I am pleased to have this opportunity to offer you the thoughts of the Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association with regards to the proposed Township Budget.
First let me thank the Township staff (particularly Shannon Johnson and her colleagues) for doing an outstanding job in putting together this year’s budget – clear and understandable. I know that they have a lot of voices to listen to (including mine since I sit on the budget committee). Today I am here representing the members of the Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association. Our members join our Association and support our efforts to be supportive critics of the Township.
As a Ratepayer Association, we believe that our budget oversight role is to not only carefully look at the numbers, but to ensure that they reflect our collective common, shared values of accountability, responsibility, respect, honesty, fairness, and yes, where appropriate compassion.
The proposed budget covers all of the usual bases and assures funding for all existing programs. It is an aggressive budget.
As we reviewed the budget there were several areas that we thought deserved additional attention. The Health Hub, the Community Centres, calls for cuts to emergency services and the proposed tax increase all caught our collective eye.
In terms of the Health Hub, we are happy to have it in our community. The services it provides have proven to be popular and are particularly enjoyed by those of us who do not have a regular doctor in the area. However, it falls short in serving the needs of visitors and has not fully functioned as expected as a walk in clinic, particularly for our summer residents and visitors. We are told that the Health Hub is too busy now to serve these needs that were the very needs that were used to sell the public on the Health Hub idea in the first place. Now that we have a successful health unit, we need to turn our attention to the ongoing budget drain that it represents. While we are happy to have the service providers in place, we are not happy that they do not have to pay any rent to use the facility that our taxpayers provide. We are very aware that the payment of rent is an extremely sensitive issue for the providers, and initiating discussions now that would lead to some payment sometime in the future could be counter- productive and lead to closure of the facility. That said, perhaps a more equitable solution can be found in later discussions after the facility has been operating successfully over time, and we encourage staff to continue to look for ways to improve the situation.
In terms of the Community Centres, as I recall, the budget process two years ago began with people talking about cutting many services including measures such as shuttering community centres, repurposing arenas, cutting emergency services, and even closing roads or bridges. None of those significant measures proved to be necessary or palatable. However, we do need to address what we see as an over- abundance of community centres that are used minimally by our citizens. Having 13 centres (compared to only 1 or 2 such buildings enjoyed by our neighbours in Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Huntsville) means that we have to spend much of our money on upkeep, utilities, and capital item replacement instead of providing recreational programs that our citizens might enjoy. We urge council to have staff review the community centre program again and come up with a plan to be considered by the next council before the next budget is prepared.
There has been some talk of cutting the budgets for our emergency services, primarily fire. We urge you to resist the temptation to cut in this vital area, one of the few services that all of us in the community rely on for support and protection. With so many of our property owners living elsewhere for a large part of the year, and because their cottage property represents a significant amount of their individual wealth, to know that emergency service is well provided ensures peace of mind, and seems a reasonable ask. We believe we can afford these critical services in our community. And speaking of affordability, I want to finish by addressing the proposed tax increase.
Only yesterday, we became aware that, due to some repositioning of Parkland reserves, additional funds must be found for community centre and arena operations this year. What should have been dealt with in last year’s budget discussions – those draconian measures that we mentioned earlier – are back with us again. At this late date in the budget process, finding appropriate and well researched information which would allow significant expenditure savings is a tall order. Therefore, it would appear that the operating tax levy must bear the burden. The budgeted increase is now proposed at 6.26%, up from 3.62%, a whopping jump, and when combined with the 5% capital levy, the 11.26% will require artful messaging and explanation to the taxpayer. Difficult decisions cannot be put off again.
With respect to the capital levy, we support the 5% proposal since it is needed to address the growing and underfunded infrastructural capital needs of the Township. The lower tier tax rates in Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, and Huntsville are more than 3 times as high as our tax rates. A 5 % lower tier tax increase in this Township based on our 18% contribution to the total tax levy will amount to an increase in taxes of about $14.00 per year for a property assessed at $250,000 and $85.00 for a property worth 1.5 million dollars. In short, the Township cannot afford not to have this much-needed increase.
As to the future, with an election on the horizon, we challenge Township leadership now and in the future to look for ways in which we can make our Township a better, more exciting community and enhance our reputation for good governance and ethical behavior.
Thank you on behalf of the members of the MRA.
Doug Bryden – Director – MRA
(Ed. Note: Delegations were also made by the Muskoka Lakes Chamber of Commerce, the Muskoka Lakes Museum, the West Muskoka Food Bank, as well as two private citizens.)