Ontario’s Chatham-Kent Council unanimously voted for administration to begin the changeover to a multi-year operating budget at its April 3 meeting.

Council approved administration’s recommendations to develop the 2024-27 draft budget for this November with a starting position of a net tax impact at or below the estimated inflation rate.

There will also be a 1.5 percent increase for the capital asset management plan and a 0.5 percent increase to allocate towards the rate stabilization reserve.

Council also approved the Budget Committee’s schedule for meetings, public consultations and deliberations beginning in late November.

Ward 3 East Kent Councillors Steve Pinsonneault and John Wright voted in favour of the change from the annual budget to the four-year format, but not without trepidation.

“Other communities are doing it. It’s worth a try,” said Steve Pinsonneault. “But at any given time, we can change back.”

Wright said he doesn’t know how efficient the four-year will be compared to the annual process.

“Too soon to tell, until we get through it the first time, it’s hard to comment,” Wright said. “Councillors don’t have enough knowledge of the process at this point.”

Michael Dubbin, Chatham-Kent CAO, said there would be training sessions for council, administration and staff leading into the new format.

Both Councillors are concerned about the ‘unknowns’ in tabling a four-year budget, namely with the fluctuation in the rate of inflation and dealing with unexpected major issues – such as the Talbot Trail road closure, Erie Shore Drive emergency and Wheatley explosion – that may occur during the four-year window.

“The last couple of years have proven that no year is the same, and when you’re planning that far ahead, there a lot of variables between now and then,” Pinsonneault said. “It’s still going to be reviewed every year.” Wright pointed out council and administration will have the opportunity to address future revenues and expenditures annually.

Pinsonneault and Wright also expressed concern about the starting point.

“The scary part, if inflation is at six percent, and the way this budget is written, they’re going to go two percent above that … the public’s going to lose it,” Pinsonneault said.

Wright pointed out two positives in the change to the four-year format: it takes a lot of pressure off administration to commit so much time to the budget annually.

“And it’s going to make it so new Councillors coming in after the next election has a year to get groomed for the job,” said Wright, as the next election will take place in October of 2026, and the budget won’t come up until November of 2027.”

Wright remembered when he was first elected in 2018 how daunting it was getting thrown into the budget process just weeks after the election.

“You get elected, and the next month, you’re doing budget,” Wright said. “This gives them a year before dealing with a full budget.”

The four-year budget follows the same format as the annual process, except it will take place this November instead of January 2024.

The opening night of the budget process will be Wednesday, November 15, followed by online community consultations on Wednesday, November 22 and Thursday, November 23.

Budget deliberations begin Tuesday, November 28, with sessions the next two nights and Tuesday, December 5 and Wednesday, December 6, if necessary.

Council approved switching to a multi-year budget in August 2020, following the trend of many other municipalities, such as London, Guelph, Waterloo, York, St. Catharines, Aurora and Quinte West, that have switched or are in the process of changing from annual budgets in 2024.

The Municipal Act 2001 authorizes a municipality to prepare and adopt a budget covering a period of two to five years.

Chatham-Kent has chosen to utilize a four-year period covering 2024-27.

“Multi-year budgeting has many benefits, including aligning Council’s Strategic Plan and long-term goals to funding plans contained within the budget,” said Steve Brown, Director of Budget and Performance Services. “Residents and taxpayers also face a greater certainty in the direction of taxes.”

Brown also said multi-year budgeting would provide greater transparency with any proposed changes within the budget’s spending plan.

“Multi-year budgets also provide capacity to focus on continuous improvements that may increase municipal efficiencies and reduced costs,” Brown said.

He acknowledged there are some disadvantages with the multi-year format, such as uneasiness in forecasting long-term revenues and expenditures and the perceived loss of flexibility in making budgetary decisions for multiple years.

“Many departments may have a general long-term plan in place. Actioning that plan by way of budgeting may cause some discomfort trying to forecast staffing, expenditures and revenue requirements,” Brown said.

Public input will continue to be vital in the new budget process.

“The focus needs to be placed on the programs and services that are desired by the residents of Chatham-Kent and the level of service that is required,” he said.

The municipality will launch two budget surveys for public input.

The first will be in May before budgets are requested by department, and the second in September to gauge the public’s input on any service or programs that will be identified for change.

The results of both surveys will be presented to council and the public for review.

Public consultations will also occur after the annual updates are released in the second, third and fourth years.

By Michael Bennett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 06, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   The Independent News   Ridgetown, Ontario
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