Council waiting for public input on town budget

Some councillors were reluctant to suggest any numbers as to a future tax increase for Fort Frances residents at a committee of the whole meeting here Monday.
Instead, they’re opting to wait and see what the public thinks—especially how people react to a new set of user fees to be released March 1.
“We don’t know what the financial impact of the user fees will be, and we don’t know what the community will think of them,” Coun. Tannis Drysdale said Tuesday afternoon.
“To pick a number [for a possible tax increase] would be premature,” she added, noting the new user fee schedule might not be acceptable to taxpayers nor passed by council.
And if the latter were to pass it, but taxpayers were unwilling to pay the new rates, it would be even worse for the town to be left with no user fee revenues than current levels.
These user fee increases, which have been discussed by the various executive committees and currently are being compiled into a single document, will be unveiled at a special committee of the whole meeting March 1 at 4 p.m.
They also will be advertised in the Daily Bulletin and Fort Frances Times to give the public time to study them and then give their input to the town.
The release of this proposed user fee schedule is exactly 21 days before the March 22 council meeting, where council is expected to vote on a bylaw to adopt the new schedule or, if public response dictates otherwise, an altered version of it.
Coun. Todd Hamilton agreed with Coun. Drysdale that it was too early to start talking about tax increases when other means of revenue haven’t been revealed—let alone approved.
“I thought it was important not to get hooked to a number right now. You never know—maybe we could do better,” he noted, referring to the possibility council could have picked a percentile for a residential tax increase Monday and end up building a budget around it without considering solutions other than that taxation.
Coun. Hamilton said he’s eager to see the town inform the public as far as exactly what Fort Frances’ financial situation is.
“If the public could sit in on the meetings I’ve been in, and see the uncontrollables—the DSSAB, health unit, police services—and how those costs have sky-rocketed, they’d understand why we need a tax increase,” he remarked.
“I really encourage people that have opinions and questions to come out to the meetings and understand what we’re working with here.”
Coun. Hamilton noted the public should realize that Fort Frances hasn’t been keeping up with other communities, such as Dryden and Kenora, when it comes to tax increases to match annual inflation.
Nor, for that matter, some other sources of revenue that help prevent situations such as this—where the town may be forced to put forth a significant tax hike.
However, Mayor Dan Onichuk said Tuesday that while he fully supports informing the taxpayers and getting public input before finalizing the 2004 budget, he noted he’d like council to produce a fixed number to work with at this point to get a better idea how high any tax increase may end up being.
“But there’s still some reluctance among some councillors. Nobody wants to say what that tax increase might be,” he said.
As reported in Tuesday’s Daily Bulletin, the public will be treated March 15 to a complete breakdown of the town’s options when it comes to how it is going to pay for the projected $2.7-million shortfall first reported a few weeks ago.
Coun. Drysdale suggested the town provide budget information on its website while Clerk Glenn Treftlin suggested the public should be able to give budget input via e-mail.
Mayor Onichuk suggested a Power Point presentation, with information being broadcast directly on the TV screens in people’s homes through a Shaw cable broadcast.
Work on this aspect of the public meeting began yesterday.
Citizens then will be able to offer their opinions as to possible levies, fees and cuts, which council will take away with them for consideration—ideally to have the 2004 budget ready by March 31.
The committee of the whole will continue its budget talks with a meeting on capital projects set for this Friday at 11:30 a.m., followed by another tentatively scheduled for Monday at 4 p.m.—before its regular committee of the whole meeting that day.
They will meet again at 4 p.m. on Monday, March 1, then at 4 p.m. before the regular March 8 meeting.
Thanks to a myriad of meetings and much work on the part of council and management, the budget process has been slowly moving ahead.
As reported in Monday’s Daily Bulletin, the committee of the whole met last Friday, where a total of $724,564 in reductions were unveiled in reports from the division managers.
This money was combination of the increased GST rebate, confirmed tax revenues stemming from additional assessments (but not levy increases), cuts to staff travel and training, and cancelled transfers to reserves.
None of this trimming included eliminating jobs, closing facilities, or creating new user fees.
While such reductions have not been approved, they tentatively reduce the total shortfall to about $2-million.
(Fort Frances Times)