With a large spending increase in the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s 2020 operating budget and a municipal tax increase of 8.62 per cent, The Lake Report asked the lord mayor to explain how we got to where we are now.
Let’s go back in time, to 2005 when the population of Niagara-on-the-Lake was around 14,000.
There were 89 full-time staff members working for the town, only 60 kilometres of sidewalks, and 209 kilometres of paved roads.
The accompanying infrastructure chart illustrates the huge growth Niagara-on-the-Lake has experienced in the last 14 years. (NOTL property tax bills include levies for the town, region, education and the Niagara Health System. At this time, despite municipal budget approval, the total impact on residents’ tax bills cannot yet be determined.)
During this time period of growth there were extremely minimal tax increases. While the last term of council started to play catchup with minor increases, it was not enough to match the massive amount of infrastructure growth.
How can municipalities pay for essential services, like utility costs and infrastructure repairs, when tax increases are minimal? There are many ways – defer non-urgent maintenance, cut services, or borrow from the reserves.
In the past 14 years, there has been an increase of four new full-time staff positions, most in planning and engineering.
The same number of front-line staff members are trying to cope with the huge increases listed above, in addition to increases in bylaw enforcement, licensing applications and general customer service inquiries. On occasion contractors have come in to assist, but staff frequently work overtime to complete the required work.
Fast-forward to 2019.
A lot of our infrastructure needs repair, we are running around to fix potholes, instead of reconstructing roads in need, we cannot install lighting where people are asking for lighting and the list goes on.
We have had major growth in our housing developments without considering the increase in traffic, parking, bylaw enforcement and other services. Phragmites continues to cause problems in the irrigation systems. Our reserves are depleting.
This must be turned around. We need to go back to the basics of municipal budgeting and fund our primary need – infrastructure. As we do that, there will be difficult decisions for council to make and we will have to face those challenges.
Looking at other Niagara municipalities, like Lincoln or Pelham, they are now going through major growth.
Lincoln’s increase was 5.99 per cent (translating into $63.89 per $100,000 of assessment) and Pelham’s increase was 6.05 per cent (translating into $31.03 per $100,000 of assessment) because they are preparing for growth.
Even though the percentage increase of 8.62 per cent in Niagara-on-the-Lake seems high, it translates into $17.36 per $100,000 of assessment. This increase is vital because previous increases did not keep up with growth when it occurred.
In 2020, we will look at increasing revenues through taxes and user fees. In the spring we will receive the results of the service delivery review, which will recommend ways the town can provide our services in a much more efficient way.
The mandate you, the voters, gave your Niagara-on-the-Lake elected officials is to preserve heritage, agriculture and other community assets.
This public input has been captured in the town’s strategic plan and the town’s official plan.
In order to achieve our vision of the future of Niagara-on-the-Lake, we must go back to the basics and finance the fundamental needs of this community.
So now the question I have been asked of late is why I did not support the budget before council on Jan. 20.
The reason: I made a commitment to the public at the Inaugural meeting of council. This town must have a vision for the future and a sustainable budget to support the vision. While this budget will take us a long way with our operations, there was a deferral of capital projects of $1.7 million with no solution in sight.
Over 30 years ago, it was a handful of people that had a vision for this community, both in agriculture and in tourism, and capital investments were made, and we became the envy of all of Canada.
We cannot rest on the achievements of the past. The proposed municipal accommodation tax would have helped us with reinvestments in our infrastructure.
This year there will be opportunities for us to partner with the Region of Niagara to make major improvements to our town – if we pay our share. This year we will go back to the drawing board to see if we can figure it out for the 2021 budget.
Betty Disero is lord mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake.