Opinion| City 2017 Tax Increase Makes Cents

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During discussion at the meeting on Monday at which council set the city’s budget for 2017, Ward 2 Coun. Susan Myers said a past council was severely criticized for not bringing in an increase in 2014, which just coincidentally was an election year.
No kidding.
It didn’t escape any of us among the tax-paying public that where we might not be paying now, we certainly would be paying somewhere down the line, such as the heavy 4.34 percent increase we have been handed for 2017.
After all, we had gone through this before. Joe Fratesi, when he was mayor in the late eighties to the mid-nineties and with an eye to the next election, always sought and succeeded in keeping tax increases at zero or as close to that as possible, meaning our infrastructure took a beating from which it never fully recovered.
In a twist of irony, after he switched from mayor to chief administrative officer in that infamous closed council meeting that led to what became known as the just-as-infamous CAO Affair, he also switched stands on tax increases.
He now favoured introducing them on a regular basis.
“No one is ever happy about tax increases,” he told council during discussion of the 2014 budget. “However, most ratepayers understand that in order to maintain existing levels of service and quality of life, increases in taxes are inevitable to meet increasing costs.”
Council ignored both him and his staff, using up the full $1.4 million surplus from 2013 and reallocating the $750,000 identified for Heritage Discovery Centre debt avoidance and approximately $575,000 from casino and gaming revenue, to result in an average urban residential property tax increase of zero percent for 2014.
“Staff has been realistic about putting our house in order. They’ve certainly put everything on the table this year,” Myers said of what they were given this year.
They put pretty well everything on the table in 2014, too. It was just that council, with an election in mind and not the financial pressure that this council is facing, wasn’t buying.
Ward 1 Coun. Steve Butland, seemingly looking pie in the sky with an unseeing eye, seems to remain unconvinced that returning the surplus to taxpayers in any year was the wrong thing to do, suggesting staff should look for ways to fund capital projects through debt-financing measures in the future.
But Ward 2 Coun. Sandra Hollingsworth, thinking along the lines of those of us who knew we were going to pay later, indicated she was disappointed with past councils using surpluses to keep tax rates down, saying they should have been kept for a rainy day.
I am not against using surpluses; I am against using them all so the cupboard is bare, which was the case after the 2014 budget was unanimously approved and is very close to the same situation this time around.
“We can get you to zero this year but budgetting isn’t about one year. It’s about one year and all the years to follow,” Fratesi told council back in 2014.
Council used $2.1 million of an unexpected surplus of $3.6 million and about $575,000 of casino revenue to get to the zero mark then.
Fratesi said staff was attempting to use less of the surplus because to use what council was suggesting could trigger an automatic increase of 2% in next year’s budget.
But he said it was council’s decision to make.
“It’s a gamble and one that we, as staff, cannot recommend but council can opt to go to,” he said.
Actually, as far as tax increases go, I think I probably with city staff and the majority of taxpayers in preferring somewhat of a tax increase every year in order to avoid a situation where we someday might have to go big.
And think about this. Staff in 2014 were only recommending a 1.35% increase. This was hardly  going to cause a great hardship on taxpayers, even those on limited income, because it would have translated into about only an additional $40 for the average homeowner.
This would have gone at least a little way to curtail the $100 we will be facing this year because of the 4.34 percent increase council arrived at after having a go first at 6.63 percent and then at 5.63 percent.
And CAO Al Horsman is on record as telling this council there is little left in the tank.
Undoubtedly council had a tough job to do in putting together a budget for 2017 and it was not all its own fault because of its handling of past surpluses. Times are not good in the Sault, especially with the downturn in the oil industry resulting in constant layoffs at Essar Steel Algoma and Tenaris Algoma Tubes.
But council managed to keep from cutting to the bone, keeping some of the things that concern quality of life, such as Sunday transit service, outdoor skating rinks and pools, summer works ditching and asphalt program, a full snow-removal program.
So I am positive this city will survive.
We just better never again have an election budget.
That might just make some of us mad, even though we in the Sault in general are a docile bunch.
I have a few of other comments on the budget.
I note the landfill site will now be open to the public from Monday to Saturday. I have no quarrel with the reduction of a day but I believe the wrong day has been chosen. A lot of people work all week and Saturday is the day they can haul stuff to the dump. To accommodate them it would be better to close Monday.
The household waste site is to be closed in winter and I see no problem with that as that is the way it used to be at the former site.
As I don’t put out grass leaves for collection, cutting off leaf and yard waste collection for the months of June, July and August won’t bother me. But it might some people. We’ll have to see if the $54,000 saved is worth the flak from people who have to keep such waste around for three months.
The fountain in the river by Clergue Park, which is removed each winter, is to be permanently removed, saving $25,000 annually.
But Myers told me a resolution will be going to council that would authorize the city seeking corporate sponsors.
Not going to cost the taxpayer a dime, can’t quarrel with that.
Doug Millroy can be reached at dmillroy@gmail.com.

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