Post #STCBudget meeting update from Nov. 23rd meeting #StCath

An eventful budget meeting on Monday, with the committee receiving information regarding winter control programs, the asset management plan and the budget night process.

With respect to Winter Control, the committee voted unanimously to maintain the level of service in the downtown with respect to sidewalk snow shovelling; staff had put forward a plan at the request of some Councillors  and residents about shovelling all sidewalks in the downtown, which is not currently done. Store owners and residents are currently expected to meet the same shovelling requirements as businesses and residents in the rest of the City. The committee felt that maintaining this practice was prudent, as the addition of streets not currently dealt with by the City would be upwards of $160,000 (obviously dependent on the severity of the winter we get). As it currently stands, the procedures around snow-clearing currently used would ensure that the new City facilities would be clear of snow already, without any additional cost.

The report regarding the Asset Management Plan was illuminating, specifically for Councillors who were not a part of the creation of the plan two years ago. As I pointed out last year, there are significant infrastructure challenges that the City will need to meet in the upcoming years, and maintaining as low a tax rate as possible is a requirement of this Council as we find a way to deal with these (expensive) issues. 

Indeed, as part of the Strategic Planning process earlier this year, there was near-unanimity from Councillors that the tax rate needs to be brought down to at or below the rate of inflation. The challenges Council will face with respect to roads, water and sewers, recreation facilities and trees are large and they’re not improving. It was reported last night that Council has not increased its contribution to maintaining road infrastructure over the last 5 years, and in fact, as a percentage of sustainable funding levels it has actually decreased its contribution. This can’t be allowed to continue, and the Committee will be tasked with finding savings in non-priority areas at City Hall to make sure the core services of the City are properly maintained.

As an addendum to the infrastructure conversation, staff will be bringing forward a report regarding Infrastructure Levies, which are being imposed in other communities to try and deal with the problems all municipalities are currently facing. For an example of a municipality that is looking  at an infrastructure levy, check out this article regarding Windsor’s current debate on exactly this topic. Windsor is often held up as a model community in terms of wise municipal spending, so it’s interesting to see what solutions they are seeking to their own infrastructure woes.

Finally – the committee is looking at ways to change the actual Budget Night process, to make things more streamlined and avoid the decision-making at 1:30AM problem we encountered last year. My hope is that Councillors will bring amendments to the table earlier in the process so that staff can detail for Council exactly how much their additions or deletions to the budget will cost/save the City. This has been an issue in the past several years, with some Councillors claiming massive savings that simply did not exist from their proposed changes.

As always – if residents have any questions, comments or concerns, feel free to email me at msiscoe@stcatharines.ca, email the budget committee at budget@stcatharines.ca, or tweet using the hashtag #STCbudget to get your opinion across.

And a reminder that the next budget meeting will be Wednesday November 25th in the afternoon, 3:30 at City Hall. The agenda for tomorrow night’s meeting can be found here.

#StCath City Council for November 30th – What’s on tap?

Easy to get out of the habit of doing these, but here goes with a rundown of what’s coming up next Monday night at 6:30 in Council chambers:

During the Regular agenda (located here):

  • We’ve got presentations on three topics, related to an award for the AODA 10th anniversary Champion Awards, an update and overview of Brock University and its future goals, as well as an overview of the proposed changes to the Lake Street Service Centre;
  • There are delegations related to affordable housing from Niagara Regional Housing and two public meetings regarding stopping up and closing unnamed streets and road allowances;
  • There’s a motion coming from the Mayor asking staff to report on the implications of eliminating property tax charges for Niagara Regional Housing properties;

During the General agenda (located here):

  • Reports related to the above public meetings;
  • The filling of two vacancies left by Councillor Elliott’s resignation from both the Economic Sustainability Pillar Committee and the Cultural Funding Task Force;
  • A supplemental report related to the creation of the Fire Master Plan committee;
  • A supplemental report related to the proposed consolidation of the Lake Street Service Centre;
  • Citizen appointments to the Museum and Arts and Culture Advisory Committees;
  • The Corporation’s Quarterly Investment report;
  • St. Catharines Transit’s plan for spending provincial gas tax money;
  • A report regarding the possibility of generating electricity from the kinetic energy in the city’s watermains;
  • The staff report related to Uber and car-sharing services in Niagara;
  • A report relating to future municipal consultation when placing cell towers;
  • And a report on the RFP process for the FOPAC Donor wall.

A number of interesting topics to be discussed, and I’m expecting a very busy and long night. If you have any questions, comments or concerns on any of the above topics, please drop me a line at msiscoe@stcatharines.ca.

Two #STCBudget meetings this week; what are your thoughts, #StCath?

Just a quick note to remind folks of the upcoming budget meetings coming up today, November 23rd in Council chamber at 4:30, and Wednesday November 25th at 3:30pm in the same place. There are a number of important topics being discussed in both of these meetings.

On the 23rd, the agenda includes:

  • Discussions with the Commissioner of Operations regarding the proposed Winter Control reserve budget, sidewalk snow removal for seniors and enhanced removal in the downtown and reports that have come to Council regarding Asset Management;
  • Proposed changes to the Budget night process itself – the proposal is to change to a two night process, where the budget would be presented and any amendments to the budget dealt with on night one, along with public comment on the budget, and the second night given over to debate of amendments and the budget itself, allowing staff time to explain the implications of any proposed amendments;
  • And timeline information related to the work plan of the Standing Budget Committee.

On the 25th, we’re looking at the following:

  • Changes made stemming from the November 3rd meeting on the Schedule of Rates and Fees;
  • And other issues held over from the 3rd.

If residents have questions, comments or concerns related to the budget, feel free to tweet them with #STCbudget, or email the committee at budget@stcatharines.ca. If you have any comments directed at me, I can be reached at msiscoe@stcatharines.ca.

What’s coming up at #StCath Council on June 22nd

A fairly routine Council meeting coming up on the 22nd of June. In Regular Committee, we’ve got a presentation of the Fire Marshal’s annual Public Fire Safety Award to Angela Greer, as well as presentations from Liz Palmieri at the Niagara Community Foundation, as well as the new Procedural Bylaw. There are also motions regarding the Niagara District Airport, as well as the Greek Festival. Agenda is here.

In General Committee, there are a number of different items to deal with (agenda here):

  • A report on the new Procedural Bylaw (see the report here). Of particular note – Council meeting will be starting earlier, at 6pm instead of 6:30pm;
  • The appointment of councillors to the Standing Budget committee (see the report here);
  • Parking prohibition reports for Birchwood Circle, Jasmin Crescent, Victor Boulevard, Hilldale Circle;
  • Turn prohibition reports for Hartzel Road/Lincoln Avenue/Keswick Street Turn;
  • An all-way stop request for Beech Street at Henry Street;
  • A proposal to declare surplus land near Harcove Street;
  • Early capital budget approval for a Niagara District Airport Capital Project;
  • The purchase of a Steinway Model D Concert Grand Piano for the FOPAC, using funds donated specifically for this purpose – I will admit, I did not realize a concert piano of this sort would cost north of $200K (report here);
  • A report regarding the DSBN Accommodation Review Policy (to which I will be declaring a conflict of interest);
  • A report regarding the CIP as it relates to 136 James St and 51 Lake St (whose report has not yet been published);
  • And the usual council correspondence.

As long as this list is, it does not appear that Council will be a late night on 22nd.

New Standing #STCbudget committee going forward – on tap at #StCath Council

One of the things up for debate on Monday night at St. Catharines Council is the establishment of a new Standing committee for the City’s budget process (report here).

In the past (this year included) Council has used an Ad-Hoc budget committee process; the committee was formed each year in December by Council, voting for 5 Councillors to join the Mayor in going through the budget process during January, February and March. These Councillors would generally deal with the Rates and Fees by the end of the Council schedule in December, and then get into the next year’s budget numbers by the end of January. The Actual number for the previous year’s budget would be given to the committee towards the end of the process (end of February, typically), and a recommendation would be sent to Council at the beginning of March, to be debated, amended and passed somewhere between mid- and late March. There are a number of issues I have had with this process over the 4 and a half years I’ve been on Council.

For starters – the City is a 106+ million dollar Corporation; there should be a committee of Council working on next year’s budget year round. One of the problems the City currently has is that, when the ad-hoc budget committee begins working, a portion of the year they are budgeting for has already passed. By the time the budget is sent to Council, in many cases almost 25% of the year is over; even if Council wants to make alterations, they will not have the impact many believe they would, because money has already been spent.

Another issue arises with respect to the Actual figures. When they’re received by the Ad-Hoc budget committee, most of the decisions have already been made. In the event of surprises (like we had this year) there is a very little time left to make changes to the budget without causing a ripple effect of problems across the corporation.

Additional to these, there is the learning curve involved in re-creating a budget committee every year. In many cases, the committee has new members, and they need to receive a crash-course in budget committee working to get up to speed and make a contribution. By establishing a year round committee, if and when new members are added to the committee they would have time to get up to speed on what is happening around the table.

Finally – and most significantly – a Standing committee eliminates the ‘once a year’ mentality that exists with an Ad-Hoc budget committee. Truthfully, every night is budget night; but perhaps in part due to the lack of a Standing committee, many on Council forget to consider the long-term budgetary impacts of their decisions. This year’s CIP, and the comparatively underfunded pervious years of the program, are a perfect example of this. In an effort to artificially lower the tax bill, short-sighted decisions to cut the dollars directed towards the CIP reserve required the last few year’s overcompensation. Had the CIP reserve not been cut in year’s past, the reserve would be fully funded to meet the obligation of the previous program, and there would be dollars available for this year’s program.

As it stands now, Council will need to continue to ramp up the CIP contributions to over 1.15 million dollars int eh next few years, just to meet previous obligations, without any new funding for the CIP. All of this could have been avoided if a Standing budget committee existed at the time to examine and remind Council of the consequences of those short-sighted decisions.

It’s my hope, and the hope of the rest of the committee who helped draft the report and recommendation, that this new committee will be bale to rectify this issues, and provide the City with a proper long-term perspective. Council has lacked that long-term perspective in the past, and our infrastructure and programming have suffered because of it. If we’re serious about building a City our kids will be able to choose to live in going forward, this is a good initial step.

What’s on tap at #StCath Council on 150608

A busy night (they all seem to be, lately) at St. Catharines City Council scheduled for next Monday night, June 8th. A copy of the General Agenda and the Regular Agenda are posted on the city website, both subject to change between now and the 8th. A few of the highlights:

Regular Council:

  • A townhouse development on Parnell Rd;
  • Presentations from the Kristen French Child Advocacy Centre Niagara (regarding Community Partnerships) and the Niagara Sustainability Initiative )regarding the City’s Carbon Footprint);
  • Motions regarding establishing a Port Dalhousie Supper Market, City Council’s meeting schedule and Inter-municipal Transit.

General Committee:

  • Grafitti removal;
  • First Ontario Performing Arts Centre rates and fees – this report is the result of a referral to staff I asked for after presentations at the Public Meeting a few weeks ago, and can be viewed by itself here;
  • Follow-up report on the proposed condominium development on Vansickle N – this will be the subject of another blog post this week, and the follow up report can be viewed by itself here;
  • the monthly cheque register;
  • a report on accessible parking spots and the zoning bylaw;
  • a revised site plan approval process;
  • Queenston St. reconstruction project;
  • sidewalk and curb repairs at 13 and 15 Moote St;
  • an update on the design and budget for the Fallen Worker Memorial;
  • the report to establish a new, Standing Budget Committee that would meet year-round – I’ll be putting another blog post up later this week on this topic as well – report is by itself here;
  • a report on a potential grant to the Kiwanis Club for Father Fest;
  • and the usual correspondence list for Council.

I’ve noted the reports of particular interest to me at this meeting, and as I mentioned I will have a few posts out this week about those issues separately.  As always, if you have any comments for me, email is the quickest way to get a hold of me at msiscoe@stcatharines.ca, although Twitter works as well (@MatSiscoe).

After-run thoughts regarding #StCath Council issues

I chaired the penultimate Ad-Hoc Budget Meeting for 2105 yesterday, where we debriefed on the process and made suggestions for how to improve the budget process going forward. There was general consensus that the days of an Ad-Hoc committee are over, and that the City, as its budget grows, now needs a Standing Committee that meets year-round. There are still details to be worked out regarding the composition and turnover of committee members, but in general we all felt it was important for the City to make this step.

If anyone has ideas on how to improve the process as a whole going forward, including ways to further engage the public, I am all ears. If I’m chosen by Council to sit on the new committee, I will be suggesting that Budget night be increased to two evening, with public presentations, staff presentations, Council preliminary questions and budget amendment proposals be done on the first night, and debate of amendments and the budget done on the second night (Monday and Tuesday, back-to-back in an ideal world). Budget nights have gone on later and later, and Council has been making multi-million dollar decisions after 6 or 7 hours, oftentimes well past midnight. This is a poor way of accomplishing things, and I think the above process will help things.

In addition to wrapping up budget, there are a number of other happenings around Council right now. Coun. Britton, Coun Elliott and I will be making selections for the committees under our Economic Sustainability pillar in the upcoming days; very lucky to have a long list of very qualified people interested in serving the community. The decision making process will not be easy.

Council was a relatively uneventful one, although we did manage to stay inside the 11pm curfew (a rarity these days). We heard a number of presentations about the rates and fees of the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre. I was a little surprised to hear the Executive Director suggest that more money would be required to operate the facility effectively, given that we’ve recently finished the budget process and this wasn’t mentioned when he presented to us. With that said, however, I’ve asked Staff to determine how this would affect the overall budget and what financial implications his increased ‘flexibility’ in negotiating rates would have to the City. If he can meet his revenue projections and maintain the overall integrity of the agreed budget for the FOPAC while having this flexibility, then it’s something we need to explore, at the very least.