Council takes red pen to operating budget draft

Ken Kellar

The Town of Fort Frances is anticipating a belt-tightening year, and its operating budget draft has been updated to reflect it.

At a special budget meeting held at the Fort Frances Civic Centre on Monday, town council and administrators met to consider a list of programs and expenditures that could be reduced or outright cut in order to bring the town’s budget into line. At a budget meeting in February, council tasked administration to come up with the list of potential cuts that could save the town up to $150,000 in operating costs.

Among items on the list that were considered were doctor recruitment, economic development and the town’s support of the meals on wheels program.

Currently, the town spends thousands of dollars each year supporting the meals on wheels program, and town treasurer Dawn Galusha, who presented the items to council for consideration, noted the working operating budget saw $11,000 in funding for the group that would end in June. Mayor June Caul commented that although the program is beneficial to seniors who use it, some of the meals could otherwise be provided by family members.

“I made a comment at [the Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting] today that sometimes we need to think with our head rather than our heart and I think this is one where my head is winning out over my heart, unfortunately,” she said.

“As I went through all of these, I was looking at ‘what impacts Fort Frances residents as a whole?’ and this isn’t one of them. I believe that we have to look at our budget for everybody in the town, and when it’s something that just is of value for a few people, I feel we need to think with our head, and so I’d be willing to take this out.”

Councillors Wendy Brunetta, Andrew Hallikas and Doug Judson suggested that the funding be reduced over time, rather than cut all at once, which they argued would dramatically impact the program’s ability to adapt to the change in financing.

“I think that if you take a big cut right away you threaten the organization, they don’t get time to make structural changes that could allow them to survive,” Judson said.

“So I would like to see a more gradual approach to that one so that there’s an opportunity there and that capacity isn’t lost to the community.”

It was then agreed that the funding would be reduced over time, with the total dropping to $5,500 this year.

Economic Development also came under the microscope during the meeting, with council agreeing with the proposal to cut $10,000 from the funding for special enhanced economic development assignments. Part of the rationale was the fact that the relatively new Municipal Accommodation Tax (MAT) could be used to make up the difference. The MAT is an additional fee “on accommodations provided for a continuous period of less than 30 days,” including hotel and motel rooms, bed & breakfast accommodations and AirBnB’s.

Town CAO Doug Brown also weighed in on the decision to reduce the funding for that item, and said he considered 2020 a year to undertake studies to determine the best course of action for economic development in 2021.

“One of the things that’s going to happen in 2020 is basically we’re going to take three properties in town, maybe four, they’re all going to be doing a development plan no different than we’re doing with the woodyard,” Brown said.

“I think we’re in a study mode in 2020 and then we’re going to come out with our guns blazing in 2021. We’re going to try finding something that will get us good paying jobs in industry, whether its high tech or wood fibre. I think this year is a study year, and I think there’s a lot of grants to do these feasibility studies.”

One other hotly debated item on the list of proposed cuts is $10,000 that is currently marked for the doctor recruitment efforts in the district. Mayor Caul said she was frustrated by the fact that many doctors she’s seen, leave soon after receiving the money.

“How many doctors have been given that incentive that we pay money for every year. They stay for one or two years and then they leave, so they get the money that we give them as a bonus, but they don’t stay?” she asked.

“That’s happened on several occasions. That’s where I come from – from the opposite side of the whole doctor recruitment.”

Councillors Brunetta, Mike Behan and Rick Wiedenhoeft argued in favour of not cutting the funding for recruitment, with Wiedenhoeft acknowledging that while doctor retention is an issue the recruitment team is facing, they have excellent workers who are going to improve the situation.

“I too sit on the doctor recruitment and I want to tell you that Todd Hamilton is worth every penny that we pay him, he works very hard for us getting doctors,” Wiedenhoeft reported.

“We are going to get better at keeping doctors too, because retention is a big part of that doctor recruitment and retention. We have to improve on that, and we will improve on that. With the new programs that we’re trying to get NOSM [Northern Ontario School of Medicine], we’re trying to get them to make sure doctors that are recruited for the north stay in the north.”

While the council did eventually decide to leave the funding for doctor recruitment as is, there was also discussion around finding more ways to increase funding from other sources in order to lessen the burden on the Town, including asking more businesses and municipalities in the region to chip in to the fund when they otherwise have not, or do not consistently.

In addition to the other reductions council agreed upon at the budget meeting, these decisions wound up reducing the operating budget for the town for 2020 by $108,960. The original list present to council had proposed savings of $152,006. With these reductions applied to the budget draft, council expects the overall tax increase to be 3.24 percent, which Councillor Judson acknowledged after the meeting was higher than people might want to see.

“I think what is important to take away this year is that it’s a challenging year,” he said.

“The municipality is facing some risk of some significant properties being potentially reassessed and not attracting the same tax revenue in the future, and that’s something that had to be compensated for. At the same time, there has been some downloading of costs from other levels of government and I think that it’s important that people know there’s also a number of costs that the municipality is required to carry, and we have no control over the size.”

Furthermore, he noted that in the past, other councils have kept portions of the tax rate below inflation, which feels good to our wallets in the moment but can have significant impacts down the line.

“It’s important that on an annual basis we be increasing our tax base at least to match inflation, otherwise we’re expected to do the same or more with less money every year,” he explained.

“And so at a basic level, you need to have that -I think it’s 1.9 percent this year, is the figure people have been talking about- you need to have that baked into your figures. So if you take the 1.9 and the 1.4 percent for asset management, you’re still at a bigger percentage number than the increase we actually arrived at, the 3.24.”

“If you’re not keeping pace with, at a minimum inflation, you are putting at some point, someone on the hook for a bigger jump that’s going to have to happen when there are bumps in the road,” he continued.

“I think that is the type of budget we’re looking at this year, and we’ve gone through a very diligent exercise, administration has done exceptional work, especially our treasurer, to provide resources to help us make some of those tough decisions.”