I wrote this for the Examiner, it was published a few weeks ago. Despite us holding service costs so low that we only required a 1.0% tax increase to pay for City services, there are other pressures on the City budget. More broadly, we are making the tough decisions required to put the City on a stronger fiscal footing – so we are not passing costs on to our kids. Anyway, here’s the article – now updated to reflect the final 2013 budget as passed by Council.
The City Budget is in the news, and for good reason. The decisions your Council makes at budget time not only set tax rates, but establish how much will be spent on what for the entire year – these decisions shape our city. The City of Barrie delivers 60 different services to its residents, from police and fire to roads, parks, and libraries, and never has the challenge of keeping up with a growing city been greater.
In this era of fiscal austerity, all three levels of government are making cuts to reduce spending. Your city is no different. In this year’s budget, Council has given tentative approval to a series of spending cuts that reduce the city’s operating costs by more than $2 million. In total, the City’s total costs for delivering services are increasing by a scant 1.6% this year – despite adding a Fire Station and a new South Branch Library, and despite all the new pressures in a city that is growing faster than most in the Province.
So why then is the proposed tax increase nearly twice this amount? There are two reasons – your Council is putting more money into fixing roads, pipes, and other infrastructure, and secondly due to the impact of the economic stimulus projects in 2009 and 2010.
First, Council is increasing the amount of money it spends from the operating budget on infrastructure. Of the 3.3% increase, 1.1% consists of additional money that Council is putting into the critical infrastructure that makes our city work. Our residents have told us that fixing roads is their top priority, and there’s no question that in addition to many years of deferred maintenance, the older areas of our city have many roads that desperately need additional work.
Second, the stimulus projects. As the economy faltered in 2009, all three levels of government stepped in to stimulate the economy. In Barrie, stimulus projects funded by the Harper and McGuinty governments allowed the City to advance many road repair and building projects that would otherwise have waited for many years. But the net effect of these projects was to increase the City’s debt – this year, debt payments account for a further 1.2% of the tax increase.
Now that the stimulus period is over, the City needs to cut back its capital plan, and cut the amount of debt used to fund projects. With interest rates at record lows, some borrowing in recent years was a reasonable (if not preferable) move. But again this year, I sat down with our budget staff to find ways to reduce debt. I am pleased that we have been able to reduce planned debt by more than $11 million, building on top of nearly $25 million in debt that was taken out of the City’s plan last year. We need to put the credit card away.
So coming back to City spending – of the 3.3% tax increase, less than one-third is due to the increase in the City’s costs for providing services. And yet, Council is doing more of what you have asked us to do. In our customer service survey in 2011, Barrie residents told us their top two priorities for improved services were roads and public transit. Despite our spending reductions, both are in the 2013 budget – roads through increasing our funding for renewal work, and transit through the new Plan for Transit, set to roll in August.
Moving the city forward despite tight fiscal times is our biggest challenge. I welcome anyone’s comments and input, please don’t hesitate to call, email, or write to me about the budget or any other matters affecting our beautiful city.