The costly twin stings of an ongoing pandemic and high inflation rates have turned Windsor’s annual budget-making into a much more challenging exercise for local politicians.
City hall’s number crunchers were tasked last year by the previous council to come up with departmental budgets that could absorb five-per cent spending reductions. But a preliminary 2023 budget draft released Monday and going before a new council review committee later this month is calling for a 5.2 per cent property tax levy increase.
And that hike for municipal taxpayers, already paying rising prices for food, fuel and other day-to-day costs, only stays that low if city council agrees to administration’s proposals for $10.4 million in spending cuts.
As a corporation, the City of Windsor spends about a billion dollars annually, with municipal taxpayers supporting that amount in 2022 to the tune of $438 million in property tax levies. The proposed 2023 budget would see that total rise by $23 million, to $461 million. Each $4 million in new spending equates to about a percentage point added to the tax levy.
With a number of fresh city councillors elected in the fall, a new operating budget review committee was struck to give municipal politicians an early opportunity to meet with financial staff, department heads and other administrators and pore over hundreds of pages and thousands of entries representing the preliminary 2023 budget estimates.
The all-day review committee meetings run from Jan. 23 to Jan. 26. Administration’s preliminary budget estimates, including a 65-page executive summary, as well as supporting department-based documents, are posted on the City of Windsor website. This month’s meetings are not open to the public, but submissions to the committee can be made via the city clerk’s office — [email protected] — by Jan. 23.
Public presentations will be part of council’s formal 2023 budget deliberations in April. The City of Windsor website also contains online “public engagement tools” designed to “help residents better understand how their tax dollars are spent and provide feedback in advance of the 2023 budget deliberations.”
It’s a “very complex budget … we’re facing some big challenges,” Joe Mancina, the city’s chief financial officer, told the Star. “It took lots and lots of work and hundreds and hundreds of hours to pull together the figures and estimates.”
That effort got underway early last summer. Setting the annual budget and a municipal government’s spending priorities is perhaps the biggest job of a mayor and council.
“It’s a really important exercise for all municipalities — (the budget) sets the path and the plan for the year ahead,” said Mancina.
To assist politicians and the public, administration has offered lists of spending items in ranked classifications starting with category A, with nearly $15 million in new spending over which council has little choice but to accept. At the other end, category F, administration has offered $18 million in “not recommended” possible cuts that could be used to achieve an overall tax levy increase closer to zero.
Days before the Oct. 24 municipal elections, incumbent Drew Dilkens said he was the only candidate running for mayor of Windsor pledging to “hold the line on taxes,” which he described as keeping any 2023 budget hike “as close to zero as possible.”
Category A among the classifications includes such items as $447,000 in contractually obliged fuel and inflation add-on spending for Green for Life’s 2023 waste and recycling collection. The humane society animal control is another contract with built-in annual inflation adjustments, including an additional $83,800 in 2023.
Category F — almost all of which would require much fiscal fortitude on the part of the politicians — includes $1.3 million in potential savings by getting rid of summer student hiring to keep parks cleaned and staffed. Another politically unpalatable suggestion would be the snow level at which residential streets would see a city snow plow being raised from the current four inches to six inches, translating into a $1.1 million savings, but administration warns that would come at the cost of icier roads, additional liability claims and more staff time needed to deal with more public complaints.
Category B — $4.3 million in “highest priority” recommended increases — includes $1.25 million added to the pollution control reserve, without which administration cites a “significant risk” to critical infrastructure. Also recommended is $550,000 added to the streetlight maintenance budget to better reflect the actual current spending of $1.6 million. Another high priority for new spending is an additional emergency communications operator ($103,000), in part to off-set “significant” overtime costs due to a current staffing shortage.
Category C — $4.5 million in recommended new spending to “maintain or improve service levels” — includes the hiring of a third deputy fire chief at an annual cost of $219,427. Potentially controversial, politically, is a recommendation to take a “measured, fiscally responsible approach” to implementing the Transit Windsor master plan by focusing on improving bus service only “where the need is greatest,” at a potential savings of $932,000.
Transit Windsor is another Category F target, where a five-per cent budget reduction would realize a $2.8 million in budget and taxpayer savings. Administration notes, however, that this “not recommended” measure would also translate into a 10 per cent service reduction.
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But it’s Category D — $10.4 million in “reductions recommended by administration” — where most of council’s budget deliberations could take place. Many of the big-ticket items here are marked “in camera” so likely involve trimming staff levels.
The recommendations in this category, however, are deemed “extremely important” by Mancina and administration, and he said they come after “a significant amount of work … (and) an extensive series of meetings.”
Category D includes extending the operational times for the city’s nearly 1,500 parking meters by three hours, to 9 p.m. ($400,000 anticipated new annual revenue); and jacking up late-paid parking fines from the current $25 to $40 ($285,000 in anticipated new revenue).
Mancina points out that city department operating needs account for only three per cent of the 5.2 per cent property tax hike figure in the 2023 draft document. The rest is from requested increases from agencies, boards and committees (ABCs) at one per cent ($4.6 million), as well as council’s previously approved asset management plan at just over one per cent ($5.1 million).