General Government Committee chair Peter Chirico reluctantly accepts North Bay's 2006 operating budget Monday night.
“We’re getting screwed basically, pardon the language.” That’s how incensed councillor Dave Mendicino summed up North Bay’s predicament in putting its 2006 operating budget together. Mendicino, along with the rest of council, reluctantly and angrily endorsed what will be their third and final budget Monday night. A $58.4 million package which will contain a 7.81 percent tax levy buffered by 2.12 percent in "real growth" earnings leaving taxpayers with a 5.69% tax hit.
Mayor Vic Fedeli – also “frustrated and angry” – said up until the 23rd of February, council - following five months of hard work - was bringing in what he called a “respectable” budget. It contained a modest 2.42 percent increase in operating costs. He said it was going to be the first time in many years, the city had generated over a million dollars in “real growth” tax revenue from new businesses and new housing starts. It would have meant a tax decrease for residents, the first in over 10 years.
“And then we get hit with a double whammy from the province. Them not participating in the extra costs at Cassellholme. Two million more and they’re only going to pay 500 thousand. That leaves a million-five for the municipality to pay.” Fedeli said.
Cassellholme – a North Bay retirement home – gets 80 percent of its funding from the city. The province covers the rest. On February 23rd city council’s General Government Committee learned it would have to absorb its share of the facility’s two million dollar increase in costs in its $13.4 million budget.
Fedeli said the second blow to the city’s budget plans came in the form of a grant from the province’s Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF). The finance ministry’s website calls the OMPF “a clear and transparent system of grants – part of the Province’s overall commitment to support municipalities.” It replaced the Community Reinvestment Fund in 2005, as the province’s main transfer payment to municipalities. Last year North Bay got what appeared to be $1,022,423 in Transition Funding from OMPF. But Fedeli said it wasn’t what it seemed.
“To learn that this one time funding, that they announced with great fanfare really is just an advance. And they’ll argue that we should have known that. Big deal. That just means there’ll be a four million shortfall in 09 instead of a three million shortfall.”
To make matters worse several northern municipalities including Sudbury received large increases to their OMPF funding. Sudbury got an extra $3 million pushing their total funding from $15 million to $18 million.
“Their increase of 3 million is three times the amount of our whole grant and that’s per year by the way.” Fedeli fumed. "It really was of interest to note in Sudbury, Minister Bartolucci announced that Sudbury was getting this extra three million ex… they went from 15 to 18 million because they really need it because they’re a unique community. It’s just ridiculous.”
Despite the setbacks, General Government Committee chair, Peter Chirico says he’s proud of the job his committee members did and the budget they produced. At the end of last night’s meeting he thanked and congratulated everyone for their work over the past five months.
But Chirico vowed to continue pressuring the province for an explanation for the perceived imbalance in OMPF funding. He said he and other city officials have repeatedly brought the issue before Nipissing MPP, Monique Smith without getting anywhere. He said they’ve also been phoning and emailing the finance ministry, but there's been no response.
“We’re not getting any cooperation from the province, we’re not getting the funding from the province that the other municipalities in our same situation are getting.” said Chirico. “Is this retribution, because the Premier used to be our MPP here in North Bay? I have no idea. Quite frankly I’m beside myself when I look at these things and I don’t know what the solution is, I don’t know why.”
“We’ve got a budget nobody’s proud of and we set it squarely on the shoulders of the province tonight.” said Fedeli.
But Fedeli added that it’s not a “done, done deal” yet. The final budget won’t be passed next week. Council has set up a budget meeting for May to finalize the plan, with hopes additional OMPF funding and a reduced Cassellholme levy will be part of the package.