Ward 4 residents tell Dennison they are with him on his tax cut plans – all 14 of them. Popcorn was served.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  February 17, 2012  Burlington has a practice of taking its budget proposals out into the community to both explain the document and get feedback from the community.  The city holds information sessions at different locations.  There were about 30 people at one of the city sessions.

Councillor Dennison explaining the budget to a constituent at his Ward meeting.

Jack Dennison, Ward 4 Councillor held  a session and got a turnout of 14 people. It is reported that Ward 5 Councillor Paul Sharman got a turnout of 5 people and John Taylor got a zero turn out.  We were not able to get a response from Councillors Lancaster or Craven. Of the six Council members Taylor has the most loyal following, spends the least on getting elected knows as much as anyone about the budget numbers.

Meed Ward has a dedicated Ward Advisory Committee she will have briefed fully. She gave them the workbooks handed out at the public meetings to take home and fill out.  She adds: “I encouraged residents to attend the open budget meeting held in Ward 2 at the BAC.”

Dennison’s ward event was held at his office on Cumberland.  I’ve never quite understood why these aren’t held at a more neutral location.  I don’t think a constituent should have to go to the council members commercial office for a meeting.  What if you were an unhappy customer at the Cedar Springs Sports and Racquet Club?  The setting was nice enough and the gas fireplace in the Heritage Room made it pleasant – but methinks there’s something wrong with using a commercial location.  Dennison however has never stayed all that close to the rules and the proprietaries of things.

For the most part Jack Dennison knew his numbers and his penchant for repairing the roads came through loud and clear.  The city does have a problem digging out the money it needs to keep the roads in an acceptable state of repair and as Dennison continually tells people – “if we don’t do the repairs now we will have to do them later and it will cost us more”.  He focuses on the “shave and pave” approach – a way to manage the maintenance of roads that is cost effective.  Burlington’s problem is that the city is so far behind – some $17 million a year behind – and getting caught up means taking money from something else.  Jack took his audience through his solutions.

The federal gas tax, the funds municipalities get from the federal government share of gasoline taxes – Dennison wants to change the way this is split.  Currently 70% goes to roads and 30% to transit.  Dennison wants that shifted to an 80/20 split which will move $500,000 into roads.  Don’t expect the transit advocates to buy this one, especially with a major transit revue about to take place.

Take money out of the Land acquisition fund. Dennison sees $400,000 coming from that source.

Jack Dennison speaking to "his people"

Dennison wants to see $1 million scrounged out of the different departments and applied to the road repair deficit.  His task now is to convince his fellow Council members.

His audience, mostly seniors or very close to being a senior, were certainly aware of the issues and while there were differences of opinion this crowd knew what they wanted.  The city’s plans for an “egov” service would not be in the budget for this crowd –  $600,000 plus saved there in this budget.  Dennison wanted the $2.3 million that is scheduled to cost spread out over five years but he explained that $600,000 has to go in during the first year.  This is one project that has a better than even chance of getting pushed back a year.

Dennison thinks less money should be put into the Land Reserve Fund but he was OK with the 2% increase that would be given to local boards: The Art Centre, Tourism and the Performing Arts Centre.  He was even comfortable with the $500,000 losses the Art Centre and the Performing Arts Centre rack up each year.

Ward 4 residents at community meeting working through their differences.

Dennison is not a big fan of the arts – don’t get him going on the “orchids” on Upper Middle Road and if you come up with a cheap way to get rid of the Joseph Brant Museum – Jack wants to hear from you.

Council instructed staff to come up with a tax increase of between 2% and 3.5% – they came back with a suggested 3.4% increase.  Dennison wants that walked back to less than 2% and he set out how he would do it.

One constituents wanted to know why the city was hiring firemen at $107,000. a year; another wondered why the city is re-developing the hospital and also why the words Phase 1 was on the sign – Is there a phase 2, he wanted to know.  Another felt the new hospital in Oakville could serve Burlington’s needs very well – they have all kinds of room to grow but Burlington has very little if any room to grow and the property is prime for residential development. “Turn the existing hospital into a long term care facility”  was his recommendation.”

These comments all make their way to the Council chamber where you can bet the mortgage payment that Jack Dennison will make mention of them.  Council members look to their community for  input and comment.  One council member is fond of the phrase “the word on the street is” but there is no sense of how many people are talking to her.

Dennison has always had a thing for the two parking lots in the downtown core – the lot off Brant and the lot next to the bus terminal.  He sees selling that land and using the money to build a parking lot as a big benefit for the city and has been promoting the idea of curtailing the length of John Street and getting some class A office space into that part of town.  Dennison has been pushing this one for more than ten years.

It may have been Councillor Dennison's meeting but the Mayor worked the room.

Mayor Goldring popped into the room for part of the meeting and would join the conversation to clarify or make an important point.  An issue that came up a number of times was the salaries, benefits and pensions paid to civil servants at city hall.  Tough to talk about how much you’re paying the people that run the city but Goldring is pretty consistent in his comments.  He points out that municipalities just can’t afford what they are currently required to put up.

OMERS, the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, has a “defined benefits” program which sets out what an employee is going to get paid come pension time.  If the investment fund, which is made up of employer and employee contributions, doesn’t produce enough income to meet the pension obligations, OMERS goes to the municipalities to pony up the difference which for Burlington is going to be $600,000 for 2012 $600,000 for 2013 and $1.8 million for 2014.  Ouch!

The investment program OMERS runs, requires an annual return of 7% if they are going to meet their payout schedule – do you know anyone getting that kind of a return, regularly?   When the investment portfolio doesn’t deliver that level of return – OMERS turns to the municipalities and requires them to top up – for Burlington that has means, Mayor Goldring points out that this just isn’t financially sustainable nor does he see it as equitable.  But, as he points out “there isn’t much an individual Mayor can do”.  However, there is strength in numbers and Goldring is meeting with an association of other mayors to discuss what some of their options are.  Goldring did explained  to the audience that the rules that govern the OMERS plan are up for review in 2013 – bet on the municipalities concern being raised to a howl.

The 2008 recession is still dragging down the economy of many small municipalities.  Taxpayers are unhappy with a situation where their taxes support a retirement program that is much, much better than the retirement programs most people have. Goldring expects to play a leading role in the effort to bring about changes.  It’s financially complex but Goldring’s financial planning background will serve him well.

The low ridership on the transit service took the usual hit – “I often see just one person on the bus” is a standard comment which Mayor Goldring corrected when he explain that in the Quality of Service survey the city had done 25% of the population uses the bus service; not every day but the service is used.  There is a major transit study in hand with three public information session planned for the next few weeks.

The Pier – hardly a mention.  One could almost hear the sigh of relief from Goldring on that one.

It was a friendly evening but there was an interesting point raised by Dennison: five to six years ago the attendance was closer to 45 people.  Why the drop off?

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