Parry Sound Council and Staff met last night, March 13th, for round two of the budget discussions. There has been an earlier meeting in February that reviewed the ‘wish list’ in terms of town expenditures as requested by the departments and various community groups. This meeting revealed there was a large gap, about $1.8 million, between what was being requested and the projected revenue for 2012. Last night’s meeting attempted to eliminate that gap, and for the most part seems to have succeeded. I’ll provide a short summary of what I thought I heard.

All seven council members were in attendance as well as the town staff department heads. There were three people in the audience. James King from the Moose-FM was the only media present. I’m sure he will be providing a report on air of what he heard last night. The audience included only one person from the Parry Sound Citizen Finance Committee. This is a disappointment. Although this group will meet separately tonight, attendance at last night’s meeting was necessary to understand the issues that council and staff are wrestling with. In general I find that too many people in Parry Sound sign up for committees and then fail to attend meetings. If people want a place at the table they need to show up or they need to offer their seat to someone who will.

The meeting lasted about three hours. Here are some of the highlights. If you want more detail you need to start attending the meetings; there is no admission charge.

  1. By the end of the meeting the budget gap stood at about $450,000. If this gap is not eliminated or reduced it implies there will need to be a 2% tax rate increase. In addition to an expected increase in property valuation assessment from MPAC this amounts to a 5.7% overall increase in average property taxes.
  2. On the income side, the town lost $149,000 in federal grants that were made available in 2011. There was a 2011 budget surplus of about $650,000 that will be brought forward to help reduce the budget gap. There was good news in that FedNor agreed to pick up 75% of the cost of the capital improvement expense at Big Sound Marina.
  3. Capital equipment was a significant part of the 2012 budget. The town has put off investments in heavy equipment for a few years and it coming back to bite. Staff will be look at leasing options. Leasing may be a reasonable way to address the budget gap. The biggest piece of equipment needed is a 7-ton plow truck that costs about $200,000. Paying for it out of this year’s budget will be a big hit, but it will have a 10-year plus lifetime. Leasing will raise the cost, sort of like one of us leasing a car, but it helps even out the expenses. Not a first choice, but a reasonable choice with a large budget gap.
  4. Staff proposed that another capital equipment purchase, the Fire Department’s $1.3 million fire truck, be deferred for at least one year.
  5. Public transportation was a major topic of discussion. This is one of the larger town expenses but is little used. It is likely that service will be cut unless ridership rises. It’s not just the cost of the service that is an issue; it’s the fact that so few people are benefiting. There should be no immediate cuts but expect to hear something from council by the end of the summer.
  6. Staff proposed a freeze on cost of living salary increases and salary reviews for non-union staff. They are putting their money where their mouth is.

There were many, many more issues discussed and wrestled with. It seems this year’s very large budget gap is not a surprise to staff and council. Expenditures in previous years pointed to 2012 as a point where expenses peaked relative to income, with the following years coming into balance much more easily. Tough decisions remain to be made, including the possibility of a small increase in the tax rate to get over this ‘hump’ year.

My sense is that Parry Sound council and staff have made decisions over the past few years that on balance have had a positive return to the community. Yes there are cheaper places to live, but not many that offer as much value. You can move to Seguin or Carling or McDougall if you want cheaper property taxes. But what about the additional cost, in dollars, cents and time, spent on commuting to work or school or shopping or social activities? It adds up pretty quickly. And let’s not forget about other services that these municipalities don’t provide. I have lived with a well, septic tank and water purifier – I’ll take town water and sewer.

Local communities are able to hitchhike on the back of Parry Sound. By virtue of our investments we are able to offer shopping resources, the Stockey Centre, the Bobby Orr Community Centre, free boat launches, summer entertainment and much more to our residents and neighbours. We pay and they benefit. It may not seem fair but it’s part of the price of living in Parry Sound. We must be doing something right, the last census showed that the permanent population of Parry Sound has grown in the last few years versus a drop in Seguin and no change in the other municipalities. People are voting with their feet.

Okay, we’re down to a $450,000 budget gap that may mean a 2% rate increase. I expect council and staff will reduce that deficit a little and we will need to pay a little more. But the worst may be behind us. If council and staff can continue to keep a rein on expenses going forward we should not be faced with similar increases in 2013 and beyond.

Next meeting will be March 21st, details will be forthcoming. Be there if you want to understand how things are done. I suggest you contact members of the Citizen Finance Committee if you have any suggestions to offer. Oh, unlike one of our neighbouring municipalities, don’t expect insults and high drama at this or any other council meeting. This is a council and staff that is determined to work as a team.