| Apr 06, 2006


Feature Article - April 6, 2006

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Feature Article - April 6, 2006

Frontenac County budget lands with a 6%increase

by Jeff Green

Frontenac County staff took longer to put the county budget together this year because of financial software problems and some last-minute changes to provincial funding for ambulance service.

In fact, the final draft budget was presented to the Frontenac mayors last Thursday even though the ambulance subsidy levels were still not available, and the actual spending figures for the county in 2005 had not yet been finalised.

The final draft called for a 6.2% increase in the county levy to taxpayers, down from 10.7% in the previous draft. The county levy makes up about 22% of the overall property tax bill.

The change came about mostly because of increases to provincial transfers for the Fairmount Home for the Aged and the Frontenac Ambulance Service, which together account for the bulk of the county budget.

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The Frontenac mayors met twice on Thursday, from 3-6 and from 9-9:30 before giving final approval to the budget estimates. Some final tinkering brought the budget in with an increase to the taxpayers of 5.96%.

These final changes resulted from the elimination of a $20,000 site development study for the basement of Fairmount Home, and of a $5,000 provision for tax rebates. These cuts were offset by an increase in the pay for members of county council of $1,500 per year for councillors and $2,500 per year for the warden.

The tinkering of the final budget numbers did not satisfy North Frontenac Mayor Ron Maguire.

During a two-hour afternoon meeting, Maguire made several proposals. He wanted to see some budget cuts, and to pay for more of the budget using the county’s accumulated reserve funds. His proposals had been outlined in a memo he sent to county staff and the mayors earlier in the week.

It contained 19 suggestions, ranging from a $1500 cut in the $3,500 county advertising budget, to an increased $200,000 draw down of county reserve funds.

“I will not be in favour of any tax increase in our basic budget. Indeed, I would like to see a modest tax decrease …” Maguire wrote in the preamble to his budgeting memo.

County Warden Bill Lake said that bringing in a tax decrease, or even keeping the budget increase to the 3% rate of inflation, was not so simple.

“There is nothing we can do when hydro rates go up 6 or 10 per cent. Or when the province makes demands on us that cost more money to meet. Sometimes costs go up and you have no control over that,” Lake said.

Frontenac Islands Mayor Jim VandenHoek was reluctant to change the depleting county reserve funds.

“I can’t consider these proposals of Mayor Maguire without a sense of what this would do to our reserves. As the budget stands now, are our reserves up or down?” he asked of County Treasurer Marion VanBruinessen as the first part of the budget meeting drew to a close. “Could you get us that information before we come back.”

Following a supper hour joint council meeting, where members of council from the four townships met to discuss various issues, the mayors returned to finalise the budget.

Marion VanBruinessen informed Mayor VandenHoek that the reserve funds will see a decrease of about $300,000 in 2006.

The county maintains a variety of reserve funds, some of which are directly connected to programs whose costs are shared with the City of Kingston . The main fund that is accessed to supplement the county’s own operations is a $2.5 million working capital reserve fund.

At that point, Mayor VandenHoek moved that the $20,000 study and the $5,000 charitable rebate line be cut, and that the rest of the budget be approved as presented by staff.

Mayor Maguire asked for a recorded vote, and then registered the only no vote. The budget was approved.

In a subsequent interview, Mayor Maguire said he had voted against the budget because he thinks the budgeting process is flawed. He mentioned that there was not enough time allotted to consider the many issues he raised around the budget.

“All in all I found the process unsatisfactory. We were pressed for time when we finally had a chance to go over the budget, and I could sense that the Warden was very conscious of that,” he said. “The second thing is, and this is a theme that I had pursued last year, that we just had too much in reserves. I don’t get much traction with the other mayors on that one.”

Maguire admitted, however, that the county’s auditors told him the county’s reserve funds are in line with other clients they serve.

“There is no magic rule in regard to reserves, as far as I know,” said Central Frontenac Mayor Bill MacDonald, “and we are drawing down reserves this year. The bottom line, for me, is that we have a good staff at the county, and they present us with information, and you have to go with the information you have. To go any more in depth, would almost become an exercise in micro-managing.”

As the result of an average increase of 22% in property assessment throughout Frontenac County , the tax rate will be decreasing by over 13% in spite of the overall levy increase of 6%. Taxpayers will pay about $287 for every $100,000 of assessable property they own, compared to $330 in 2005.

(Late breaking change: On Tuesday afternoon, Warden Lake informed the News that he received a fax from the Province of Ontario detailing the increase in the provincial transfer for ambulance costs. He could not reveal the figures, but said they were higher than the amount that had been estimated by the county in preparing their 2006 budget. The budget will thus be re-opened at the April 19 county council meeting, and the provincial transfer will be used to mitigate the 5.96% increase)

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