By Chad Ingram
Published Feb. 14 2017
Haliburton County residents are likely looking at a tax rate increase of about five per cent on their upper-tier tax bills this year.
County councillors discussed the 2017 draft budget during a Feb. 3 meeting.
The preliminary budget contained a tax rate increase of 4.98 per cent over last year a rate that would equate to an increase of $9.19 per $100000 of assessment for residential properties and $13.63 per $100000 of assessment for occupied commercial properties.
The draft budget contains approximately $21.6 million in spending $15.5 million of it to be levied from taxation. The remainder comes mostly from provincial and federal grants as well as contributions from reserves and user fees and other locally generated revenues.
This year the county undertook a zero-based budgeting approach “which basically means we look at every line item” treasurer Elaine Taylor explained staff then deciding whether those line items are necessary or whether some historically budgeted amounts are too high.
This approach resulted in a decrease in the operating costs of some departments.
“This could be the beginning of a better way we look at our budget in the county” said Minden Hills Reeve and County Warden Brent Devolin.
As always the roads department budget is by far the largest departmental budget at approximately $6.5 million.
Health services will cost approximately $3.2 million and social services approximately $1.8 million.
General government which includes everything from administrative salaries to IT services to council to building and miscellaneous expenses totals about $2.4 million.
About $830000 is budgeted for the Haliburton County Public Library $400000 in the tourism department approximately $370000 for the planning department and about $110000 for protective services (this includes bylaw and 911 expenses).
Salaries and benefits will increase by one per cent in 2017 with salaries and benefits comprising 41 per cent of total budgeted expenses.
The county continues to deplete its reserves.
“Suffice to say our reserves are on a decline” Taylor told councillors. The municipality started 2017 with approximately $2.2 million in total reserves reserves which are forecast to be at less than $1.7 million by the year’s end.
Going back to 2011 the county had more than $4 million in reserves. For years county council has been drawing upon reserves to help with budgets and mitigate tax increases.
“I know they’ve got to be used to help but I don’t think we should be getting to a point where you’re depleting them completely” Minden Hills Deputy-reeve Cheryl Murdoch said.
Ideally municipalities should have the equivalent of at least a quarter of a year’s total budget in reserves.
Haliburton County is sitting around five or six per cent.
“We have very little debt” said Dysart et al Reeve Murray Fearrey. “Pretty easy to have 25 per cent when you go out and borrow the way we haven’t in the last 10 years.”
Fearrey said some neighbouring municipalities owe tens of millions of dollars.
The county does have about $3.5 million in debt which it borrowed to help with infrastructure projects the bulk of that scheduled to be paid off within four years.
Devolin pointed out that in the eyes of the province it is preferable to carry some debt with indebted municipalities getting the majority of provincial grant money.
“If we don’t carry any debt they don’t think we’re trying hard enough” he said.
While it won’t be a factor in 2017 going forward it’s likely that the county will have to make budget allocations for a paramedicine program.
Paramedicine entails paramedics visiting patients often high-risk seniors still in their homes doing checkups and providing basic medical care.
While the county did undertake a paramedicine pilot program a couple of years ago it had little uptake and did not prove very successful.
However as councillors learned at the recent ROMA (Rural Ontario Municipal Association) conference similar programs were apparently very successful in other rural communities.
“Paramedicine that we tried here and what I said in these council chambers was a bomb apparently worked well in other parts of Ontario” Devolin said. “It’s very early but we know it’s coming.”
County chief administrative officer Mike Rutter said the municipality still had the infrastructure used for the program – such as tablet computers etc. – in place.
“It was a colossal failure here and we have to address that” Rutter said. “Moving forward we have to find a way to make it work in Haliburton County.”
Councillors looked for ways to trim the budget including removing $5000 it has traditionally given three of the four lower-tier townships on an annual basis to aid with tourism activities.
Minden Hills was historically excluded from that funding as until late last year the county operated its tourism information office along Highway 35 in Minden.
“We’re taking it from the taxpayers and giving it back to ourselves” Fearrey said of the funding. “It’s just stupid.”
Councillors seemed to agree the loss of the nominal funding would make little difference to their lower-tier townships.
“It’s just a drop in the bucket” said Algonquin Highlands Reeve Carol Moffatt. “It’s essentially inconsequential to Algonquin Highlands.”
Budget deliberations will continue.