Chamber of Commerce Presentation
Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight on behalf of the North Bay Chamber of Commerce Executive and Board of Directors. I also want to thank the Mayor and CAO for meeting with myself and the Executive Manager of the chamber once a month on an informal basis to exchange ideas as well as to keep each other informed on the goings on of our organizations as well as partnering on many initiatives in the community.
I believe getting input is an important part of the budget process and I encourage you also to make clear to public that written submissions are also welcome as many people do not feel comfortable speaking in public.
I have dealt with budgets and numbers for over 27 years of my business life and the board has hundreds of years of similar background so I enjoy talking numbers and philosophy when it comes to budgets so I could talk all night but to your delight will keep it to ten minutes or less.
I will touch on a variety of topics important to the chamber and community including areas that we would like to see additional investment, as well as areas where some restraint is needed as well as some general thoughts and philosophies.
It should be noted that I have been given a copy of the capital budget but have yet to see the operations budget and I am hoping that it will not be finalized until input similar to my presentation tonight is given.
I would first like to speak on the aggressive timeline for finalization of the passing of the budget. Although no one wants budget talk to monopolize all council proceedings over the next year we do not think that the December timeline should be etched in stone. It is a good goal but when you are speaking about a 37 million dollar capital budget including water and sewer and a 120 million or so operations budget it certainly needs proper debate as well as scrutinization. These amounts are substantial and I do not believe any of the membership would be disappointed or the general public if council saw fit to debate this amount of spending for a longer time period. You always want to ensure the timetable is being done for the right reasons and at the end of the day that the taxpayer has been well served by the process whatever the end date may be.
Next I will speak on the number that has been set as a target for the tax increase this year. 1.5% target with options to bring to zero is an increase that has been widely noted that if achieved would be the municipalities lowest increase in over a dozen years.
In speaking to the CAO and staff on many occasions over the last year I know they are keenly aware that our economy is still on fragile ground and that increases to the average taxpayers tax bill must be kept to a minimum.
What I am further hearing is that our members as well as the public are not so worried about the specific number for one particular year but that we have competitive tax rates as part of a tax plan.
Whether we like it or not we are in a competition for where businesses set up shop as well as where people decide to live. If a customer does not like the price or quality that a store or business has to offer he can simply go to the next store in the community to spend his money. There is no other city hall in a municipality so if an individual or business is not happy with the price or quality they are receiving they will simply move to another municipality. We are also aware that taxes are only one part of where people and businesses decide to locate but certainly an important one.
We need to let our citizens know where we are positioned compared to other municipalities in the North and in Ontario. We have been making some strides in past years and certainly some good strides on the commercial and industrial front but still hear from individuals in our community that our combined taxes and water and sewer rates are the highest in Northern Ontario. I am not sure that after this year that will be the case anymore but we need to know that we have competitive rates and there is a plan.
So just as we have a capital plan and a cultural plan and even heard talk last week of a master plan as scary as that name sounds we are asking to hear in the budget that we have a tax plan that positions us for success as a community.
Whether that is a 3 year plan or whatever council deems appropriate, I believe it is something that would be well received by our members.
We mentioned in our earlier white paper this year that we believe our Economic Development Department should be given additional resources and we are still advocating for this. Although, we certainly appreciate the individuals presently working and the job that they do , when we compare with other municipalities we are very much at the low end of what we allocate in terms of both human resources as well as financial resources to this important department.
We have heard many times that council’s number one priority is economic development and jobs, we agree. Now we must put our money where our mouth is.
Let us reallocate monies to this department and put in some measurable goals as a city and council. As you are aware what gets measured gets done. We would like to see this in the 2014 budget and set some specific targets on what we want to achieve on both the development front and jobs front and whether additional monies can get the rate of return on our investment we would all like.
We believe that incentives such as the incentives for businesses in the downtown as well as at the airport that the city currently has are important ones and those similar incentives should be looked at. Why do we need financial incentives for business and individuals? Because every other community has them.
You can go to websites of any municipality and see those communities either bragging that they have no development fees and or other such initiatives to attract businesses to their city. Again we should measure them and even tie the incentives to job creation. The chamber would be happy to work with city staff in looking at this and assisting on finding areas we can grow our city.
In our white paper earlier this year we spoke of the need to reduce overtime by 10% in city operations and believe this to be a workable goal. Further to this we believe we need to have a plan to reduce OT each year in all areas of city operation. It is an area that is a high profile part of budget and one that many members speak to me about. It gets very difficult to tell the small business owner that is working 60 hours a week to keep his business afloat and employ people that his taxes are paying for someone else’s overtime. I know city staff have already made strides to reduce overtime such as in the water and sewer budget and we encourage other departments to do the same.
EMERGENCY SERVICES AND ABCS
This area accounts as we all know for a large percentage of the municipality’s budget. The chamber has been a vocal supporter of the police and fire departments in our city. We have not favored at this time OPP costing for our police services even though some of our members believe we should. We also have not spoken on having a volunteer component to our fire department even though most municipalities in Ontario have some form of a blended fire department. We believe we are well served by strong local emergency services. Having said that, emergency services are the fastest growing expense of every municipality in Ontario.
In fact, emergency services have cost Ontario municipalities an additional 1.2 billion dollars in the last decade. The budgets passed by municipalities for emergency services have been 77 to 100% higher than the CPI over the last several years. Our municipality is no different. We believe therefore if council has set a goal of a 1.5% increase with options to go to zero then the same criteria should be asked of our ABC’s including emergency services. Will it be easy? NO. We are well aware of arbitration, contracts, and of course the 5000lbs gorilla in the room salaries that account for the majority of the budget. The discussion however needs to start now.
Council wants to be at the forefront of many issues in Ontario and this is one that needs to be on your radar. We know Rome was not built in a day but this discussion will play out in municipalities across Ontario and Canada over the next months. We need everyone on the same page here and all realize that increases at 2 or 3 or 4 times the rate of inflation each and every year is not sustainable and is already forcing municipalities to take monies from other departments to pay for those budget increases. Again, we are strong supporters of our local forces and many of them are our friends and colleagues but friends don’t screw friends and they must work with us to control costs.
REVENUE SOURCES/USER FEES
The best way obviously for us to keep our taxes low is to increase our non property tax revenue. User fees are an important part of a municipality fiscal policy and a necessary one. No one wants to be user feed to death but as we demand low overall property tax increases user fees will become more important to every municipality including our own. Someone has to pay and user fees are a tool to help municipalities shoulder the expense of running and operating a municipality. We may need user fees in the future to fund additional capital growth also.
I also believe the planning department does a great job in bringing additional opportunities for private sector growth as well as building opportunities which will be advantageous to our revenue stream and council has to be receptive and make decisions that benefit the entire community and be careful not to give into the NIMBY syndrome as I call it.
In closing I want to thank you again for giving us the opportunity to share with you some ideas on moving the city forward. I do not think the sky is falling and believe we have many good things happening in the community, many that we have supported you on and advocated for. On the flip side I do not think the sky will fall if we look at some of the ideas we have shared with you tonight.
As always as you go through the budget process we ask that you scrutinize and ask questions but also try and keep the debate respectable to each other. We can agree to disagree but it is important to find some common ground that we can all agree on. We all love the city that we live in and want what is best for our success both short term and long term. The chamber as always will work with you to help achieve this consensus and we look forward to making North Bay the best it can be.