City Hall has set a target. Now it’s up to city staff to hit it, regardless of COVID-19.
Monday night’s meeting of Barrie council saw ward representatives vote on a plan to guide what the city’s budget should look like for 2021, setting an increase of 1.95 percent as a benchmark. This year’s goal is made all the more rigid by the impacts of COVID-19 and the service providers that Barrie has depended on throughout the crisis.
The budget will have to take into account the operating and capital costs of several service providers. In fact, a bulk of the city’s budget is dedicated to these outside agencies. That means it’s hard to find savings elsewhere. “About 45 percent is our service providers,” said Barrie CAO Michael Prowse. “Historically, although council has asked them to toe the line on cost increases, if you look back for years, and in fact for probably decades, the reality is they have come in significantly higher than that, and for city staff to then meet a lower budget request, that means, internally, we have need to find additional savings.”
These providers include the County of Simcoe, the Barrie Public Library, local conservation authorities, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit and the Barrie Police Service. A motion to probe budget reductions and ask for further scrutiny of the Barrie Police Services budget by Councillor Keenan Aylwin failed, with the majority of councillors voting against his ask for both. Despite this, he says there is a desire for change when it comes to the city’s commitment to the police service’s budget. “Hundreds of people engaged in our online suggestion platform … on a call to reduce our police budget by 10 percent in 2021.” Aylwin said during Monday’s meeting, “This may be the fastest a suggestion has reached the required threshold to be considered by council, so there is clearly a desire in the community for action on this front.”
Ward Five Councillor Robert Thomson countered by saying he’s hearing from his residents of a need for more police officers out-and-about. “My residents in Ward Five are asking for more patrol, more officers downtown,” he said during Monday’s meeting. “To move a motion like this, it’s a great sound byte, but I think it’s reckless. Safety is the number one thing in anything: workplace, in city, everything.”
Either way, the police service should expect to hear a lot more about where its finances should be devoted this year. Mayor Jeff Lehman is expecting much more public feedback in the process. “The police board budget process has not, over the years, received a lot of public consultation, nor has there been a lot of effort to get that input,” he said. “I think one of the things I can confidently say right now is that will certainly be a lot different.”
Mayor Lehman pointed out, given the pandemic’s effect on the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s demand on personnel and resources, there was little chance of it being able to scale back its finances in 2021. “There’s just no way they’re coming back in 2021 for a major reduction or a flatline in their budget,” said Lehman during Monday’s virtual meeting of council. “I suspect they will be one of many service providers that will have an increased service demand.
Lehman points out this whole exercise is in spite of a lack of federal or provincial assistance. “We’ve received no relief from the federal or provincial governments, we know that. We’re still hopeful there might be some,” Lehman said. “What we’re trying to do is look forward to 2021 and give reasonable direction.”
City staff have also been instructed to prepare a ten-year capital plan that addresses its growth and needs for infrastructure over that time. The report outlining all the directions given to city staff is available online.
According to the staff report filed at City Hall on Monday evening, the effects of COVID-19 are expected to be felt throughout the city’s 2021 Busines Plan and Budget and admits the details of the changes remain unclear.
Despite impacts of COVID-19 on city services and resources, it is anticipated staff working at City Hall will have a Business Plan and Budget ready for approval in late January of 2021, not far off the typical time city council would be expected to rubberstamp its budget.