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Niagara Falls
Monday, April 15, 2024
Your town tax bill is expected to jump 6.75%
Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa, seen here at a previous meeting, advocates for increased spending on infrastructure. EVAN LOREE

Niagara-on-the-Lake residents can expect a municipal tax hike of about 6.75 per cent for 2024.

The budget debate got heated when NOTL’s nine elected officials discussed ways to save money in the 2024 budget.

A proposed hike of 9.88 per cent was slashed twice in two hours before council on Feb. 29 agreed it was ready to get the seal of approval later in March.

Council decided to transfer more than $198,000 in reserve funds into the 2024 operating budget.

That shaved 1.32 per cent off the proposed tax increase.

Council found another 1.81 per cent in savings after re-evaluating the proposed salaries for new staff positions. 

The new positions, some of which were cut from the 2023 budget, were estimated to cost the town about $661,000.

Some of the more notable positions include a mechanic, a senior planner and a climate change co-ordinator.

When Coun. Nick Ruller said some of the staffers likely wouldn’t be hired until the year was half done, staff revisited the numbers to reflect the reality of the future labour costs.

Those living in the urban area will pay one per cent more for stormwater services in 2024.

The municipal portion of last year’s average annual property tax bill was about $1,328 (before school and regional levies) on a home assessed at $544,000.

The town’s 6.75 per cent increase will bump that up about $91 annually, to about $1,419.

That’s $40 less than the average total of $1,459 that staff calculated would come with the 9.88 per cent increase

It took intense discussions to get there, with some councillors advocating for increased spending on labour and infrastructure, and others advising caution in the use of taxpayers’ money.

“This municipality needs to be properly resourced,” said Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa, adding that talks of budget cuts are “endemic” to under-resourced organizations.

And if council wants to successfully deliver on the promises made in its strategic plan, it must be ready to fund them.

Burroughs was not prepared to swallow the 9.8 per cent hike. 

“You’re not paying for it, our residents are paying for it. And that’s why we have to be cautious with the spending,” he said.

Rather than arguing for labour and infrastructure cuts, Burroughs said the town needs to accurately report its revenue streams. 

He said money from the 2022 room tax was still not reflected in the town’s budgeting process and ought to be considered before council agrees to hike the levy.

Burroughs said Coun. Erwin Wiens wouldn’t run his business the way the town does.

“You’re darn tootin’ I wouldn’t run my business this way,” Wiens said.

He argued previous councils routinely underfunded staff.

“You guys cut and cut and cut, and used up all our reserves, and spent it all on legal, and then you dumped this bag of dog crap on us,” Wiens said. 

It was reckless for council to spend money fighting developers at the Ontario Land Tribunal, which resolves land disputes, despite having a losing track record and regardless of staff recommendations, he said.

Referring to a three-storey condo proposal at the end of King Street, he said council just approved $80,000 in lawyer fees trying to fight it.

“I’m sure I’m being blamed for most of the condition we’re in now,” said Burroughs, who has been involved in town politics for the last 25 years.

The reality, he said, is running a town is not the same as running a business.

As Coun. Sandra O’Connor noted, “Businesses make profits, governments provide services.”

The proposed budget allocates $650,000 for legal fees for 2024, $150,000 more than was budgeted in 2023.

Though the town budgeted $500,000 in 2023, Freeborn said the best estimate for actual legal costs in 2023 was $760,000.

That figure is subject to change as the town is still closing out the costs from 2023, he said.

Coun. Maria Mavridis said the $150,000 figure does not “honestly” represent the town’s legal expenses.

Mavridis also pitched a 2.5 per cent pay increase for the eight councillors, saying they were the lowest-paid in the region.

Staff had already planned to spend 2 per cent more on councillors for 2024.

Mavridis later told The Lake Report it was about the principle, not the money.

“Council is a full-time job when you care,” she said.

And Coun, Wendy Cheropita, who supported it, said it would have a small impact on the levy.

The proposed raise would have added about $5,600 to the nearly $227,000 budgeted for council salaries in the proposed budget.

She could not muster enough support from her peers, though, who cited procedural issues.

“At first blush, I can’t support this,” Zalepa said.

He said there was a “good process in place” to determine their salaries and the budget committee meeting was not the place for it.

The budget will be brought back to council March 26 for final approval.

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