Despite a less than receptive audience in council chambers Monday night. Amherstburg town council has approved its 2024 budget.
The budget calls for a 6.44 per cent tax increase, one that a series of speakers asked be reduced further. Many council members in favour of the budget said they were doing so because it takes measures they feel has to be done and includes projects the community needs.
Voting in favour were Mayor Michael Prue, Deputy Mayor Chris Gibb, Councillor Don McArthur, Councillor Linden Crain and Councillor Molly Allaire. Councillor Diane Pouget was opposed. Councillor Peter Courtney was absent.
Pouget cited inflation impacting many families and said there are those suffering from economic hardship. She said she voted for projects that would provide roads, safe water and wastewater, roads, culverts and bridges and to protect the town against cyber attacks but against most new positions, pickleball-only courts, grooming of the Libro Centre hill and the new fire hall, with a smaller fire hall being her preference.
The town is using money from reserve to fund some of those projects, she added, stating it is “not good business practice.” Pouget also noted there are still water and wastewater rate increases to come.
“For those reasons, I can't vote in good conscience to raise the budget by 6.44 per cent,” said Pouget.
Councillor Molly Allaire offered kudos to Pouget and said she stands with how she voted during deliberations. Allaire said “tried my darnedest” to arrive at a lower figure during deliberations and believed her colleagues worked hard as well, but supported the documents they arrived at.
Gibb acknowledged his position wouldn't be popular with the crowd at town hall Monday night, but believed the budget addresses what has to be done in Amherstburg.
“This town is at a crossroads,” the deputy mayor stated.
Reserves haven't been built up enough and not enough was collected in past years, he believed, and now the town is paying for it. He said they can't do what they want to do, but have to do what they need to do.Gibb said the province keeps downloading onto municipalities and funding sources are lower than previous years. Roads and buildings are in tough shape, said Gibb, adding he heard during the last municipal election that people want amenities returned to Amherstburg.
“I'm here to do what's right for Amherstburg's future residents,” he said. “We are going to do what needs to be done.”
Crain said municipalities have to do more with less, citing an example that approvals that used to be done by the Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA) now have to be done locally. Bill 23 has also impacted the amount of development charges that municipalities can collect on rental unit construction.
The town has to put the bulk of the burden on the residents, he added, and the town is working to build up its commercial and industrial tax base. Inflation was another factor, Crain said, but believed the 2024 budget is in line with the town's asset management plan.
McArthur said he didn't campaign to lower taxes, stating if too many cuts are made, the town can't keep pace with inflation and asset management. If the town “falls apart,” people will leave and go elsewhere, he said.
People and businesses are coming to Amherstburg because their is a “buzz” around the town, he said, and investments are being made on trails in McGregor, the former Duffy's property and others. He said the town has to pay police, fire and parks staff.
“I don't think you can build a community on 'no' votes,” he said.
Economic development is happening in Amherstburg, McArthur added, and that includes the festivals as well.
“Amherstburg is on a skyrocketing trajectory,” said McArthur. “We have to keep it going for everyone in this room and for everyone in town.”
“This is a very tough year,” said Prue.
Prue pinned much of the blame on the province, stating OCIF funding has decreased, an asset management plan (of what he agrees with) has to be done, and development charges on rental units are not like they used to be.
“We're not alone, you know,” he told the crowd, citing tax increases in other Essex County municipalities.
Prue said Amherstburg doesn't have the reserves others do to help combat tax increases, using the County of Essex as one example where dipping into reserves brought that tax increase down to 4.95 per cent.
Town council had tough choices and “fractious” budget sessions, but did what they could.
“Am I happy? No, but I'm not sad either,” said Prue. “We did the best we could.”Amherstburg is a small town with a limited budget with “reserves not being brought up as they should have been in the past.”
Prue said he liked recommendations from residents Rodger and Sue Hudson, which included council increases its base budget by the average rate of the consumer price index (CPI) and construction index and arrive at a base budget number to give to administration. That would be a “new” base budget target spending amount for 2025. That figure would be given to senior management to allocate to their department.
“It is up to each manager to be fiscally responsible and submit spending increases that meet this budget requirement that council has established,” said Sue. “Prior to releasing the budget to the public, administration presents a draft budget to council so that council can confirm if the target was met. If it hasn't been met, further discussions need to to take place in order to meet the target.”
The Hudsons believed based on 2018-24 budgets, property taxes collected and spending have kept up with inflation, except 2021 and 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Modifying our budget process will let residents know in July what sort of tax increases they may be faced with in 2025 and they can plan accordingly,” she said. “The new budget process would increase fiscal responsibility and prioritization of spending” and make an increase to spending more transparent.
“If this budget is approved tonight, there will be young families and seniors who will need to make some tough decisions,” said Sue. “Spending within our town needs to be better controlled and the budget process requires improvement.”
Multiple residents believed the increase was too high.
Lynn Sinasac also spoke against the 6.44 per cent increase. She called on elected officials to re-open the budget and seek savings and that they exercise more fiscal responsibility. Sinasac also said there are those hurting in the community that need assistance.
Jan Ouellette told town council she has been paying taxes since 1977 and that “6.44 per cent is a lot to ask.” Ouellette said the town needs to look at needs for wants, and questions spending $500,000 on such items as pickleball courts.
“Let's leave out all the bells and whistles,” she said, though Crain stated the pickleball courts are paid out of reserves and removal of that project would not change the tax rate.Donna and Geoff Hibbert also stated residents are struggling, noting they know a local couple that have a combined income of $24,963.84 but have $24,919.43 in expenses. A $44.41 amount leftover turns into a -$239.29.
“They are not alone in their circumstance. There are many more in Amherstburg on a fixed income. Renters will be affected too.”
They believed the increase is between 9.5-ten per cent when all rates are factored in, but Prue said they simply can't be added. When percentages were calculated and county and school board rates factored in, treasurer Tracy Prince estimated the combined rate to be 5.43 per cent though noted she is still awaiting some data.
“I don't think this person would be in the position to afford to play pickleball or want to pay for drag queens marching down Richmond St.,” she said.
Donna added focus should be on replacing and adding “when we can afford to do so” while also voicing opposition to council not assisting Royal Canadian Legion Br. 157 with funding.
“How many years must we struggle with these tax increases to cover excessive spending?” added Geoff. “How long can people on fixed or limited income survive?”
Jon Parks added he too knows people struggling, and that he has helped a local family with vehicle repairs they otherwise couldn't afford. He is aware of people having to possibly losing their homes.
Parks believed Prue should send the budget back to administration, calling for an increase closer to 3.3 per cent, which he said was the rate of inflation.
Allaire said she hoped the budget could be lower next year, but Parks added it may be too late for some.
“I do not have the power you wish I had,” Prue told Parks, noting the “Strong Mayor” powers currently don't include municipalities such as Amherstburg.
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