Thunder Bay 2019 municipal budget passes 1st vote after marathon session
Existing taxpayers to fund spending increase of 1.99% over 2018
It took a marathon eight-hour budget session, but city councillors in Thunder Bay, Ont., finally arrived at a municipal budget with which they were satisfied as the 2019 document passed its first crucial vote.
After a number of amendments to add and remove items from the budget, council voted early Thursday morning to accept having existing city taxpayers fund an increase in spending of 1.99 per cent over last year. That figure began at 2.95 per cent when council first started poring over the budget in early January.
The actual increase in spending over last year is 2.3 per cent; the balance is made up of adjustments for assessment growth and the amount of available taxable properties.
That means the average homeowner will pay just over $70 more in property taxes this year. The budget still has to be ratified.
One of the key decisions was whether to add just over $1 million to the police budget so the local force can begin addressing recommendations made by the Ontario Independent Police Review Director in his highly-critical report of the way city police have dealt with Indigenous people.
On Jan. 16, that decision was deferred to Monday's meeting.
When it came time to vote on the matter, all 12 councillors present supported the increase. Mayor Bill Mauro was not at the table.
"I've received a lot of commentary — and certainly we heard some public deputations about whether or not we should be making this kind of investment," said Coun. Andrew Foulds, adding that the increased funding will help police officers do their jobs better as well as work toward "that transformation that we really want."
Support for the police budget increase also came from Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. In a letter to city councillors dated Jan. 21, Fiddler wrote that "[Police] chief [Sylvie] Hauth cannot be set up to fail at the outset due to a council that lacks the will to honour the reasonable request she has advanced."
"The citizens, officers and those affected by the past mistakes of the [Thunder Bay Police Service] deserve fundamental change," the letter said.
Not all of that increase to the police budget will come from the tax roll, however, as councillors also voted to cover projected one-time costs in the police service's request — totaling just over $249,000 — by using reserve funds.
Over $2 million in cuts
Prior to Wednesday's meeting, councillors were presented with a large list of further potential cuts, ranging from reducing committee budgets, cutting vacant staff positions and shortening hours at some city facilities to more drastic measures like deferring some roads projects, slashing late-night bus service and discontinuing snow plowing for residential roads and sidewalks.
Those options were divided into three lists, ranging from the least to the most intrusive.
With the exception of a couple of proposed cuts on that list, like reducing money for the food strategy and poverty reduction strategy and reducing hours at 55 Plus Centres, most cuts on the first list were approved, totaling over $1.6 million.
Some projects and services that were axed included:
- $150,000 for consultation and study for increased monitoring of area waterways and other open spaces
- $16,500 that will reduce family swim hours at Churchill Pool and hours of operation for the thunder slide at the Canada Games Complex
- $330,000 for the purchase of a new pumper truck for Thunder Bay Fire Rescue
- $20,700 for the city to hang Christmas lights in the downtown south core and Westfort and for the installation of hanging baskets in the two cores
- $45,000 in reductions to city budgets for WSIB and overtime.
Councillors also voted to save $10,000 and end the curb side battery collection initiative.
Several city staff positions were also eliminated — although all were either vacant or had yet to be hired for — including a senior planner, a provincial offences court collections clerk and an accountant.
One vacant staff position that remained on the books, despite two votes that could have eliminated it, was the active transportation mobility coordinator. That person is in charge of improving Thunder Bay's infrastructure and education for cycling and walking.
"Quite frankly, I don't want to live in a community that just provides core services and smooth roads to Walmart," Coun. Shelby Ch'ng said in defence of keeping the position. "This is extremely important that this position is left in the budget."
Some of the more extreme cuts, like discontinuing sidewalk and side street snow plowing never came up.
Quite frankly, I don't want to live in a community that just provides core services and smooth roads to Walmart- Coun. Shelby Ch'ng on proposed cut of mobility coordinator position
Another way councillors brought down the total amount that taxpayers will be asked to pay was to use $265,000 of a special $500,000 dividend from Tbaytel, with the balance going into reserve funds.
In total, administration said Wednesday night's deliberations shrunk the total budget by just over $1.5 million.
Mauro said councillors and administration have done a good job.
"I think we can all assume that the assistance that we're getting from senior levels of government are more than likely to go down than they are to go up," he said during closing remarks. "What we've achieved tonight ... might not sound significant, but I think to the community, they need to understand that we're willing to make some decisions."
"We really, what we accomplished tonight or we've accomplished over the course of the last four weeks or so ... really does not represent a lot of structural change."
City councillors voted to schedule one night of post-budget consultations with the public, where people can give deputations to council, on Feb. 4. The final vote to ratify the budget is scheduled for Feb. 11.
With files from Jeff Walters