By Doug Hallett
The proposed $186-million budget is $6.7 million – or 3.74 per cent – higher than the city’s 2012 operating budget. This would mean a tax increase of $113 for the average household with a dwelling assessed at $292,000, said Al Horsman, the city’s chief financial officer.
Judging by council discussion when the budget was presented Thursday, the most contentious issue in the budget might be a proposal to save $100,000 by eliminating sidewalk snow plowing in front of residences. Homeowners would be made responsible for clearing snow and de-icing the sidewalks in front of their homes.
“If we can get residents to do it, it would be much quicker and more efficient” than the current system, Derek McCaughan, the city’s executive director of operations and transit services, told council.
Currently, the city has a five-day window to clear sidewalks after a snowfall, and the plows can’t get down to bare pavement.
However, some councillors were dubious about cutting the service, and concerns were also expressed about how the change might affect the city’s liability exposure for sidewalk-related accidents.
Council asked staff in July to bring in a 2013 budget with an increase of 3% or less. However, staff are not recommending a budget increase this low on the grounds that it “would be regressive” for the city, Mayor Karen Farbridge told council. The 3.74% tax levy increase breaks down to a 2.74% boost for base services and a further 1% for strategic initiatives to strengthen how the city works, council was told.
This 1% increase “is to invest now to built an exceptional city for current and future generations,” said city CAO Ann Pappert.
Implementing a first-ever corporate technology plan for Guelph, which recently got council’s approval in principal, is among these new strategic initiatives. Among other things, the plan aims to provide easier, quicker access to city information and more opportunities for community engagement.
Crossing guard growth request
So-called “growth requests” that city staff are recommending as part of the budget include $142,500 to hire a coordinator for the city’s adult crossing guard program and also hire more crossing guards and fill-in guards. Staff have warned that this program will need to be cut back in 2013 unless funding is provided for changes to be made.
User fee increases
The proposed budget includes hikes in user fees totalling $1.9 million, including a 3% increase in recreation user fees.
However, there would be no bus fare hikes next year. The only transit increase in 2013 would be in the cost of the universal bus pass used by U of G students, council was told.
The budget doesn’t include several drastic cuts, such as closing splash pads and outdoor pools, which were outlined as possibilities at a council budget workshop early this month.
Staff were able to bring the budget down without such cuts partly through “innovative financing” initiatives, Horsman said.
One example of this, he told the Trib, is borrowing against a capital renewal fund on the expectation of paying the money back from savings linked to the city’s new corporate energy management plan. This plan, which aims to deal with increasing energy prices, is expected to reduce the city’s energy costs by at least $83,000 next year and $166,000 a year after that.
The budget reduces the extra cost of staff compensation in 2013 from $6.1 million down to $4.6 million through a variety of measures. It “has nothing to do with layoffs,” Horsman told the Trib, but rather is the result of several changes being made.
These range from eliminating a small number of student jobs at city hall in 2013 to saving hundreds of thousands of dollars related to tendering of benefit packages for city staff.
New hires at city hall
In all, the budget includes hiring the full-time equivalent of about 23 additional employees for city departments, bringing the total up to about 1,473 employees. No new hiring is planned by the city’s police or library boards.
Guelph Police are asking council to approve a $34.1-million budget for 2013, which is a 3.64% increase over 2012.
The public library board is asking council to approve an $8-million budget with a 2.9% increase over 2012.
City staff are recommending the city spend $10,000 again next summer to rent an indoor skatepark while the city continues to plan for an outdoor skateboard facility.
Staff are recommending that the city hire the full-time equivalent of 1.5 new employees in 2013 to start implementing a new 20-year urban forest management plan, which council approved in principle this fall. The plan said Guelph needs to beef up its urban forestry staff with four new employees next year.
However, McCaughan said it doesn’t make sense to hire so many new employees before an inventory is done of the city’s trees. Staff will ask council to approve the rest of the new employees a year from now, after the tree inventory is done, he said.
Service cuts on the table
Staff are also recommending that council make several service cuts and other changes, including:
• eliminating Christmas tree pickup to save $22,000 by making residents responsible for disposing of their trees
• introducing a new $35 fee to be applied when residents want to change the size of waste carts used in the new waste pickup system, which is being phased in over three years. The fee is expected to bring in $75,000 next year
• increasing parking fines by an average of $5 per violation to bring in an extra $25,000
• reducing city-wide plantings of shrubs and flowers by 10% to save $25,000
• reducing grants for the downtown façade program by 50% to save $130,000
• eliminating plowing of residential sidewalks to save $100,000.
The change to making residents responsible for keeping their sidewalks clear in winter would require a bylaw that’s enforced by city bylaw officers, McCaughan said.
While a few councillors expressed doubts about cutting the service, Coun. Maggie Laidlaw said it might be good in creating “entrepreneurial opportunities” for teenagers in keeping people’s sidewalks clear. She also observed that with global warming, there might be less need for clearing sidewalks.
Council will hear public delegations on the budget starting at 6 p.m. on Nov. 29. Council will start debating the city’s 2013 operating and capital budgets at a meeting Dec. 5.