Dysart councillors defend spending on recreation and cultural institutions during budget meeting
By Jenn Watt
Published Feb. 18, 2019
Much time and energy was spent during Dysart et al’s budget meeting Thursday discussing the philosophy behind spending decisions, namely what institutions should receive tax dollars and to what extent.
The meeting, which began at 9 a.m. and finished after 4 p.m. on Feb. 14, included spending discussions from all departments as councillors looked for ways to reduce the tax increase for the coming year. Recommendations generated at the meeting will be taken into account at the next budget meeting in March.
The first draft, presented by treasurer Barbara Swannell, showed a 7.35 per cent increase on the levy, which is likely to change by the time the final budget is approved.
“Right now, the budget you have in front of you is looking at a 7.35 per cent increase on the levy. ... If you own a residence, you’re going to be looking at [an additional] $19.52 on $100,000 [assessment],” Swannell said.
The county and education portions of the tax bill have not yet been set.
Swannell’s presentation showed transportation services with 34 per cent of the budget. Protective services is the second largest at 22 per cent, and environmental services with 20 per cent.
Plenty of conversation on Thursday was triggered by comments made by Councillor John Smith and his inquiries about how much government should spend on some institutions – if at all.
Smith questioned why the municipality owned the properties it did. Swannell had presented a list of rental properties including the Rails End Gallery, Canoe FM, 4Cs, curling club, and medical centre, among others.
“I’d like someone to help me understand the rationale, the objective if you like, of Dysart owning some of these properties,” Smith said.
He mentioned the building on Mountain Street that houses Canoe FM, the Haliburton Highlands Land Trust and Volunteer Dental Outreach Clinic. “We own that facility … capital [is] tied up there and yet I look at our financial statements and even though we don’t pay taxes, we’re losing money on these buildings every year. In other words, the amount of revenue we collect is significantly less than the operating costs of those buildings and I’m wondering why we as a municipality thought it made sense to become a landlord to a collection of organizations.”
Mayor Andrea Roberts said the infrastructure committee will be looking at best use of buildings and it could be discussed then. Staff and councillors gave background information on how the buildings came to be owned by Dysart et al.
Smith said he wasn’t criticizing specific organizations, but the municipality is losing money on the buildings.
Councillors were on the same page with a request from Harcourt Park to fund the Straggle Narrows Bridge.
In December, representatives from Harcourt Park, which is a private community on the east side of the municipality, came to council asking for any sum of money to assist with the project, which could cost between $200,000 to $350,000.
Their presentation had been impressive, Roberts said, but she didn’t think tax dollars should be going to a private group.
When it came to the Haliburton Highlands Museum, the discussion on the nature of taxes and what is in the public good resurfaced, led by Smith.
Museum director Kate Butler explained that there were few additional expenses requested for this year, aside from a $4,000 ask to repair the historic Reid House.
Smith said the museum costs taxpayers about $150,000 a year and that from previous reports to council, in 2018 just under 11,000 people visited, which meant each visitor “cost taxpayers … just under $16.”
“Terrific that we’ve got a museum, but I don’t understand how we can continue to fund it out of taxes at the level that we are. I don’t see any metrics, we talk about the number of visitors, but what is this contributing to the community? What’s our goal here?” Smith asked.
Roberts interjected that it wasn’t the right time to talk about what the museum provides the community and that the budget meeting was a time to examine specific line items. She said there would be a “goals and objectives” meeting in the future when big picture conversations could happen.
“I can’t accept that we’re tweaking the budget,” Smith said. “We’re allocating $150,000 of property tax dollars to the museum. I happen to think that’s an inordinately high amount.”
He referenced a talk he attended at the recent Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference in which the speaker highlighted ventures created by individuals in the community, not by government.
“To me, it’s completely unacceptable that we spend this much on a museum with no goals in mind in terms of what it’s accomplishing,” he said, adding he wanted to see the cost to taxpayers come down “dramatically.”
Councillor Larry Clarke said the museum, along with other cultural institutions accounted for 17 per cent of the parks and recreation budget. Forty-five per cent of the department’s budget was for the arena.
“I challenge you to tell me that we’re not getting as much value with what’s happening with Rails End Gallery and the museum as we are with the arena and it’s a fraction of the cost,” he said.
The official plan dictates the municipality runs recreational and cultural programming for the population, he said, and the museum was part of that.
Tamara Wilbee, chief administrative officer, pointed out that the museum safeguards historical items brought in by members of the community.
“There’s no slush in that budget,” she said.
Next up was a conversation on the arena, which needs a new condenser with a hefty price tag: $84,000.
Deputy Mayor Patrick Kennedy pointed out that about one per cent of the tax increase was dedicated to that piece of equipment and wondered if it could be taken out of reserves.
Clarke said he would like to see metrics on the arena to find out how it’s being used and to ensure Dysart was getting a good return on its investment.
Smith noted running the arena made up about eight per cent of the tax bill.
“Something needs to happen in terms of change here, whether we get the revenue up higher or the expenses down lower, I don’t know, but it’s not affordable,” he said.
He said the hydro bill was $120,000 a year and part of that comes from summer usage. He wanted to know how much summer rentals brought in.
Andrea Mueller, recreation program co-ordinator, said the arena is well used, especially in evenings and in the summer people are clamouring for time.
Roberts added that the municipality was not the same as running a private business.
“You can’t put a dollar value on people’s quality of life,” she said. “The arena is the heart and soul for so many families living here, whether you use it or not, it’s an integral part of who we are,” she said.
Smith said the revenue of the arena doesn’t pay the wages of employees working in the building.
Councillor Walt McKechnie said he was getting frustrated at the conversation that seemed to be returning to the topic of shutting down institutions and services.
“What ... are we doing? I’m not saying we shouldn’t critique, that’s what we should be doing here: critiquing the expenses whenever we can to save a few bucks,” he said.
He said it’d be hard to attract young families to a community that doesn’t have an arena.
Council passed a resolution to pay for the condenser, with conversation leaning toward taking some of that money from reserves.
Town docks stirred up another heated conversation. Mueller told council that the Head Lake docks are falling apart, creating a liability. Replacement will cost $33,000.
Smith questioned why docks were needed in town. “It’s another expenditure in the village of Haliburton,” he said.
Councillor Nancy Wood-Roberts, who represents the ward that includes Haliburton village, responded that Haliburton is the core of the municipality.
“That’s a matter of perspective,” Smith quipped.
Kennedy said he’d like to see the dock program expanded with rental units. “There’s a huge demand for dock rental space,” he said.
He said it might be worth spending more money on docks and making money, which could be saved for future repairs.
“If we had 10 spots we rented at $600 a year, that’s $6,000 a year income coming in,” he said.
Clarke was in favour of spending money on the docks, arguing they benefited cottagers who wanted to come into town by boat.
“It’s not a big amount and ... helps that part of our tax base,” he said.
If council was looking to help cottagers, Smith said there were various lakes that could use docks.
Kennedy said many already have them, and suggested Smith could put together a proposal for more.
McKechnie said in his personal life he is much like the cottaging population, on a property out of town, but didn’t have a problem with tax dollars spent on improving Haliburton village.
“Nobody’s being deprived of anything,” McKechnie said, “I don’t look at it like that – I don’t have this, I don’t have that. I love that we have a beautiful downtown and what we’ve done over the last number of years here with the library and the arena and the streetscape and on and on and the three condos we’ve got in town.”
Smith said he didn’t think cottagers were being deprived, but that they weren’t seeing enough improvements in their neighbourhoods.
“These are the same cottagers we tell them we can’t afford to fix their roads, though. That’s the discouraging part of it,” he said. “The museum, in recent years has consumed $1 million. $1 million.”
Roberts called the statement about the museum out of order and asked for decorum.
Conversations continued through the afternoon, with representatives from the planning and building departments attending to answer questions. Similar, though less intense conversations happened around whether dog tags should still be required and how much parking tickets should cost.
When the Rails End Gallery’s annual $50,000 grant came up, council again discussed whether government should fund cultural institutions.
Kennedy asked for background information on whether the gallery always received that grant and if there was a plan for them to move toward self-sustainability.
The grant has been there for years, staff said, and has not increased to accommodate rising costs.
Smith questioned why the municipality would put money into an institution for one group of people and not others.
“What’s the goal? What are we trying to accomplish by funding this? How do we know it’s a good use of tax dollars? There are lots of occupation groups up here other than artists and none of them receive this sort of support. We’ve got a commercial arts studio around the corner there that’s actually having to reduce their hours because of lack of activity, but we’re still going to collect taxes and subsidize a competing organization,” he said.
Wilbee said Rails End Gallery hosts community events and programming, which is not the role of a private gallery.
Other members of council spoke in favour of the gallery. Roberts said that the arts cost money and $50,000 is good value for the money. Clarke said the artist population of the Highlands is large and events such as the annual Art and Craft Festival draws people to Haliburton.
There was no appetite from the rest of council to cut the gallery’s funding, but there were questions about an additional $2,000 requested for an environmental project. More information was needed, councillors agreed.
The purpose of the Feb. 14 budget meeting was to give staff direction on new expenditures and where to trim. With the information provided on Thursday, the next draft will be presented on March 14.
- OMPF comes through: There had been concern the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund money would be reduced this year, however treasurer Barbara Swannell said she found out last week it would remain the same as last year, $1.8 million.
- Reserve funding: Dysart closed 2018 with reserves at about $3.6 million. Reserve funds will be used to buy a tandem axle truck ($245,000), a fire truck ($450,000), and work on Dignan Bridge ($141,000) in the coming year.
- Climate change hits roads budget: Sanding, salting and snowplowing requires more resources with snow starting earlier and weather more variable. “Under transportation, we’re looking at quite an increase here, well over $400,000, which is 10 per cent over last year’s budget and that there represents just over four per cent on the levy alone,” Swannell said.
- Improving County Road 21: Council heard from Charlsey White, director of planning, and Craig Douglas, director of public works, from Haliburton County, about plans for County Road 21. Following a study of the road between Peninsula Road near the veterinary clinic and the bridge by the high school, recommendations are being implemented over a 10-year period. In 2019, plans include a left turn lane into Halbiem Crescent, a pedestrian crossing on the east side of that intersection, and widening the shoulder between the bridge and the high school pathway.
- Planning for recreation: money is earmarked to be transferred to reserves for a zamboni ($10,000) and a plan for the upstairs community room in the arena ($30,000) which needs renovations for accessibility.