Sussex drops tax rate two cents with new budget

With growth in its tax base through new builds and higher assessments, Sussex council moved Wednesday to knock two cents off the tax rate.

The town approved its general fund and utility fund budgets Wednesday at a special council meeting, when it also set the tax rate at 1.2030 per $100 of assessment for most residents. Revenue from tax increases is still set to increase 9.9 per cent, which Mayor Marc Thorne said was down to "an incredible amount of new construction and investment in the community." Sussex has seen a 11.7 per cent increase in the tax base, or $67.1 million in total assessment value in Sussex, with a 20 per cent increase in building permits, according to the budget.

"Anyone who owns a house, (is) paying property taxes or trying to raise a family, the increased costs over the last year or so, they're tangible," Thorne said. "It is so important to attract investment and expand your tax rates to offset those pressures, and that's what we're seeing in Sussex."

Thorne said the province is facing "a whole stream of issues" following the COVID-19 pandemic, including supply chain issues and high inflation. "For us to be in a position where we can deliver the services that we feel our citizens need and to deliver what we feel is a high quality of life, and be able to decrease our tax rates ... in my view is remarkable."

The tax rate for former residents of the Sussex local district who are now in the town's jurisdiction was projected to rise five cents from 0.667 as they are brought in line with local rates. Thorne brought up the possibility of waiving that amid the cut for other residents, but Coun. Fred Brenan said the goal of equalizing the rates was important. Council approved easing that to three per cent in light of the break for the rest of the tax base.

CAO Scott Hatcher called it a "nimble forward-looking budget" in his report to council. He said amid growth, the town is looking to address capacity issues and add staff through the growth process. That includes a move to bring winter maintenance for the former village of Sussex Corner in-house, leading to the addition of two staff in the second half of the year, and an additional firefighter.

In terms of long-term needs, Hatcher spoke about the need for a new fire station in five years and consolidation of the municipal works department into one facility. The capital budget for this year is expected to be addressed at an upcoming meeting. Hatcher added that the town would be assessing core water and sewer systems in the coming year to assess possible needs for expansion.

The general budget also includes a 7.3 per cent increase in expenditures, which includes wage increases of 3.5 per cent for union and non union staff after council voted to approve a new collective bargaining agreement with CUPE 2145 and increases for non-union staff. Community Services director Jason Thorne said there will be an additional staffer to take community services to teams of three and three for the winter and summer. There's also going to be an admin assistant moving from part time to full time, he said.

Funding for Kings Regional Service Commission services are currently set to increase by 39 per cent, with the province's unconditional equalization grant dropping by 14 per cent to $415,273. Thorne told council he expects more of the grant money to go to the RSC until the number eventually drops to zero.

That number doesn't include solid waste services or the Sussex Regional Library, the latter of which is currently being held off in case the library is not funded through the RSC, according to documents. On Tuesday, the RSC voted against its proposed budget, with an attempt to reconsider adding the library to the facility's list failing at the same meeting.

Policing costs are increasing by 3 per cent, and the fire service budget is increasing by 4.5 per cent, which includes the additional firefighter as well as money to move fire chief Tony Reicker to a full-time position in the department, which has a mix of paid and volunteer members. The transportation budget is up 10 per cent, according to Public Works director Chris Butcher, which comes from increased costs, including higher-quality asphalt operations, and higher wages.

The utilities budget projects a 5.3 per cent increase in revenue and expenses, which comes from maintenance and wages, Butcher said, with "pay as you go" capital costs through operating. Part of that was expected to come from sales coming through those paying for sewage dumping, with Thorne saying it was important to reduce reliance on for operations in case it's legislated out.

Staff recommended raising the water and sewer rates by 2.2 per cent to $206 and $254 per unit, respectively, but Coun. Paul Maguire asked if it was possible to put off the water increase for residential customers due to high household costs.

Treasurer Heather Moffett called it a "trade-off," which would require continuing to rely on the dumping fees. Hatcher said staff could revise the rates without affecting total revenue, which is expected to come back when the bylaw is put before council.

Thorne told council that the last 18 months had some of the "most rapid change" he'd seen during his career in public life since 1997, and said that combining Sussex and Sussex Corner has been the "catlyst for change" that has been a mutual success.

Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal