Public talks 2023 budget at Penetanguishene Q&A

The town offered to talk money and the residents accepted, which resulted in a thorough 2-hour public discussion about the upcoming year for Penetanguishene’s finances.

Approximately 30 townsfolk braved icy winter conditions to visit the Brian Orser Hall where the municipality hosted a public question and answer session regarding about the upcoming 2023 draft budget.

Various charts and interactive signs circled outer walls, as well as tables for Mayor Doug Rawson, Deputy Mayor Dan La Rose, CAO Jeff Lees, and most members of council and department heads of staff.

Finance director Carrie Robillard gave a half-hour summary of the 2023 draft budget, able to gauge their reactions in person and simplify the tougher aspects for digestibility. Much of the information presented by Robillard had been discussed in-depth during the first and second December draft budget discussions with council.

Core topics involved the timeline of the budget process, a breakdown of rate-supported and tax-supported operating and capital budgets, major changes in the tax levy and tax rate, and an overall preliminary estimate of the potential tax impact.

Once the formal session was open, the floor opened up for questions.

“I’d like to know why the seniors in Penetang aren’t getting free bus service, when the Midland transit people… those seniors are getting free bus service,” asked resident Debbie Petrie; she had been able to attend but stated other seniors couldn't make it due to the inclement weather.

Staff replied that the transportation inequality was due to a grant which Midland had received and Penetanguishene had not.

“We have applied for that same grant and we haven’t heard back yet,” said Robillard who added that if successful, Penetanguishene would also offer free transit for seniors.

Dennis McEntee, a frequent voice at council meetings, read from prepared words regarding his suggestions for the budget: to shelve all discretionary and unnecessary expenses until economic conditions improve; to have council use the virtual Zoom platform to attend hybrid conferences as they had during the pandemic; a suggestion that all budget increases be capped at the current rate of inflation; and that budget discussions only address expenses and not revenue.

The discussion from a resident regarding the replacement of a culvert at the expense of the property owner was another concern brought to the meeting, resting outside the draft budget talks but no less important to that citizen; public works director Bryan Murray informed the resident the matter would be looked into.

"Any time you get the public out, you're going to get comments related to other items that might not necessarily be pertaining to the budget," said Murray who was pleased with the turnout. "But it's good to see and hear nonetheless so we can take it back and address those things."

Further conversations were had in the question and answer period, and following a door prize draw at the 75-minute mark residents had opportunities to approach the municipality directly and engage in informal fashion.

Rawson pointed out that in knocking on nearly 4,000 doors during the campaign trail last October, he had heard residents; many of whom were looking at him during the public meeting when responses were given.

"I didn't hear any new comments honestly," said Rawson, "but it reconfirms to me the priority for people, and that we can't turn a deaf ear and we've got to bring these forward."

New council members Suzanne Marchand and Bill Waters also attended. Marchand ran on a campaign of education in the town and was pleased with the turnout, while Waters was pleased at public response and looked forward to how the budget would be trimmed as a result.

With the public meeting concluded, Robillard stated that information from the public discussion would be available on the Penetanguishene website, and that all resident input would be accepted and compiled for further examination leading into the Jan. 25 council budget meeting.

All members of council and staff were very appreciative of residents in their engagement, and looked forward to future engagement as the term of council progressed.

Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, MidlandToday.ca