Attempts to lower the 2007 Town tax increase failed to fly with the majority of the Halton Hills budget committee at the final budget debate meeting on Tuesday night. These included lowering the 2 per cent dedicated tax for the pavement management program by half a percentage point, hiring only two firefighters instead of four, and giving taxpayers a tax credit from the savings in the winter control budget. Instead, budget committee (all members of council) accepted staff-recommended budget cuts of $61,600 and approved the 2007 operating budget of $22,327,200-- a 5.4 per cent increase over last year's budget. It includes a 2.1 per cent increase over the base budget, 2 per cent dedicated solely to the pavement management plan, and 1.3 per cent for the hiring of four full-time firefighters. Confirmation is expected at Monday's (Feb. 5) council meeting. This means town taxes will go up by $50 to $980 for the average homeowner with a home assessed at $300,000 in 2007. Combined with Halton Region taxes, which have already been approved, and education taxes, which remain at the 2006 level, the tax increase for the average Halton Hills taxpayer is 2.7 per cent ($82) for a total of $3,074. It was Mayor Rick Bonnette who brought forward the suggestion to use 0.5 per cent of the 2 per cent dedicated tax for the pavement management program to reduce the budget by $100,000 (from a 5.6 per cent tax increase to 5.2 per cent). The Town plans to levy $400,000 from taxpayers this year for this program, and the money collected goes towards resurfacing urban roads. Work alternates between communities and this year, primarily Ward 4 streets get the special treatment.
Bonnette said funding could be found from other sources, such as the gas tax, to make up the $100,000 for the planned work and if not, then $1.3 million would still be spent on street resurfacing this year. Chief Administrative Officer Dennis Perlin said the full amount would be spent on pavement management, even if that half per cent has to be made up in 2009-- 2008 is the last year of 2 per cent dedicated tax. "Because council controls the budget process for the next four years, and by managing that program, we can still proceed to complete the work that was intended to be completed," Perlin said. "The work can be scheduled in such a way that invoices that come in from the program will arrive in 2008 and will be paid out of the 2008 pavement management program. So even if you do nothing with the gas tax, you can still achieve it... council controls that." Finance Director Ed DeSousa noted that a recent report revealed that $30 million is needed for repairing local roads and related works. Manager of Public Works Ted Drewlo added losing the half per cent will impact projects now and in the
future, and that immediately alarmed Ward 4 Councillor Bob Inglis, who said his constituents have waiting patiently, and some impatiently, for road repairs for years. "I would look it as being a little unfair if we cut something out of Ward 4 in the pavement management plan, when it's affected all the other wards in previous years," Inglis said. He proposed a solution: since the four new firefighters will not be hired until November, then use unspent $200,000 in salaries in 2007 to reduce the taxes. But DeSousa explained that money would go into the surplus, which funds the reserves. The taxpayers may get a tax break this year, but there may not be enough surplus left-- at least
$325,000 is needed-- to top up depleting reserves. Inglis' suggestion went no further. Ward 3 Councillor Moya Johnson said the difference whether the half percent is there or not is $4 a year on tax bills-- at that time in the budget debate the difference between a $48 tax increase and a $52 tax increase. "I think $52 is a $1 a week for the average family," she said, "and to save them a few cents off that dollar to put at risk the pavement management program would not be a good decision." The budget committee then decided to stick to the current pavement management program. ··· Rookie Ward 4 Councillor John Duncan motioned to hire only two of the four full-time firefighters ($266,700) included in the budget, questioning whether all four are needed now. "I want a safe community as does everyone in this room," said Duncan, who admitted he had not read the Town's fire master plan report. "but I'm a little concerned about the increases being proposed. Last year, Town council made the decision to hire four firefighters per
year representing a 1.3 per cent increase subject to annual review. "Right now we have a part-time complement (of 90 firefighters) that are supported by a full-time staff (20) during the day," explained Acting Fire Chief John Martin. "After hours we have no guarantees that staff will be available. What we propose... is a progressive plan to provide full-time staffing on a 24-7 basis over the next 20 to 25 years."
"I have to go with the fire master plan," said Ward 3 Councillor Dave Kentner. "We're raising a generation of people who are not as quick to volunteer ...and so
I think we are going to need that full-time complement and this is the only way we can reasonably do it, otherwise we're going to be looking at a million dollar increase if we have to hire all at once." Bonnette pointed to a recent Town survey that showed that fire services were a top priority by residents. Duncan's motion lost with only Councillors Clark Somerville, Joan Robson and Mike O'Leary supporting him. Opposed were Bonnette and Councillors Jane Fogal, Jon Hurst, Inglis, Johnson and Kentner. Councillor Bryan Lewis who originally seconded Duncan's motion, declared a conflict in the midst of debate-- his brother is a firefighter. Finally, Councillor Mike O'Leary questioned whether the Town could use the $150,000 savings in the 2006 winter control budget due to the mild weather as a tax credit on 2007 tax bills.
"This is a unique situation... and people are expecting some savings out of the snow ploughing budget," he said.
But DeSousa explained in doing so, it would
be reducing the ongoing base budget for future years by $150,000 and the council would have to make up the difference through a future tax hike. No action was taken on O'Leary's suggestion. The winter control savings will also go into the surplus, which is projected to be very small this year-- less than $175,000 (excluding the $325,000 that will be used to top up the reserves, which finances the capital works program and equipment/facility repairs and purchases).