Council pontificates on the 7.52% budget increase they approved - warned that there will be another just like it in 2024

By Pepper Parr

February 16th, 2023


We are still here – find out why.

City Council was in session for a solid seven hours not including the breaks on Tuesday.

There were a lot of questions, more than enough posturing but not a word in the way of changing the budget that came as recommended from the Standing Committee.

Mayor Marianne Meed Ward

The tax rate that was voted on works out to $60.31 per $100,000 of Current Value Assessment (CVA)

There is a tax levy that will be applied to the repair and replacement of the infrastructure.  There was no mention of just how much that is.

There is usually a surplus in spending from the previous year that gets placed in the Tax Rate Stabilization Reserve – the amount of the surplus was not made public.

We will chase those down for you

The motion they were to vote on was split into three separate votes. The first is on the operating budget. The second is on the capital budget and the third is related to assessment growth and how they will deal with it if it is lower than expected.

The Mayor asked if there any outstanding questions; none they moved on to comments from the Councillors before the actual vote.

Councillor Sharman, who is also the Deputy Mayor of Strategy and Budgets. Go ahead and kick us off on comments.

Ward 5 Councillor Paul Sharman

“Thank you very much. I’ll be brief – I guess. I’ve been reflecting on what occurred in our budget discussions, and I realized that this is a step on the journey we’ve been on and we’ve got a long way to go yet. The sophistication that we’ve added to the budgeting system in the course of the last number of years, has led us to a point where we have a long term strategic plan or a vision as we call it.

“We have an operating plan, which we call vision to focus. And those pieces should fit together well and we need to improve that but then what we have to add to that as a costing of our official operating plan B to F and that means we are doing the budget every day of our lives from now on, because by the time we get to a budget discussion this time next year, that should not be any unknowns, we should not be having any random motions.

“They should already be dealt with. The only place where we just have a motion is where there’s clearly something missed in the budget. And I won’t get into the examples because that leads to a longer debate. But when there’s something that that has come up recently, more recently in the deliberation, then the deliberations of staff that allow that we have a reason good reason to address it. And we did that in this last budget. But we need to get discipline into this process. And we need to be alert to the fact that it is the long term that matters and that we constantly have to be thinking about financing of everything we do and we have to make our priority decisions based on the resources available to us.”

Ward 6 Councillor Angelo Bentivegna

Councillor Benevento
“My thought my thought process reviewing this budget had to do, we’re trying to balance.

“I guess from a personal standpoint, what I believed we needed now and massaging some of the rightful business cases that into the 2020 Ford budget which we know is coming later this year. Our city’s simulated budget over the next few years, we know it’s going to be challenging. That will remain to be seen when we all are aware that there are financial analysts out there who are predicting inflation to drop in 2023 to about 3% and 2% in 2024.

“So I thought that this might have been a great opportunity to balance some of the shortfall without kicking the can down the road.

“Unfortunately, for me, my motions did not pass and that’s okay. I am disappointed, but I respect the process and the discussions that we had. I would like to say that a 730 page budget book is not an easy document to review, which makes our decisions very difficult. It’s very short period of time.

“We’re not the operators, and we’re not accountants. And that’s what makes it very, very difficult for us. “We do live in a great city. We do have great services, and we have great staff. No one, including myself, wants to see any less services than we have. Having said that, I believe we need to look at our process a little bit when it comes to budgets.

“I mentioned, during the budget discussions, that I will be bringing forward a motion at an upcoming committee meeting that will direct the CFO to prepare a 2024 budget to limit the overall tax increase percentage without reducing any existing service levels. That’s how we do it at the region. And we’ll see why we can’t figure out a way to do it here in the city.”

Ward 3 Councillor Rory Nisan

Counsellor at Nissan
“It’s been a tough budget. Very tough; it’s been tough across the province.
“Burlington has added dollars to key elements: bylaw, human resources and other areas. There was a strong justification given for every single item. I tried to find places to cut and in the end, I could only find one spot where I thought maybe we could, and even then a pretty strong justification was made.

“And here’s the hard fact: we are already lean in Burlington. Our taxes are lower than other local jurisdictions. We have been very, very lean. We can’t reduce taxes without reducing service levels We are building the city of the future while trying to reduce tax increases.

“We are being very responsible through a tough budget and yeah, kudos we’ve been doing for several years now. Active Transportation, I really appreciate my colleagues support for that.

“And Safe Streets. These are things that we all agree on. And so there’s been some really smart amendments, very strategic focus, and there’s just there’s nothing there’s no excess here. There’s just nothing left. And so that’s because of the hard work of our staff. A lot of good work here.

Councillor Kearns: “Are we making all of our budget comments under the operation? Are we waiting to the end?

Mayor: “If you have separate comments on capital and the disposition of the assessment you would make those under those two but operating is kind of the big one. Feel free to make it now.

“I’m humbled also to share on the approval of our budget for the coming year. It has been a difficult and challenging process as the pressure to manage our expenses and prioritize services has been immense. I really emphasize that immense part. Incredible work has been done with diligence and scrutiny. At the heart of our community are our residents and it’s with their future in mind that we’ve crafted this budget. We’ve worked tirelessly to ensure that essential services such as public safety customer excellence, quality of life, infrastructure, maintenance and development management will remain in front and center of our fiscal outlook. We understand that this is a time of economic difficulty for many families. That is why we also are empathetic to those who need assistance during these trying times and also have relief programs subject to availability, eligibility available through a finance department.

“There’s been tension with stakeholders and staff to drill down into further savings and cost avoidance initiatives. I’ve scrubbed this budget to little avail of further relief, and it has been significant underfunding, part of which we all have an accountability to and this budget strikes a commitment to do better and we will together Furthermore, we are focusing on environmental sustainability initiatives and livability. So we can ensure a healthy future not only for the Burlington residents of today, but for generations to come.

“It’s quite incredible to be part of a generational shift and to make these investments for generations to come. We plan on investing in energy projects over the next few years exploring creative opportunities through culture building, expanding public transit options, investing in green infrastructure improvements for the city and implementing new programs aimed at delivering transformational digital solutions. It’s our belief that by pursuing these initiatives, not only will the citizens of Burlington benefit now, but they’ll continue to reap the rewards well into the future.

“As always, it remains our priority to provide safe communities where people can flourish and take part in creating vibrant neighborhoods to reflect our collective values and objectives. With this budget in place, we believe that these goals can be achieved over time with consistent effort from local leaders and stakeholders like I want to thank everyone who has been involved in this process and for taking part in these important decisions along the way.”

Councillor Galbraith

“This was a very challenging budget. You know, we’ve definitely heard some feedback from the residents about the number and it’s not easy to swallow. But, you know, I think we did a lot of work along the way in the past year towards this budget. Improving bylaw departments approving purchasing our largest community center at budget time, we need to fund those.

“We can’t pull the funding at budget time for things we’ve already approved and all agreed to support. It just doesn’t work. We need to fund our, our, the plans for you know, active transportation we need to fund those plans and I appreciate some of the motions brought forward by my colleagues.

“They were very good and and were supported and they need to be supported. You know, I am excited about some of the staff fixes that are this budget is supporting. We have a lot of processes that were just are backlogged. They’re just not working right now. So there’s really no way around it. We have to fix our internal staffing issues. The culture is not competitive anymore. Compensation is so looking forward to supporting this budget.”

Mayor Meed Ward: “So first of all, I would like to offer some some thanks. Starting with our city manager, our CFO and the entire team of staff. This wasn’t an easy budget for you to present to us.

We recognize that and we also know that we can’t fix what we don’t know. And if there are issues in the corporation we really do rely on having a collaborative and trusting relationship with our staff to bring forward what you believe the city needs and our community needs. And you did that in in a very difficult budget year and we know this is year one of two years of difficulty so next year’s budget is going to be difficult as well. Because we are building the foundation for the future. We are not just planning for all of the services that our community needs for this term of Council.

“We are planning for the next seven generations and this budget and the next one and the future ones that we will deal with on our watch are part of putting that strong foundation into place. It makes key investments in issues and projects and services that our community has told us are important this directly responds to community feedback that we’ve heard around the need for more community amenities. So Robert Bateman High School redevelopment adaptation is funded. The Skyway Community Centre is funded with a new NHL size ice rink.

“We have park improvements that are funded active transportation, including some additional motions brought forward during committee to make sure that people have the choice of cycling walking transit to get around our city. Residents have asked us for enhanced resources around bylaw enforcement and coyote response. This is directly relating to people’s quality of life living in our community. And so we responded to that as well, as well as automated speed cameras. This is year one of a two year implementation program to make sure that we have a better way of dealing with speeding on local streets and protective protecting public safety in that way.

“And we’ve reserved our free beach parking passes for Halton residents for the next year for the next two years, actually. So we this is a very responsive budget. It also addresses ongoing impacts from COVID inflation as well as the need to be competitive to the labour market and make sure that we have the best people here to deliver the best services to our community and catching up to growth. So a lot of we’re behind the eight ball community growth has far surpassed our planned expectations and we expect that to happen again even with the new numbers assigned to us by the province. And gross never fully pays for growth.

“And of course under Bill 23. We are going to continue to lobby that the impacts and the hole in our budget created by that bill be erased and that we’d be made whole so that we can collect what we need to build the community services, infrastructure and other amenities that a growing community needs. So we’re playing catch up with his budget and the next. And a reminder to folks that your overall budget includes three levels of government. It includes Halton Region services, you get paramedics, waste management, public health, social services, housing and so much more. And of course, also public education. We we are the collection agency for local investment in education.

“So you get all of that for about another $1.50 a day in this budget and even after all of that our tax rate will be lower than municipalities of our size. So I’m very excited about what this budget delivers by way of services and amenities to our community and setting a foundation for a very strong future in the short term as well as seven generations out. So with that I’m not seeing any other speakers to this item. So I will we will turn it to the clerk to call the vote. Go ahead.

Councillor Galbraith’? “support”. Councillor Kearns? “support”. Councillor Nissan ? “support”. Councillor Stolte? “support”. Councillor Sharman? “support” Councillor Bentivegna ? “do not support.” Mayor Mead Ward ? “support”.

The motion carries.

Now they get to do it all over again for the Capital budget.

Mayor: ” We now have the separate vote on the capital budget for the city If anyone wishes just to speak to capital now’s your chance. Okay, I will simply say that this This budget does include an infrastructure levy we are playing catch up on State of Good Repair for for our assets, roads, community centres, buildings and we are increasing that this year because we know that we need to close the gap between the required costs of making sure that our infrastructure is kept in a state of good repair and the actual the amount that is available. So we’re going to continue to close that gap.

“We have a 20 year asset management plan. And and that’s part of what you’re getting in this budget. All right, seeing no additional speakers. To that back to the clerk for the recorded vote on this one.”

They voted: All supported except for Councillor Bentivegna who was opposed to the Capital Budget

Thank you and our final vote is with respect to assessment growth: if it is higher than the estimated 6% any increase generated goes to the tax rate stabilization reserve which we know has been relied upon heavily during COVID.

Councillor Kearns: “Thank you very much. So this is exactly where it should be going. We absolutely do need to build up that tax stabilization reserve fund. And for that reason in the year ahead with the amount of work that we’ve already done on the budget. I will not be supporting anything that comes out of one time tax rate stabilization reserve fund through the balance of the year. So I hope that everything that needs to be done has been captured in this budget and any overages or returns go right back into this reserve fund.”

Councillor Sharman: “Thank you. I think this point underlines my earlier comment, so thank you for that Councillor Kearns.  As I’ve said before, we have been on a long journey by prior councils to try to minimize tax increases to the community and they have been very successful. Of course, those kinds of steps have implications because you only have so much money and all of you at home, who are dealing with your own personal budgets and your own situations at home that caused you to have the budget that you have. Those kinds of factors apply also to this community in total. The cumulative impact of all prior years of costs is on our books today. And that would suggest to us that we have to be very conscious of the future of the organization, the future of the community, as much as on the impact on local community members today. There is no magic to this. It requires discipline, hard work and diligence. Part of it is that we have to rebuild our reserves.  I’m not going to make any comments about the way we’ve used them in the past. My point is only about the future requires more and more discipline and care. And not that we haven’t cared enough. We just got to think about it differently.”

Mayor Meed Ward: “At the moment, I will simply conclude my statements with some thanks that I left out. I want to give a huge thanks to Councillor Charmin, who is also our Deputy Mayor of strategy and budgets for your deep review. And understanding of these matters and contributing to getting us to today.  I’ve learned a lot sitting side by side with you through this process and look forward to next year in coming years.

“And I also want to thank our budget chair Councillor Kearns, who very capably led us through over seven hours of discussion in one day and we were in good hands. Our conversations as has been noted before, we’re very respectful, very thoughtful and and that is, I think, a huge testament to this council working together because it’s difficult any year in a budget year and we’ve had some tough ones. But especially when you’re looking at a significant increase like this.  People focused on what we needed to do for the community and that is evident in our discussion. So thanks to all of you. The community is better for it.

City Manager Tim Commisso made perhaps the truest comment saying “this budget could not have been done without Treasurer Joan For”  Joan added that it was a team of five financial analysts,  Meri Gjeka; Andrea Hagley; Gurpinder Grewal; and Lori Jivan who was the public face during the debates.  She seemed to have every number that was needed at her finger tips.

The same day City Communications put out a statement,

Burlington City Council has approved the city’s 2023 budget, focused on planning ahead and protecting our city’s future.

As Burlington continues to grow, the 2023 budget will make key investments to ensure our City services, amenities and infrastructure keep pace with the changing needs of the community and address the continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key investment priorities include:

• Enhancing front line service delivery with additional transit operators, firefighters, and bylaw and animal services staff to respond to your concerns
• Funding for two new community centres – Skyway Community Centre located at 129 Kenwood Ave. and the former Robert Bateman High School at 5151 New St.
• $72.6 million of capital investment in 2023 to keep our infrastructure assets like buildings, roads and parks in a state of good repair.
• New funding dedicated to cycling infrastructure
• New automated speed reduction program to help address local traffic concerns
• Free transit for youth (ages 13-19) on evenings and weekends

Al this is going to come to $60.31 per $100,000 of Current Value Assessment (CVA)

The property tax bill is made up of three portions, the City of Burlington (48.9%), Halton Region (33.4%), and the Boards of Education (17.7%). The overall tax increase is 7.52 per cent.

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8 comments to Council pontificates on the 7.52% budget increase they approved – warned that there will be another just like it in 2024

  • Stephen White

    The Mayor and Councillor Sharman’s joint statement on February 14th yields an interesting insight into their rationale and philosophy:

    “Some community members feel that the city should reduce spending on things that they do not like or use — yet others do use those things. The city attempts to serve the diverse requirements of our community. One person’s “nice-to-have” is another’s “must-have.” Meanwhile, inflationary pressure affects all of us, including the city.”

    As politicians their focus is on appeasing diverse groups. That’s how a 7.52% increase gets justified. However, the issue is one of relevance, practicality and price, not whether or not to provide it. Case in point: a sidewalk is a sidewalk. Will painting it with PRIDE colours improve visibility, enhance public safety, or reduce accidents? Answer: no. Will paying thousands for art in front of the Skyway Arena directing patrons to the entrance provide better directions than a simple sign? Answer: no. Will laying down four speed bumps in a six block distance on Spruce Avenue improve road safety? Answer: no. Symbolism is nice, but it comes at a price taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay.

    As the one voice of sanity on this Council I would have hoped Councillor Sharman would understand the criticality of evidence-based decision-making. The other issue is comparators. If every other comparably sized municipality is able to bring in budgets under 4% (e.g. Cambridge, St. Catharines, Sudbury) why can’t Burlington?

    • Lynn Crosby

      Agree with all you wrote, Stephen. In my opinion, everything is done first and foremost for their own election campaigns. They’ll likely ensure the tax hikes closest to the 2026 election are smaller. They’re putting the “appeasing diverse groups” stuff in now so they can use that later when campaigning. The meaningless quote you cite will likely be trotted out ad nauseum and repeated endlessly by everyone running next time. Sick of the sound bites and spin and the props.

    • Joe Gaetan

      The question that keeps rolling around in my head is, would this council have passed this budget in the run up to the last election? We will never know.

  • Austin O'Malley

    “In levying taxes and in shearing sheep it is well to stop when you get down to the skin.”

  • Joe Gaetan

    If this is what council can self-justify in a down economy, when taxpayers are hurting, the sky may not be the limit when things turn around. My favorite, a mere $100,000 for the “Open Roads” initiative. Open to whom? Oh, and setting up a parking reserve fund for Beachway from revenues. Could this be just one more slush fund to add to the slush fun cookie jar.
    To top it all off, this smugly group seems to have forgotten that it is the taxpayer who gets to pat people on the back and decide whether this was a good or bad budget

  • Ted Gamble

    Interested readers should consider reading Joan Littles opinion piece in the Spectator today. Joan identifies almost $1,000,000 in me wants that were rubber stamped in a much shortened budget meeting. Just when do we the citizens have the opportunity to vote this crowd out?

    • Blair Smith

      Better read it soon before the Mayor contacts the Spectator and demands a retraction – or Joan decides to soften things to protect her “iron rice bowl”.

    • Five months ago Ted! The Mayor bragged just beforehand that she was known for her million dollar budget trims. The votes she got gave her the opportunity to about face and instead go with the me wants rather than trims. Add the Bateman secret asbestos cost of fix which Council will not discuss publicly along with other stuff like what is still in the kitty from last budget and we have to understand the electorate maybe misread this Council’s ability to represent those who pay the bills in the tough times many taxpayers are experiencing.