North Bay City Council approved the City of North Bay's general operating budget by an 8-3 margin Tuesday night, with Councillors George Maroosis, Mark King, and Scott Robertson opposed.
The overall 2021 levy will increase by 3.38 per cent, up approximately $3.1 million from 2020 to nearly $97 million.
In defending the final budget, Deputy Mayor Tanya Vrebosch observed, "It's easy to say 'no' but it's harder to say 'yes.'"
Vrebosch was speaking about making the hard decisions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of moving forward with important projects and resisting the urge to put the brakes on.
"We need to focus on growth," summarized Vrebosch after her colleagues had an opportunity to speak on the budget before the show of hands.
After several months of deliberations, Council voted during Tuesday's regular meeting to approve $129.1 million in gross operating expenses in 2021, leading to the $96.9 million 2021 tax levy.
Council also passed all of the 2021 budgets on the agenda, including the $31.1 million capital; $13.2 million water and wastewater; and, the $12.8 million District of Nipissing Social Services Administration Board (DNSSAB) budget.
"In the 2021 budget, we used just over $2.5 million in reserves to reduce the impact on the levy," said Tanya Vrebosch. "This translates to just under $4.5 million as it will take us four years to wean ourselves off of this artificial revenue."
See related story: Committee recommends 'exceptional' use of reserves to relieve pressures on budget
The City has also earmarked $300,000 for a residential property tax relief fund, plus $840,000 for Jack Garland Airport. Vrebosch says the City expects to support the airport for several years.
"Over the next five years, we anticipate using $7.2 million in reserves," she said. "The use of these reserves is planned and is sustainable. We are investing in our youth, our community, healthy active living, economic development, the arts, and the environment."
Three new officers will also be added to the North Bay Police Service's community response team, necessitating a budget increase for the service.
See also: Police Board approves 3.22 per cent budget increase for 2021
Voting on the futures of big-ticket capital projects such as Cassellholme and the Community and Recreation Centre (CRC) will wait as financing details are worked out with the long-term care home.
"We're being proactive but cautious and responsible," said the Deputy Mayor on the major capital projects.
Maroosis — who later brought forward and saw an amended motion pass to run costs for the CRC — also tabled an amendment regarding the budget itself, that would have directed the CAO and staff to open the document back up and find more savings. The amendment targeted a reduction to a one per cent levy increase but only Maroosis and King supported it.
"I don't think it's realistic to have a three per cent increase on residents and businesses," advised Maroosis.
See: (Opinion) Council must keep budget increase to a less than 1 per cent increase over last year’s guesses
Vrebosch dismissed this approach, saying it was not the time to "take a pause. We've seen what zero per cent can do," meaning using reserves to lower the levy increase only leads to budgeting issues down the line.
The capital portion of the levy — typically set at an increase of one per cent per year — was adjusted to 1.75 per cent in 2021, in response to the City's 10-year plan and in preparation for the potential Cassellholme and Community and Recreation Centre builds. The portion of the levy increase pertaining to the capital side is scheduled to drop back down to a one per cent increase in 2022.
Besides the 1.75 earmarked for capital, of the 3.38 per cent overall levy increase, 1.34 is attributed to agencies, boards, and commissions; and, 0.28 to City departments and operations.
Robertson expressed being torn over which way to vote on the operating budget. He said he feels adding amenities such as the CRC, skate parks, pump tracks and new multi-use courts for recreation are not service level increases when compared to similar locales. Robertson is also adamant the only way North Bay will fill its skilled labour gap is to continue to add such offerings that are available in other municipalities.
Meanwhile, Robertson found the 3.38 per cent levy increase to be "a lot to ask as an increase year-over-year," and ultimately voted no.
The Deputy Mayor characterized the budget as "prudent, yet proactive."
She added, "The City of North Bay, our staff, our residents, and our businesses have certainly shown our strengths during what will most likely be the biggest challenge of our lives, which is COVID-19. Our community has had to learn how to pivot and transform in order to survive and move forward."