Council scrutinizes first day of 2023 Midland budget

Thrown into the deep end, the new term of Midland council splashed around during their first of three days into the 2023 budget discussion.

What didn’t help them swim were clerical errors and general confusion regarding placement of the 329-page document alongside a 61-page agenda that had several scratching their heads on where items were located.

Faced with the proposed 4.93 percent town tax rate and 4.20 percent blended total tax levy impact (at $1.25 million), it was the tax-supported base operating budget which council tackled at the start.

Acting CAO and executive director of environment and infrastructure Andy Campbell began the day by alerting council that they would have “the luxury of being the first council in the history of Midland” to deal with assets and a deficit reserve under regulation demanded by the province.

“Just for our core assets,” said Campbell of roads, wastewater, stormwater, etc., “the deficit there is $980-per-household today that would have to be charged every year in the future if we wanted to break even.”

He praised staff who had internally made a 0.37 percent ($95,000) reduction heading into the meeting, adding, “If council wishes to make further reductions, I think it’s on the policy side.”

All motions were “approved in principle” as Mayor Bill Gordon explained to council that further discussion could be had throughout the process, prior to the final vote on Thursday.

Water and wastewater operating budgets were looked at, and with gross expenditures water was approved for an operating budget of $3.8 million and wastewater approved for $4.3 million; a $0.43 water and $0.39 wastewater increase to the new rates for typical users would be looked at for adoption in an upcoming meeting of council.

Coun. Catherine MacDonald was quick to ask staff where the appropriate pages were for reference in the documents, and continued to request nearly all department heads who approached the podium throughout the day. Gordon noted that a better presentation in future budgets would make the process easier for council to understand.

After some discussion on how to gloss through the staff financial explanations to avoid a fourth day of budget talks, things went quickly through the capital budget side.

The new requested expenditures for the 2023 capital budget was set for $13.1 million, but council amended the amount through four alterations. At the town dock, gardens on the pier for $60,000 was deferred until 2024 and a contentious harbour master plan at $75,000 was deferred until 2025. A line item for vehicle mitigation barriers of $92,000 was removed entirely, and some maintenance at town hall for $30,000 was deferred until 2024.

Coun. Bill Meridis questioned nearly every department as the opportunity came about, but even he admitted to thinking he was prepared coming in and instead was “all over the place” with pages everywhere.

That didn’t stop him from catching a clerical error involving a wastewater truck for $55,000 which had been purchased in the 2022 budget, and a second truck for another $55,000 in the 2023 budget which had Meridis making a comment regarding “a double count”, to which CFO Lindsay Barron assured council was not the case. Staff caught an additional clerical error: a $58,000 revenue through consolidations to the human resources area of the budget.

Another sticking point for MacDonald was over costly consultant fees for the many projects in Midland’s present and future to-do list, resulting in her suggestion to look at hiring an in-house position which would reduce the need to seek outside sourcing for project information. Gordon shared his own counter opinion that consultants’ knowledge were “an inch wide and a mile deep” and unique for each project, which was why they cost so much but were a valuable resource.

A line of questioning by Deputy Mayor Jack Contin about the town’s official plan conformity exercise (at a $75,000 cost) allowed planning, building and bylaw director Adam Farr to summarize the difference between Midland’s unique ‘natural heritage’ designation and the province’s specific ‘natural heritage systems’; the two are to be clarified at a later date for simplification in Midland’s development process.

Council opted not to remove the community grants and donations from the 2023 budget, as Coun. Jim Downer noted some organizations depend on grant matching by other levels of government to assist; however, council did make a note to look into phasing the $64,000 amount out in future budgets and instead look to other assistance methods such as the annual Tiny Township Mayor’s Golf Tournament.

Despite facing exhaustion, a majority of staff voted to continue through one final budget area of corporate services, where Gordon praised the previous council for taking initiative in securing cyber security and cyber insurance following an a ransomware attack on the town in 2017, adding that the municipality was lucky to have obtained insurance as a result and maintain a good risk profile.

On Wednesday, Midland council will address remaining tax departments of fire and planning, building, bylaw and parking, and environment and infrastructure; requests for service level changes and council and committee budgets; and the first of many agencies, boards and commissions.

Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, MidlandToday.ca