Every budget year presents challenges.
The budget just tackled by Barrie city councillors presented a number of hurdles, in particular the rise in inflation and the ongoing pandemic.
On Monday, council passed the 2022 capital and operating budget with a 2.92 per cent property tax increase.
On a typical home assessed at $362,740, this means an increase of nearly $131, or a property tax bill of just over $4,600 on that residence.
The tax increase is just below the rate of inflation.
“With inflation running close to 4 per cent in Ontario,” says Mayor Jeff Lehman, “it creates a risk when the municipality doesn’t keep up. By definition, it means we may need to be cutting things.”
“That being said, the rise in inflation, you know, is anyone’s guess as to how long it will last, and how much directly it affects municipal services.”
The mayor points out it’s well known that projects, everything from maintenance to pipes and parks, will be more expensive with inflation and the cost of construction.
“That being said, will some of our other costs rise as much? Probably not. So, it’s a benchmark, one of many we try and use to assess whether we are keeping up with the cost of living or whether we’re above or below it.”
One of the biggest shortfalls, says Lehman, is transit.
“As you can imagine, for various reasons, transit ridership is still well below where it was before COVID. We’re at about 45 per cent of typical ridership, but we can’t just offer 45 per cent service, or it would be well below that, and there would be people who couldn’t get to work, can’t get to medical appointments, and those sorts of things.”
He says service levels are close to 100 per cent. Lehman says there is a transit shortfall that will continue in 2022, and the city is banking on the ability to get some support for that from the federal and provincial governments.
Barrie Police is the single largest budget of the 60 or so different services the city delivers. There is $58.9 million for police in 2022, which is a 2.8 per ent increase from last year.
“Off of that 2.8 per cent should come a little bit for the new growth in the city,” says Lehman.
“We’ve made efforts now going back almost 10 years to reduce their(police) budget increases and bring them down close to the rate of inflation, or in some cases below it.”
Police will hold the line on the number of sworn officers at 245, while three civilian positions are added for a complement of 123.
Lehman points out that when the city had its budget tool online and comments were being received, Barrie police was a service that residents actually would like to see increased.
Salaries and benefits gobble up well over 90 per cent of the police budget.
Barrie’s share of operating and capital services provided by the County of Simcoe, such as children’s services, social housing, long-term care homes, paramedics, Ontario Works and health and emergency services is projected to be $25.05 next year.
The Barrie Public Library will be opening its Holly branch in the southwest part of the city in 2022, and presented a 2.03 per cent increase in its budget to almost $9.6 million next year. The library also has a branch downtown and one in the Painswick neighbourhood, in the area of Yonge and Big Bay Point Road.
The budget of Barrie Fire and Emergency Services contains a 1.93 per cent increase to $29.1 million. Just over 96 per cent is salaries and benefits.
City council also raised the curtain again on the Georgian College theatre.
“Five years ago when Barrie Central was still open and Georgian College theatre was still functioning, we had two large concert halls in Barrie, one with almost 1,000 seats and one with 700.” says Lehman.
The city operated the Georgian Theatre and the school board managed Fisher Auditorium.
“Now we have neither,” says the mayor. “Fisher has been demolished because it was not feasible to renovate it.”
Lehman says Georgian Theatre is very important because it is the only facility left in the city.
It means the cost of reopening is $200,000 for the whole year and, as Lehman points out, is nowhere near what it might cost to operate a much larger centre.
“I think it is a temporary solution, and if COVID permits, a return to kids dance recitals, live theatre and concerts, and we will be able to recoup a significant amount of our costs through the facility rentals.”
More importantly, says Lehman, Barrie won’t be the only city in Ontario where you can’t go to those sorts of things.
There is currently a city task force exploring options for a performing acts centre downtown.
The budget comes to city council for final approval at the Dec. 6 meeting.