County council rejected most proposed new budget cuts

When it comes to budgets at Well­ington County council, some un­usual things can happen when councillors attempt to cut fractions of percentage in­creas­es from over $160-million in costs.
Councillor Rod Finnie had a number of proposals for cuts, but council re­jected the first two so over­whelmingly he with­drew the others.
The first recommendation was to drop the costs on Carroll Pond until final reports are in. The project is for drainage, and the county owns a road nearby, so will be assessed for its share of the benefit of the work. Fin­nie and councillor Lou Maie­ron have been asking about the report for the project in Pus­linch for months.
Councillor Brad Whit­combe said it is scheduled to be ready by March, and argued against delay. He opposed a number of last minute changes to the budget, and referred to Finnie’s printed proposal for five different budget cuts.
He opposed to the decision in January to spend another month in each committee looking for ways to cut spending, but had gone along with the majority of council, and found cuts in his committee’s budget. It was his understanding councillors were supposed to get questions to committees when they made their cuts.
Warden John Green said a few councillors had com­plain­ed they had not had enough time last year to discuss the budget, so he moved the five year plan up to October from November, had the budget presented in January, and asked for cuts prior to passing it in February.
Finnie said he presumed it was his list of questions that was being discussed, and argued this was the last chance council has for debate on the budget. He opposed Carroll Pond be­cause “I don’t believe we should fund things without a final report.”
Whitcombe argued the GRCA and the Ministry of En­vi­ron­ment provided their concerns, and if council does not allocate funds, the drain is likely to proceed anyway, and council will have to find money for it.
Maieron agreed with Fin­nie, and said he needs to know what he is voting on, and why county residents are looking at paying 40% of the drainage costs.
Councillor Chris White said budgets “are guidelines” and no money will be spent until the final report is presented.
Finnie was not sure that alleviates his concerns.
Whitcombe said the county had approved the project, and the county engineer signed the request for drainage work. When council voted on the issue, only three people were in favour, and Finnie’s motion was lost.
Bridge proposal
Council approved spending $1-million this year to replace the Princess Elizabeth bridge on County Road 12 (the old Peel Centre Sideroad). It is locat­ed a few miles east of Mac­ton, and is often known at the Macton bridge. When the county roads committee con­sidered a possi­ble project to a Municipal Infra­structure In­vestment Ini­tiative (MIII) grant from the provincial government, it was Finnie who suggested to ap­ply for a grant for that bridge.
It was Finnie who attempted to remove the project from the bud­get and to build it only if the grant is available. He argued the county was planning to spend $1-milli­on on the bridge this year, whether it re­ceived the grant or not. He said the spending should be cut from the budget entirely if the grant fails to come through.
Councillor Chris White said while the province has now in­creased the MIII grants to $450-million, it already has $750-million worth of appli­ca­tions for the money. “It’s a 50% gamble,” he said of getting the grant.
Councillor Carl Hall said he had heard at the recent Good Roads conference that week in Toronto the applications have already totaled over $1-billion. Hall is the chairman of the county roads com­mittee.
White explained, though, that the $1-billion is the lev­er­age that municipalities can make of the $450-million grant, and the actual requested amount requested is $750-mil­lion.
Hall defended budgeting tax dollars for the bridge even with­out the grant. He said of that gamble, “I don’t think we’ve ever built a project on specu­lation [of receiving a grant]. That’s the wrong way of looking at it. I just can’t see it.”
Finnie said there are other avenues of paying for a new bridge: the MIII grant and from tax revenue. He argued that since the federal gas tax for infrastructure was confirmed in the Feb. 27 federal budget, the county could use either of the two grant programs to pay for the bridge, and not plan to spend tax dollars for the bridge, too.
“It’s not as if the project is iffy,” he said.
Finance committee chair­man Mike Broomhead said his committee could make adjust­ments easily to pay for the bridge.
Councillor Jean Innes said she thinks the gas tax program is the appropriate place to fund the bridge. That would allow $1-million to be taken from the annual budget and reduce the tax levy.
Councillor Lynda White pointed out, though, the roads committee had chosen this particular approach.
Hall said all committees were asked in January to seek any savings from this year’s budget, and his committee had cut $284,000 from its equip­ment reserves, for the sale of used equipment. “Now, you want $1-million more,” Hall said, adding it is unfair to take that from his committee.
“You can’t take it all [tax savings] out of one com­mit­tee,” he argued. “You’d better take a look around.”
Councillor Bob Wilson sup­ported Hall, noting that when the grant program was present­ed, the bridge was the best fit for the application. “After­wards, it’s just another bridge needing repairs,” and is in line for replacement  by the county, grant or no grant.
Councillor Lou Maieron fav­oured removing $1-million from the budget for tax savings if the grant is denied.
Warden John Green pointed out, though, that if the county retracts its funding for the bridge, auditors might find the bridge was ineligible for the grant program, and the county would lose any funds available to it.
“It’s the only project you had,” Green said, adding that moving to remove it from this year’s budget if there is no grant would mean “You’ve got a problem.”
Maieron argued by using different financing, the county could reduce its tax rate further.
Treasurer Craig Dyer said the bridge was in the five year plan, and if it is dropped from this year’s budget, it could mean a tax increase next year of up to 2.4%. He said that could mean council is facing a 7% increase when it begins budget talks next year if it removes the bridge from this year’s budget.
Dyer added the county has tried for some time to be con­sistent with its roads funding.
And, he said, there is a concern about using the gas tax, because criteria for that grant means the county would need to be able to demonstrate it is spending more than neces­sary to enhance a project, and the bridge is a simple replace­ment project.
Broomhead said he believes that Hall’s committee would have made substantial changes to its budget reduction cuts if council suddenly cut the bridge funding.
When the vote was called to drop the bridge construction this year if there is no grant, only Finnie, Innes, and Maie­r­on were in favour and the spending carried. Construction is expected to take about three months.
Withdrawn proposals
After that second vote was easily defeated, Finnie stated he could sense it would be a “waste of time” to proceed with his other proposed cuts, and he withdrew them.
They included:
– removing $200,000 for a search for a new transfer station and using the site in Hillsburgh;
– a challenge to the costs of using the Green Legacy exhibit as a display around the province; and
– proceeding with the Elora and Mount Forest libraries before even starting Arthur and Drayton.
Both of those projects are set to have sod turnings on March 14.