APRIL UPDATE – MIDLAND WE HAVE CAUSE TO PAUSE!
As Mother Nature tries to decide whether it’s winter or summer, Midland Council is also facing major decisions about the future.
New Official Plan
A special meeting of Council was held on April 16th at the NSSRC to hear from the public about Midland’s proposed new Official Plan. The Natural Heritage System and its prominence in Midland’s new plan drew almost all the submissions that night. Concerned individuals and employers expressed a recurring theme – that the proposed measures were excessive, heavy-handed and detrimental to Midland’s prospects for growth.
2019 Budget – April 24
While yet to be finally approved, Midland’s proposed 2019 budget has generated little dissent or discussion about a net 2.95% increase in Town spending after taking in additional revenue of 3.7% from new assessment. This is a spending increase of 6.7% for 2019 following an increase of about 7.5% in 2018. This is apparently OK because the increase is just under the 3% maximum our new Council established a few days after it took office. It is not clear though whether 3% was understood to be a maximum increase in the Town’s spending or in the Town’s tax levy.
In addition, the proposed 2019 Budget will spend $ 750,000 from what is called the Police Services Reserve. Like other reserves, you might think this is “real” money the Town actually has in a bank somewhere. But no, it is only the projected cost difference over ten years between MPS municipal policing (more costly) and OPP policing. Of course the reason Midland made the switch to OPP in the first place was to ease the burden on taxpayers by avoiding some of the cost escalation for policing. But this budget is using money we don’t yet have and didn’t want to spend to subsidize current operations.
This three-quarters of a million dollars is being “borrowed from the future” and the only way to balance the books is either to charge taxpayers the full ten-year projected cost of MPS policing that we were trying to escape or to hope there is enough new growth in Midland to cover it all off. That may be wishful thinking because even with assessment growth of 3.7% supporting this year’s budget, the tax levy will still increase by almost 3%.
One of Midland Council’s strategic priorities has been “Fiscal Responsibility”. Maybe this year should be “the year to stop spending money we don’t have and start reducing operating costs”.
The budget also includes long-term hikes in water and sewer charges – 5% annually for 5 years for water and 4% annually for 13 years for sewer. These same increases were considered unacceptable during the 2018 budget review. Water is a basic necessity of life. Even if rate increases are needed to fully recover costs here, how can the Town justify still subsidizing non-residents for such things as library services and recreation?
How about our prized downtown small business community, specifically the 130+ BIA members, many of whom petitioned council to delay the ‘Big Dig’ until 2020? Many are concerned for their financial future as the Big Dig looms and new costs get added to Midland’s operating budget. Commercial taxes are already high and water and sewer charges impact them all. Town staff and Council should focus on flawless execution of the Big Dig and do everything possible to mitigate any potential harm. The success of our downtown business core is foundational to any development we hope to generate at Midland Bay Landing.
To be fair, there are elements of the 2019 budget, especially in form and presentation, which are significant improvements. For instance clearly separating one-time costs and one-time revenues from more permanent, recurring items helps Council and the public better understand what to expect in future years. But we remain troubled by significant parts of the budget content.
Why are we concerned?
Midland citizens and businesses do not have the ability to pay for expansive wish lists. A recent KPMG study concluded that Midland has high local taxes and low incomes – in other words “champagne tastes on a beer budget”.
The Provincial Government has given notice that it is reviewing the structure of regional and local municipalities which suggests we may look materially different in the near future. The Town added new staff in 2018 and is budgeting for additional staff again in 2019 along with costs to retain multiple consultants. We think Council should not make major commitments like these until the future is more certain.
The same Provincial Government has alerted municipalities that it will “bring forward legislation and concrete policy changes that would impact planning province-wide in the coming months”. Minister Clark went on to suggest “an interim pause on… reviews of Official Plans or comprehensive zoning bylaw updates until this work is completed”. To Council’s credit, it did adopt a motion by Councillor Cunningham to direct staff to pause further work on the new Official Plan once the consultant comments on recent submissions from the public on the Official Plan. Hopefully those who are instructing the consultant and the consultant himself will curtail additional work and spending that may be for naught.
It does not make sense to consider hiring more people when existing municipal jobs may be at risk and Official Plans for small municipalities may vanish with amalgamation.
Midland needs to avoid sliding back to a “tax and spend” mentality where public resources are treated as almost limitless. The budget is ultimately Council’s decision. Councillors have to run the Town as they would run their own households or businesses. There are now unpredictable clouds on the horizon. Borrowing large amounts from the future to fund current operations digs a financial hole Midland may never escape. Midland needs to remove the new hiring and spending from this budget and remove at least the same amount the budget takes from the unfunded Police Services Reserve.
We’re reminded of a famous quote – “If not you then who, if not now then when”?
Midland Matters, You Matter and Making INFORMED Decisions Matter!