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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

County Council reduces proposed 6.13% budget increase to 5.27%

by Sylene Argent, Local Journalism Initiative

Council for the County of Essex chipped away at the 6.13% proposed 2024 tax increase Administration presented during the first budget deliberation last Wednesday to 5.27%.

County Council will continue discussion on the 2024 County of Essex Budget at the January 17 meeting as an added addendum to the regular meeting. Administration was directed to make recommendations to get the tax increase down to 4.95%.

During the nearly six-hour meeting, it was explained the County Operating Budget was originally submitted as $86.9M. The County Capital Budget was submitted as $46.7M. In total, the County of Essex responsibility was submitted as $133.69M through the 2024 Budget, up from $123.5M in 2023.

This would have the tax rate impact for a household valued at $100,000 assuming no change was made at the 6.13% increase at $547.31, an increase of $31.60 from 2023.

Melissa Ryan, Director of Financial Services/Treasurer, said fundamental principles in putting together the budget is to ensure service-levels are delivered, maintaining commitments to the community represented through discretionary funding levels, and putting consideration into the corporation’s future financial stability.

Contributors to the 2024 Budget includes increases to contractual wages, health benefits, the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) contributions as part-time staff are now able to join the program, in addition to utilities, construction costs, and in information technology as the County moves towards a cloud-base system.

“The proposed budget balances fiscal responsibility with maintaining service levels at a time when inflationary pressures are high. It proposes substantial investments in frontline healthcare, affordable housing, and infrastructure that are important for continued growth and the quality of life for residents,” Essex County Warden and Mayor of Leamington, Hilda MacDonald, said.

“Reviewing and setting the budget is one of the most important jobs Council performs,” MacDonald added. “I don’t think the public always appreciates the work, the home work, and the pressure that we feel when we work on budgets. It may appear that it is a boring task, but I always feel the responsibility of it.”

What was brought forward in the budget is what staff believes is needed, County CAO Sandra Zwiers said, in responding to County Councillors who asked what the needs were versus wants in the budget.

If there is desire to reduce the tax increase, Zwiers suggested eliminating the 0.5% increase to the hospital reserve and fund half of the 20% increase for the County’s Health Benefit Plan from reserve.

In the first attempt to lower the proposed increase, County Councillors did vote to remove the 0.5% year-over-year increase ($580,000) to the Windsor-Essex acute hospital reserve, but will still fund the annual contribution of $6.3M, as it is ahead in putting funds away. This is the second year in-a-row the County has done this.

The funding strategy model used includes a year-over-year increase of 0.5 percent of the levy, which would have made the hospital contribution projected to be $6.9M this year.

The County has a $100M commitment to this project to be collected over several years, as the province requires a 10% community contribution the City and County need to cover. The City is also putting $100M into the project. The County has been putting funds away every year to meet this and is ahead.

Removing that year-over-year increase had a 0.46% reduction impact on the budget.

In the County of Essex Reserve schedule, 2023 closed out with around $44M in the Hospital Reserve. It is projected the County will have around $51M in this reserve by the end of this year.

The other change County Council supported included to reduce the tax increase was to fund half of the 20% increase expected for County employee health benefits from the Health Benefit Rate Stabilization Reserve, instead of this being fully dependent on the tax levy.

Zwiers the County’s health benefit plan increase in renewal fees was mostly related to costs relating to drug and dental. She noted the Health Benefit Rate Stabilization Reserve is meant to help smooth contract increases. County Council could use that Reserve to help offset those costs.

She suggested spreading that cost over two budget cycles, using a 50% buffering of that health benefit increase by pulling $473,820 from the Reserve.

This afforded for around a 0.4% saving in the tax rate.

Combined, those two changes brought the 2024 draft Budget down to a 5.27% increase.

Through the proposed document, County Administration requested nine new staff positions, including in the library system. This does not include EMS paramedic staff requests. It was explained during the meeting that the County’s procedure is to hold funds for new hires through the budget process, then bring them up to Council later for official approval to move forward with recruitment.

In clarifying to Council about start times of potential new hires, Zwiers noted the funds proposed in the draft Budget were for the estimated portion of the year these individuals are anticipated to be employed, depending on their start date. She spoke of how including a portion of a wage in that first year budget will increase for the second year as it would then incorporate a full year salary.

The breakdown of the total County Tax levy includes 39% to Infrastructure and Planning Services, 27% to external commitments, 12% to emergency services, 11% to long-term care, 6% to Community Services, and 5% to library services.

County Council provided approval for each of the department budget estimates  Proposed increases per County Department, which could come from the tax levy or through reserves, were proposed as:

• $201,880 to Community Services to address the need and implementation for County homelessness programs and affordable housing strategy, and an additional position of a Community Services Coordinator.

•  $2,137,540 to long-term care for Sun Parlour Home, with the main driver being related to salary increases as PSWs receive an additional $3 per hour in compliance with Ministry guidelines. In addition, the RPN wages were also increased by $1.50 per hour. There was also an ask for a new Assistant Director of Nursing position. It also includes upgrades and equipment.

•  $1,169,170 to Emergency Services, prioritizing responsible asset management in replacing eight ambulances, three early response vehicles, one District Chief vehicle, and 44 automated CPR devices. It further asks for funding for 12 additional full-time paramedics, on top of the four approved by Essex County Council in November. It also recommends one shift-scheduling clerk. It also includes a review and update to the EMS Master Plan. EMS is funded through the County, City, Township of Pelee, and the Province. Of the municipal share, the County’s allocation is 51.314% of the EMS budget, based on population.

• $2,750,430 to Infrastructure and Planning Services, which includes a 5% addition from 2023 to cover inflation related to construction costs, and includes renovation to the Civic Centre for the Community Services and HR areas, wage increases, proposes rebranding the contracted Climate Change Coordinator position to a Senior Planner for Climate Initiatives and Environmental Impact Assessments, and adding a Senior Planning Consultant. Around 82% of the budget for this department is spent on maintenance and construction of the County’s transportation assets. The overall department budget of $52M includes nearly $36M worth of construction and nearly $6M for maintenance. The Transportation Master Plan is in progress.

•  $753,600 to Library Services associated with staffing cost increases related to negotiations, meeting demands for extended staffed hours at the Harrow branch by adding one additional employee there, due to demand through feedback and program uptake, and maintaining three full time positions covered by reserves in 2023. It also asks for a new server replacement in IT, and covers facility maintenance.

The Library Service had a 10% increase in attendees last year than what was experienced pre-pandemic. There was also a 15% increase in active cardholders over 2022. There are now 51,880 active cardholders.

Adam Craig, Chief Librarian, noted the previous administration and Board for the Essex County Library System began the implementation of a system that allowed cardholders the ability to access certain branches during set hours that were not staffed. He said he is opposed to this, as libraries are about people and making connections with the community. He also spoke of having concerns about liability associated with allowing people into facilities outside staffed hours. He would not advocate expanding that program.

Essex Mayor Sherry Bondy noted the Harrow Branch did previously have its staffed hours cut in half, so the addition in the budget is regaining those lost hours due to the system implementation that allows cardholders to access facilities outside staffed hours. She said Harrow’s staffed hours are 15.5 per week now. It used to be 32. 

Kingsville Mayor Kim DeYong would like to see more hours in Cottam and Ruthven.

•  $740,750 to General Government Services, including the desire to create a new clerk position by separating it from the Director of Legislative and Community Services role, a front desk position, reserve-funded legal student in Legal Services, a full time IT Director, an IT co-op student for the full-year, investments in human resources initiatives, and a service delivery review for Legislative and Community Services.

•  $2,344,400 to External Commitments. This includes legislated and non-legislated categories. The WECHU asked for a $42,000 increase, proposed $200,000 increase to social housing to support long-term the renewal plan, an increase in discretionary contribution to the new Windsor Essex hospital system by $580,000 (which was removed), and a placeholder of $200,000 to support capital at Erie Shores HealthCare as asked at a previous County Council meeting. This would be a ten-year annual commitment. These funds were in the Budget already, as they were previously going to Hospice, through an obligation which expired.

This also includes the commitment to the Bridge in Leamington of $48,000 an annual 20-year commitment, and a $1M investment to Building Bridges Erie Shores 36 unit housing project (a two-year commitment of $2M) through the Social Housing Capital Reserve.

Through this category, funding is committed to Invest WindsorEssex and TWEPI which did not ask for an increase in funding, the Community Safety and Well-Being Plan, and tax appeals for lower tiers system.

Ryan also noted the County focuses on using financial reserves wisely, as it pertains to the Reserve Strategy to maintain steady taxes, minimize surprises, and establish a robust financial foundation. She explained it is estimated there will be over $230M in reserve in 2024, a decrease of $35M from 2023.

Essex Deputy Mayor Rob Shepley asked if there was appetite to pull the proposed $2,050,000 of funding to reserve to address existing social housing stock, increased from $1,850,000 last year, from the budget. He made that a motion, but noted he would also be interested in just removing the $200,000 increase.

His concern was how the $2M over two-years contribution to The Bridge came out of reserve and this contribution went in, which doesn’t show the contribution to The Bridge on the tax levy. He had concern that this was hiding that funding to The Bridge.

Based on the length of the meeting, Kingsville Mayor Dennis Rogers put forward a motion to remove Shepley’s motion from the table and discuss it at a further budget meeting. This passed.

LaSalle Mayor Crystal Meloche then moved to reconsider the contribution to the Bridge, just to get it back on the table and have further discussion and get more clarification, such as on the timeline.

Zwiers noted Admin recommended the request for a $2M contribution be over two-years from the Housing Stock Reserve to the Bridge. Council could extend that over more years, if desired.

It was noted in order for The Bridge to seek federal grants for the $11M project, it needed support from municipal partners. Not funding that could jeopardize getting federal funds.

For the past two-years, discussion at the County-level has taken place on the need for affordable housing, Tecumseh Mayor, Gary McNamara, said, and this is an opportunity to support a project. He said it didn’t make sense, and would be a huge mistake, to not support it.

Being on the Windsor Essex County Housing Corporation Board, which the County supports through its housing reserve, Essex Mayor Sherry Bondy said the cheapest way to get individuals in social housing is to renew the houses they are in and keep them in good repair. She would not support reducing funding to that reserve, but did want to see County Administration look at other External Commitments and potentially cut them. She wanted to see the tax increase reduced further.

It was also noted during the meeting, the County did have a reduction in the Ontario Community Infrastructure Funds it receives from the province annually for 2024 of over $72,000. Ryan suggested offsetting this through the County’s Rate Stabilization Fund.

County Council approved the request to fund $172,646 from Rate Stabilization Reserves for Infrastructure and Planning Services projects and the building assessment consultant, and approved $50,000 from the Capacity Expansion Reserve for a Feasibility Study.

In addition, County Council heard a delegation from the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce, which represents nearly 700 member businesses and organizations that employ over 30,000 people in Windsor and Essex County.

In connection with the County Budget, representatives of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce proposed a series of suggestions for County Council to consider, based on response gathered through a survey conducted this year with its business community.

Key factors identified through the survey they passed along to County Council to consider in its budget decisions include investment attraction, transit development, a small business property tax subclass, housing affordability, infrastructure, addressing environmental challenges, tax transparency, and homelessness, mental health, and addiction.

“We believe by carefully considering implementing these suggestions, the County can contribute to a more vibrant, inclusive, and economically prosperous community,” Rakesh Naidu, CEO and President of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce said.


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