playground, walkways small shade structure, seating area (s) and plantings that complements existing vegetation.
  • $465,000 for new vehicles and equipment to manage the city’s urban forest and tree canopy.
  • $350,000 for a transit plan, and updated cycling master plan.
  • $320,500 for new vehicles and equipment for sports field enhancements
  • $300,000 to speed up delivery of traffic calming projects. Currently, 45 streets are on the outstanding traffic calming request list which will be reviewed in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017 to determine if traffic calming measures are warranted. Staff projects 30 of these streets will meet the technical warrant criteria for the installation of traffic calming measures. Extra funding will allow traffic calming measures to be installed.
  • $120,000 for the LED Street Light Conversion Program. Based on present energy rates, the estimated unit cost of the conversion and financing rates, the simple payback is estimated at 7.5 years.
  • $120,000 for Walkers Line and Number 2 Sideroad improvements to support increased usability and safer access to the Bruce Trail.
  • $80,000 for a new community garden in Ireland Park.
  • $75,000 for a video projector, switcher and video screens for the main theatre at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre.
  • $55,000 for cycling initiatives, including creation and maintenance of the Bike Map and Bike App, increasing supply of bike parking, annual data management, development and expansion of programs to support active transportation, and promotion of the City’s Active Transportation strategy through various education and awareness campaigns (i.e. Active & Sustainable School Travel).
  • $45,000 for electric vehicle charging stations to assist with greening of the city’s fleet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions for city operations.
Throwing the first pitch at a cricket game in Central Park.

New base budget items proposed by councillors (ongoing funding, tax supported):

  • $200,000 to improve the condition of playfields. My motion. My Take: I moved this motion for several reasons: Staff advised committee we are not meeting our current standards of upkeep and lag behind area municipalities. Residents have raised concerns about the condition of our fields, especially after two years of rate increases without significant improvements. A report is coming this spring to propose improved standards; staff had initially intended to bring the full cost of these ($600,000) to next year’s budget. I brought the motion this year to begin improvements immediately. It received unanimous support.
  • $80,000 for the upkeep of trailer style washrooms in Burloak Park and the east end of Spencer Smith Park (to replace the existing porta-potties). Additional costs can be accommodated within the existing budget. (Ward 5 Councillor)
Unveiling the Canada 150 logo at the Freeman Station.

One-time funding from the tax rate stabilization fund (no impact on the tax increase); proposed by staff unless otherwise noted:

  • $561,000 for upgrades to the city’s AMANDA information technology system.
  • $75,000 for a land economics consultant to review development proposals to, among other things, analyse financial viability or assist in calculating community benefits that can be collected when zoning is upgraded.
  • $50,000 to the Friends of Freeman Station to finish the work related to the basement concrete floor and a fire door, to allow the station to open by July 1 as part of Canada 150 celebrations. (Mayor)
  • $25,000 to resolve errors on the Burlington Cenotaph. City will fund the work which will be overseen by the local Canadian Legion in cooperation with Veterans Affairs. (Ward 1 Councillor).

Select approved motions: (No budget impact)

(For a complete list see the minutes of the Jan. 19 current budget meeting and Dec. 19 council meeting for capital budget approval).

  • Staff direction to explore costs and potential sponsorship for transit service on Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, and report back to the 2018 budget. My motion: Carried 5-2, with Ward 1 and 4 councillors not in support. My Take: I brought this motion after residents complained that Christmas and New Year’s Eve currently has no service. If we want people to take the bus we must provide year-round service. Some communities have corporate sponsors pay for service on holidays. In Toronto, for example, New Year’s Eve service this year was provided free by a liquor company.
  • Motion for staff to review the Trails Master Plan and funding requirements in time for the 2018 budget. My motion. Carried. My Take: Staff have developed a plan to add pathways (asphalt or otherwise) to current and potential off-road walking/cycling trails throughout the city, but this plan is woefully underfunded. This motion will help move forward implementation of trail improvements throughout the city.
  • Direct staff to explore costs of adding barriers around upper floors of the downtown parking garage to prevent walking, throwing and other dangerous/nuisance activity on the ledge. My motion. Carried. My Take; Residents living across from the parking garage have reported dangerous and noise/nuisance-related activity in the garage; barriers would discourage this activity and help protect public safety.
  • Motion for staff to report on the viability of implementing red light cameras at city intersections, and report back for 2018. My motion. Carried. My Take: The region has seen reduction of collisions after installing red light cameras at intersections on regional roads throughout Halton, and in Burlington. This motion will consider whether select problem intersections in the city would benefit from red light camera technology which electronically records the license plate and issues tickets to people who run red lights.
  • Motion to review City Talk as a communication tool. Moved by Mayor. Carried.
  • Motion to review the city’s grant to the Joseph Brant Museum in light of the decision to close the museum for 2017. Moved by Mayor. Carried. My Take: I supported the motion. The museum was closed in July due to the roadwork on Lakeshore and never reopened. The city was not informed, and during budget, we gave the museum the standard operating grant increase for an open and operating museum. Thus the review is warranted. We found out by accident a few days ago that the museum has no plans to reopen until it hears whether upper level government funding has been approved for its redevelopment.

Failed motions:

(For a complete list see the minutes of the Jan. 19 current budget meeting and Dec. 19 council meeting for capital budget approval):

  • Remove $550,000 in funding from base budget for strategic plan initiatives; direct city manager to bring specific requests forward during budget year for approval. My motion; fails 6-1) Modified version from Ward 4 councillor to cut to budget to $300,000 fails 4-3, with myself, Ward 4 and 3 councillor in support. My Take: I believe this could be accomplished within existing resources, with a dedicated project management team created by reorganizing internal staff and providing training, and hiring if necessary. The $550,000 was a guess at costs; Insufficient details were provided about the cost, any cost savings and how residents would directly benefit. By putting this in the base, it’s more difficult to monitor and make changes if the amount is more than necessary.
  • As requested by the Burlington Seniors Advisory Committee, implement free transit for seniors during off-peak hours, Monday to Friday, 10-3, at an estimated cost of $48,000-$72,000. My motion: fails 6-1 with councillors arguing to wait until the transit plan plan review later this year. My Take: We don’t need to wait till the transit master plan, which deals with routes and service standards. The free off-peak fare would allow us to put more people on the bus now, when busses are not filled and we have fixed expenses to run those busses whether 5 or 50 people are on board. More people on the bus directly implements one of our strategic priorities, and helps us with our gas tax revenue which is based on ridership.
  • Staff direction for transit staff to consider the ideas in the Burlington Seniors Advisory Committee paper on transit as part of the upcoming transit master plan review. My motion. Fails 4-3, with the mayor and Ward 3 councillor in support. My Take: Council had an opportunity to recognize the extensive effort put in by the BSAC on their transit paper, and to signal to the BSAC that there are valuable ideas and research that should be considered in the transit review. I’m disappointed council didn’t come together to signal their support.
  • Restore 70/30 federal gas tax split to increase transit funding. My motion. Failed. My Take: We know we are going to hit a funding wall on transit unless we invest more or reallocate current gas tax funding. Both are likely needed. We won’t be able to correct the shortfall in one year, so we need to chip away at it. Restoring the 70/30 funding was recommended by the Burlington Seniors Advisory Committee. Council chose to wait till after the transit master plan review. I will consider a similar motion in the 2018 budget.
  • Add four new digital speed boxes per year. My motion. Failed. My Take: Residents report reduced speeding on their streets with the presence of digital signs showing speed of vehicles. We have less than a dozen of these signs for the whole city. Adding several more would have helped to keep up with demand.
  • Move Handi-van expansion from 2018 to 2017. My motion. Failed. My Take: We know Handi-van requests are increasing; roughly 30-40 trips per month are declined. This negatively affects the ability of people who have mobility challenges to fully participate in our community.
  • Increase budgeted investment earnings of $5.3 million by $200,000. Moved by Ward 4 councillor. Fails 5-2. My Take:  I supported this motion. Staff provided information that investment earnings have exceeded budget by over $1 million several years. Increasing budget helps reduce taxes and comes closer to actual performance.We either address this issue now, or later.
  • Eliminate 2 (all) print editions of City Talk. Moved by Ward 1 councillor. Fails 6-1. 
  • Reduce provision to cultural reserve fund from $100,000 to $50,000 annually. Moved by Ward 4 councillor. Fails 6-1.
  • Staff direction to reduce leaf collection to five weeks, adjust the program to Nov. 6-Dec. 9 and ensure South of the QEW is picked up during the last two weeks due to leaves dropping later as a result of warming effect of the lake. Moved by Ward 4 Councillor. Fails 5-2. My Take: I supported this due to the experience this year, when the leaf pickup ended before leaves had dropped. Staff on their own are looking at some adjustments to the program. Stay tuned for details.
  • Staff direction to convert Lakeshore Rd westbound to exclusive right at Brant, and eastbound curb to exclusive right at Maple Ave. Moved by Ward 4 councillor; fails 4-3 with myself, and Ward 3 councillor in support. My Take: I supported given the concerns I have heard from residents about driver behaviour in the merge lanes along Lakeshore.

My Take:

This is a “good news, bad news” budget: On the plus side, we are investing more in infrastructure and our hospital, and adjusting for inflation.  We can also immediately improve the condition of our sports fields, which has fallen behind our own standards and community groups have asked council to address for two years. Staff trimmed $1 million in savings from the budget, though I would have liked more detail on what was cut and what options were available.

The bad news? The increase is too high and fails to put residents first. Here are three reasons I voted against it:

  1. Committee put internal management ahead of direct services for residents. Committee easily supported $550,000 for a project management team to oversee strategic plan implementation but voted down a modest proposal to offer free transit for seniors – something that would actually implement one of our strategic initiatives.When the tax increase is this high, it must put direct benefit to residents first.
  2. Increase is too high, well above inflation, especially with seniors on fixed incomes and many residents with incomes increasing only with inflation. I was aiming for less than 4%, achievable by removing the $550,000 in project management, and increasing the capital gains budget by $200,000 (proposed by Ward 4 councillor).
  3. Not enough accountability. There are large increases in areas like technology and tree management but it’s not entirely clear what we should expect in terms of improved service levels. The largest new item in the operating budget is $550,000 for the project management team, which was approved without any details of what we would actually get, how residents would be better off (other than it would potentially save money) and how much it would cost. The $550,000 was simply a guess at costs, and it could be lower. Contrast this with the detailed and extensive data requested of the community for the free transit program. The rationale for the project management spending was that it would save costs down the road through more efficient implementation of the strategic initiatives. I believe we should be able to realize the cost savings now, by reallocating staffing roles to create a dedicated internal project management team. As a result of discussion on my motion to remove the project management item, there was a commitment for quarterly reports to council. That will help, but the challenge is that once we say yes to adding an ongoing budget item it gets buried in the base budget. There are few mechanisms in place to review whether the item is providing expected value and to cut the spending if it fails to deliver.

Written by Marianne Meed Ward

I was inspired to seek public office because I believe, like so many of you, “I can do something about that” on the issues we face. As councilor, my role is to take a stand on what’s best for residents and go to bat for it. Pushback is inevitable from those who don’t have the community’s interests at heart. I will stand with you and for you, to achieve the best interests of our city, without caving to unacceptable compromise in the name of consensus.


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  1. My blood almost boils at the over $500K for undefined and unjustified spending by the city manager.Where is the fiscal neutrality and oversight going to come from.

  2. As David (above) suggests, Council needs to work backwards from an acceptable or even zero increase and make the necessary hard decisions to achieve this level of spending. For too long Council has taken advantage of the low regional budget increases to avoid making tough spending decisions. Eventually, the growth in Halton and the associated development fees will come to an end. At that time any necessary expenditures on aging infrastructure will severely impact taxes. We only need to look to Hamilton to see the high property taxes associated with aging infrastructure.
    I am unsure why, beyond a responsible increase for salaries, it is acceptable to continue spending money on discretionary items and “window dressing”, justifying it by telling residents “It’s in line with inflation”. As you correctly point out, many people do not get income increases equal to inflation. In spite of living in a pretty affluent part of the City, both of my immediate neighbours are out of work. Try telling them that “It’s in line with inflation”.
    Window dressing? Consider the pier, when Burlington had miles of existing waterfront trails on which one could walk. The Performing Arts Centre is budgeted to lose money when there are numerous others in nearby cities. The City brags of being environmentally conscious and is even spending $45,000 on new charging stations for its electric vehicles, but continues to provide ice surfaces in the summer for skating!! (Is this any different than the pictures of indoor snow skiing hills in Saudi Arabia that we laughed at a few years ago?) So many of these amenities, paid for by many, are in fact used by a small percentage of the population and even future residents due to the $9.7 million debt increase!!
    I fear that Council’s attitude is a symptom of our time. Spend now, run up the credit card and don’t worry about the future.

  3. I totally agree regarding the $550K where are the details appears to be a slush fund for city manager forever with no details/plans unbelievable in the private sector to have such an item. Hopefully after next election it will be cut from budget along with some of your peers.

  4. I am not surprised by the budget number as it continues a path where this Council cannot or will not try and establish a budget that respects the economy and low inflation numbers (i.e. less than 2%). I wonder does Council ever discuss a budget matched to inflation and what the implications would be and then communicate them? As a long time citizen of the community i am more than capable of understanding budget alternatives and decisions that need to be made in the best interests of its citizens and City at large.

What's your take?