Town staff outlines department priorities in HE budget process

By James Matthews
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Town staff provided Highlands East town council with an overview of municipal departments.

The departmental snapshot described achievements over the last couple years and details about future objectives. The overview was provided during council’s public meeting Jan. 10 because the new slate of councillors, many veterans at the table, weren’t given a proper orientation after October’s election, said Brittany McCaw, the town’s deputy CAO/treasurer.

Worked into the overview were departmental requests to be considered as part of the 2023 municipal operating and capital budget processes.

McCaw said most departments requested more money this year over last year.

“Overall, we are looking at a $137,962 increase over our capital asks from last year,” she said.

From the capital forecast, the numbers will be put into operating budget process.

“We can start to give a full picture to council what it’s going to look like for our ask for the 2023, including all of our regular operating items and including our capital projects as it stands,” she said. “Unless there’s any that council would like to remove or shelve for the time being.”

McCaw spoke about the nuts and bolts of taxation, the establishment of budgetary priorities, accounting and auditing processes, and other mechanisms of town business.

The current collective agreement with the town’s unionized employees is set to expire at the end of this year.

Among last term’s accomplishments in the Administration Department were a building condition assessment, an organizational review, a review of municipal service delivery, and the implementation of climate change initiatives.

“It’s really exciting to see the work we’ve done and where we’re going,” McCaw said. “There is a large set of projects that we can be proud to have completed.”

She said there’s a full slate of projects for the future that staff hopes to get face-and-eyes into. Paramount among those is the completion of a corporate strategic plan and an effort toward opportunities for more housing in town.

Housing is necessary if the town is to recruit qualified staff to fill vacant positions within the municipality.

McCaw said $100,000 will be transferred to a reserve fund to go toward the construction of a new municipal office.

“We have been doing a transfer to reserves for the past couple years towards the new build,” she said. “When we do the build, the increase and the hit to our tax rate won’t be as large.”

Hand-in-hand with that is the need to hire an architect to design the town offices. There’s $100,000 earmarked for the hire and the design. Of that, $25,000 comes from a reserve that was set aside during the 2022 budget process.

“This money will come forward for use during this project,” McCaw said.

The corporate strategic plan will avail of $50,000, half of which will be raised through taxes, McCaw said. The town has applied for a grant to go toward the strategic plan, but its status isn’t yet known.

Deputy Mayor Cecil Ryall inquired about a process to address tax arrears beyond two years.

McCaw said she’d have to consult with taxation staff, but there’s a tax sale this spring for a couple properties.

“But it is our mission to try to work with the property owners,” she said. “To tell them, You are in the two years of arrears, and we need you to start making payments.”

Haliburton County is also considering a corporate strategic plan, but the upper tier council has elected to use in-house expertise as opposed to recruiting an outside consultant.

Ryall said the content in the Highlands East plan will differ from what will comprise the county’s. But, he said, the format and the process by which the plan is completed would be the same.

“Do we need to spend the money on a corporate consultant,” Ryall said. “Or could we first work with the county to see if what they’re doing makes sense for us and can we apply the same logic here and save us some money?”

McCaw said there isn’t anybody at town hall with the expertise to complete a strategic plan.

Ryall suggested the town “time-lag” themselves behind the county’s process so they can get an idea of how to put a strategic plan together.

“We would be able to pick up what they (the county staff) have learned,” he said. “So at the end of the day we would not be as dependent on the consultant for the basic information.”

Regarding the coin allotted in reserves to hire an architect to design new town offices and the money to get the structure built, Ryall said it’s been years since the town looked into a cost estimate for the project.

“How are we going to finance this thing before we spend $200,000 on something that we may or may not be able to afford?” he said.

Shannon Hunter, the town’s CAO/treasurer, said $100,000 has been tucked away as part of each of the last four municipal budgets.

“The municipality is fortunate enough to have a very healthy reserve base,” she said. “So to think that we couldn’t afford it is not an answer right now.”

Fire Chief Chris Baughman said the department’s priorities include ongoing recruitment efforts, the promotion of qualified personnel into leadership roles, and to continue to improve equipment and training.

Ryall said he’s heard about the possibility of a county-wide master fire plan. While that’s a good thing, he wondered if there’s such an effort in the offing specifically for Highlands East.

“All municipalities are planning on implementing a master fire plan,” Baughman said.

Jim Alden, property supervisor at the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Facilities, said streamlining efficiencies to reduce cost and maximize productivity is at the top of priorities for this year.

“Overall, the department is made up of a good team of people who work well with one another,” he said.

There are a number of vehicles to be replaced, he said, and developing a trail master plan is to be done this year.

Ryall said a trails master plan is required. And that’s going to lead to areas identified that will require repairs and other areas where trails will need to be built. He said people come to Highlands East to spend time outside walking, riding, and cycling.