'R' Tax Dollars Working
The 2016 Lambton Shores Municipal Budget Process
We have a tax for that! January 11, 2016 could go down in history as the day that Municipality of Lambton Shores approved both an operating and capital budget in record time. The Lambton Shores council met on the above noted day and within about 4 hours approved the 2016 draft operating and capital budget, a proposed budget that is in excess of $22,000,000. The council accomplished this feat in less than half a conventional work day!
Typically, municipal councils can spend as much as three or four months diligently working on what is arguably the most important decision they will make that impacts the lives of the citizens they are sworn to serve. London, Bluewater, South Huron and other neighbouring municipalities are all trying to cut costs as each struggles with scarce resources in challenging economic times. They seem to understand the concept of doing more with less and delivering on needs, not wants. Lambton Shores council saw fit to add about $400,000 worth of extra goodies to the tax levy this year. Items such as:
- $40,000 in replacement equipment for the Shores fitness area
- $6,480 for increased by-law enforcement for a small neighbourhood
- $45,000 for branding actions
- $40,000 for marketing actions
- $40,000 for municipal workplace actions
- $20,000 for development of construction ready plans for a neighbourhood in which the municipality owns no land
- $7,140 for flagpoles and flags.
Where was the public input that assisted in such expedient decision making? An online survey that was offered to local citizens that was available on the municipal website from December 17, 2015 to January 5, 2016. In total forty three (43) households/citizens took part in the survey. An interesting rate of participation (0.57%), when you consider that there are over 7,500 households in this municipality, to say nothing of the time of year that the survey was made available. This is hardly a mandate for an expedited process and questionable and flawed conclusions.
Included in the 2016 tax levy is an increase in the councillors’ remuneration that is supposedly equal to the annual pay increase given to municipal workers. As reported in the January 21, 2016 edition of the Standard Guide Advocate; “Councillor Wilcox noted that the rate of compensation for councillors has been stagnant over the last 15 years, and that due to the stresses and potential dangers of being a Councillor, the compensation rate should be brought into accordance with the rate of compensation that staff have been awarded, and be subject to the same cost of living increases”.
In reality, last year, council met as a group to conduct municipal business, including regular and special meetings, a total of twenty three times (23). Those meetings lasted a total of 57.75 hours. According to the annual rate of compensation for members of council, as reported in the Exeter Times Advocate, March 16, 2016 edition, last year members of council received the following as hourly rates: the mayor $453.73 per hour of scheduled meeting work, the deputy mayor $324.14 per hour of scheduled meeting work and ward councillors $280.52 per hour of scheduled meeting work. These are hardly the hourly rates of any municipal worker. Indeed, these figures don’t include the expenses for conferences that some members attended.
At first glance, the 0% tax rate increase that Lambton Shores council approved in about 4 hours creates the illusion that your property taxes won’t increase. Not so. The assessed value of a property, upon which the tax or mill rate depends, is determined by the Ontario’s Municipal Property Assessment Corporation. As in other years, the projected increase in property assessments will go up anywhere from 4.5 to 5%. That means your property taxes will follow suit. So, in fact, a 0% tax rate does not mean that your taxes stay the same as last year. What is mind boggling is that this council, even with a $300,000 surplus left over from last year, did not take advantage of the windfall and reduce the municipalities tax rate when they had the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the citizens of Lambton Shores.
The County of Lambton’s budget is about to be discussed by its council. They’re starting with a 3.34% increase. We have yet to hear what our education taxes will be this year. It is conceivable that property taxes in Lambton Shores will increase more than four times the cost of living. That is not acceptable, especially in light of the fact that the average household income of Lambton Shores residents is $10,000 less that the average income of households in the province of Ontario.
It makes us wonder if Lambton Shores council members are aware of their role under the Municipal Act of Ontario. The Act clearly spells out that it is a council’s responsibility “to maintain the financial integrity of the municipality”. A decision made in four hours on operating and capital budgets without knowing the County or education tax implications certainly does not seem to be, on its face, in keeping with the spirit of the legislation that authorizes council jurisdiction nor the fiduciary responsibility incumbent on the council. Why didn’t council ask the tough questions to determine where costs might be cut? Presently, the Lambton Shores accumulated debt is over $16,000,000. That amounts to about $2,200 per household – every household. Last year the Municipality of Lambton Shores paid about $1,700,000 to service the debt load – that is the interest charges on the accumulated debt. Why wasn’t debt reduction a paramount consideration for this council, especially given the availability of the previously noted 2015 surplus from last year’s budget?
When will politicians understand that it’s our money they’re spending, not theirs? When will they realize that tax revenues should not be considered the gift that keeps on giving?
Four hours to decide how much more it will cost us to keep our homes – that is not acceptable.