Some items previously jettisoned as part of budget discussions were brought back last night, as council makes its way into the fifth and possibly final draft of Collingwood’s 2024 budget.
Council voted to add back the hiring of a new forestry co-ordinator and voted to not remove a new engineering manager position from the 2024 roster, even though the vote went the opposite way on Nov. 20.
The flip-flop raised the temperature around the table a bit with some back-and-forth debate on the democratic process.
“I think we just keep bringing things back until we finally get them passed. I don’t know what democracy we have around here sometimes,” said Councillor Rob Ring.
Coun. Kathy Jeffery noted that the Nov. 20 meeting occurred while she and Doherty were absent.
“The greatest support for democracy is when we’re all here and represented,” said Jeffery.
Items removed by councillors as part of the fourth draft discussion include the hiring of an AODA contract position, reducing the budgeted amount for a new town website in half to $60,000 and reducing the budgeted amount for landfill at the public works yard by half to $63,750.
Items added back in this round include hiring a full-time forestry co-ordinator, and adding a line item for $14,000 per year for five years for physician recruitment.
The forestry co-ordinator would be tasked with overseeing the town’s tree canopy and work on implementing more of the town’s urban forestry management plan. The request was expected to cost about $260,000 which would include the salary for the co-ordinator, as well as a vehicle purchase and costs for contracted services.
“It’s the start of a journey, that will have tremendous positive domino effects for (our) departments going forward,” said Coun. Deb Doherty.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” she said. “If we let things get too far out of hand... if we don’t look after our tree canopy, the cure could be far worse than just the prevention for now.”
Councillors voted 5-4 in support of bringing back the forestry position into the budget.
The discussion about a hiring a new engineer began in confusion.
Multiple councillors said they were under the impression they were voting at the Nov. 20 meeting to remove the new engineering position from the budget, but chief administrative officer Sonya Skinner clarified that they had instead voted against hiring for the position early, prior to the 2024 budget being ratified. She said the position is still included in the 2024 budget, to start in 2024.
“When I voted last time, it was not for pre-approval, it was to take it off the budget,” said Ring.
“I’m sure it was a motion to remove it from the budget when I voted,” said Deputy Mayor Tim Fryer.
Jeffery said she was in support of the engineering manager position as the town needed more capacity for engineers with all the public works projects and new developments coming down the pipe.
“It’s time we get that department in order and working well in the way it is capable,” said Doherty.
A vote to remove the engineering position from the 2024 budget put forward by Fryer on Wednesday was defeated by a vote of 5-4.
During discussion on physician recruitment, Mayor Yvonne Hamlin noted she had been informed that a new doctor had expressed interest in opening a practice in Collingwood, but was looking for an incentive to do so.
If approved, the entire $70,000 over the five years would be spent on that specific doctor.
“Other municipalities are doing this,” noted Hamlin, pointing to Wasaga Beach offering new doctors space in a new medical building and $100,000 in incentives, which was funded through Wasaga Beach’s share in revenues from the Wasaga Playtime Casino.
“I’m not against physician recruitment...my only concern is that this is the start of a precedent where every time a new physician wants to come to town, we have to dish out to them. Where does that end?” asked Coun. Deb Doherty, noting that the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) has expressed concerns about the practice, known as doctor bonusing.
“It might stop happening, so why would we start?” she said.
Coun. Brandon Houston reminded councillors that Wasaga Beach had already set the precedent.
“I wish they hadn’t. The doctors we’re attracting are young, new doctors with a significant amount of debt,” he said.
Deputy Mayor Tim Fryer expressed concerns about competing with neighbouring towns.
“The issue for me is, you (pit) municipality against municipality,” he said.
Coun. Kathy Jeffery put forward an amendment that if the doctor recruitment funding is approved, that the town enter into a memorandum of understanding with any doctor who uses the funds that their practice be restricted to Collingwood residents, and they commit to taking on 1,000 patients within 18 months of opening their practice. The amendment and motion were passed by a 7-1 vote with Doherty opposed.
As of the fourth draft, the tax increase for 2024 sits at 3.73 per cent, not including all the changes requested by councillors during a special meeting of council on Wednesday night. Those changes will be rolled into a fifth draft with an updated tax increase, to be presented to councillors at their meeting on Dec. 18.
According to the staff report on the first 2024 budget draft prepared by town treasurer Monica Quinlan and first presented to councillors at their Oct. 16 committee of the whole meeting, staff took a “back to the basics” approach with the budget this year, but noted doing so comes with risk.
For this year’s budget exercise, town staff divided the budget into four priorities. All items marked in the first priority group are considered extremely urgent and were included in a base two-per-cent increase budget.
Priority one items include increases to salaries and benefits for existing staff, new staff hires for an engineering manager ($160,000), business analyst ($98,000) and a part-time administrative assistant to the mayor and council ($50,000), and inflationary items such as increases to insurance (10 per cent), natural gas (eight per cent), hydro (four per cent), materials (salt, sand and other 4.5 per cent) and fuel (seven per cent).
Council is also considering three other groups of items: the second priority is considered urgent, the third group is considered important and the fourth priority group is considered important but could be deferred to a future budget year.
The tax rate and overall final budget will be determined based on how many items in each of the priority groups council approves.
As of now, the entire 2024 draft budget for the Town of Collingwood accounts for $141.2 million in spending, with $70.3 million to be spent on operating costs. The capital budget for 2024 accounts for $71 million in spending.
Councillors will be presented with the fifth draft of the 2024 budget at their regular meeting on Dec. 18. Councillors will have the option to give final approval to the full budget that night, or they could choose to make more changes and request another draft to be brought back in January.