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County opts to dip into reserves to keep increase at 4.95 per cent

Essex County will dip into a special reserve fund to keep this year’s tax hike to below five percent.

At last Wednesday night’s meeting, after a long debate, County Council opted to take $402,000 from its rate stabilization fund to hold the 2024 increase to 4.95 per cent.

“I don’t know whether or not we have any choice but to go to the rate stabilization fund,” said Amherstburg Mayor Michael Prue.

When county council met back on Jan. 10, administration had presented a budget increase of 6.13 per cent but council wanted to see that lowered.

For 2023, Essex County had a $1.2 million surplus which it put into its rate stabilization reserve fund. Lakeshore Mayor Tracey Bailey made a motion that that amount be put towards this year’s budget which would have seen the tax increase dropped to 4.32 per cent. And while her motion was defeated, there was a lot of talk about the purpose of the rate stabilization fund.

There is about $12 million in the fund and Prue was adamant in using it to keep the tax increase down.

“We used it in the past,” said Prue. “The fund is not going down, it’s going up.

This will easily be repaid. This gives us a breather and a chance for council to do it right next year.”

Not all members of county council agreed to go into the reserve fund to lower the increase down to 4.95 per cent.

“I do not believe it is appropriate to use the stabilization fund to offset the budget increases because we know those increases will be there next year,” said LaSalle Mayor Crystal Meloche, who wanted more information on new hires.

CAO Sandra Zwiers said that in 2023 inflation rose as high as eight per cent and that the county fell short of managing inflationary pressures which meant they had to go into reserves. Tax increase last year was 3.81%.

“The 2024 budget in part did not attempt to address the fact that we didn’t raise taxes high enough last year,” said Zwiers.

When county council went through this year’s budget, part of it was the fact that 10 new positions along with 23 new EMS paramedics were being added. Lakeshore Deputy Mayor Kirk Walstedt wanted that to be re-addressed.

“The public is expecting us to come in with a much more reasonable tax increase,” he said.

As stated in a press release, Essex County’s budget for 2024 is $132,282,190 which means that a house assessed at $250,000 will pay an additional $63.88 this year.

In her comments to county council, Zwiers said that the administration recommended no cuts to operating or capital.

A brief overview of the 2024 Essex County budget sees $93.8 million for roads; $6.36 million towards the county’s $100 million commitment of the new hospital, $1 million coming out of reserves this year and next to help build 36 tiny homes at the Bridge in Leamington as well as continual funding towards the Homeless Hub in Leamington.

Front line health care, which includes more paramedics, affordable housing and infrastructure are the primary focus for 2024.

“We are preparing for growth by investing in services that will ensure residents and businesses continue to find Essex County a great place with a bright future,” said Warden Hilda MacDonald through a press release.

By Fred Groves




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