Lambton county taxes could rise 3.34 per cent

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A promise to fund Lambton College’s expansion is one of the factors driving Lambton County’s budget up.

John Innes, the general manager of finance, unveiled the $197.5 million document to county politicians saying staff had been able to keep spending at 2.2 per cent – at the high range of the rate of inflation. But the proposed tax increase is 3.34 per cent. Innes says that is due to the commitment councillors have already made to fund Lambton College’s Health Sciences building. For the next six years the county will contribute $833,333 to the college for the project tacking another 1.2 per cent onto the increase.

Innes says the budget sets out $26 million in capital spending – 73 projects in all. The biggest cash infusion will go to the county’s social housing units. County councillors have agreed to spend $40 million over the next 10 years to renew the aging buildings. This year, $4 million will be spent on the most urgent needs including repairing and replacing dangerous balconies on units on Capel Street in Sarnia.

The money to pay for those repairs comes in part from a levy instituted 10 years ago to pay for the expansion of Bluewater Health. The county made its final $1.6 million payment on the project in 2015. The province is also taking over more of the cost of Ontario Works – that will bring about $767,000 to the project.

The county will also replace aging ambulances, build a new station in Forest, upgrade heating and cooling systems in county buildings, and repair and rebuild a number of roads including Bentpath Line, Oil Heritage Road and Churchill Line.

The county will borrow about $2.4 million to pay for some of the projects. That worried St. Clair Township Mayor Steve Arnold who worries the county is “living beyond its means.

“We set aside reserves…yet we’re still growing the debt for roads and bridges,” he says. “We should really have that money set aside yet were going out to borrow to do it.”

Innes agreed the idea is to eventually pay for all capital projects from reserves, but the county is not there yet.

The 2016 budget calls for another $5.7 million to be placed in reserves for future projects.

And while Arnold expressed concern about the county borrowing money, others wondered aloud if this would be the right time to spend more.

Warwick Mayor Todd Case says the county should consider taking advantage of historically low interest rates to get some projects done now. “It is only good business to take a look,” says Case.”I don’t know where interest rates are going …but I do think we do need to take a look at taking advantage of the situation.”

There may be a window to do more capital projects as the federal government starts its infrastructure spending. Innes says so far, they have no direction as to what money might be availalbe and what rules will apply to the grants. Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley says it will be good to take advantage of the program, but the county shouldn’t just apply for any project which is ready to build. “There is a huge difference between shovel ready and shovel worthy,” he says. “We have to ask where is the real lasting job creation value…they have to be things that have more than just an impact on the short term.

Aside from any infrastructure projects which could drive the budget up, councillors have a number of items which they have to decide if they will fund. One is a new Lambton County sign near Warwick. It’s priced at $75,000.

Councillors may also have to set aside money for a project to extend Internet to rural areas. The SWIFT project could cost the county over $200,000.

A number of social agencies, including Rebound, are also asking for $321,000 to build a “multi-service hub” for teens in the county.

Innes says that new spending could bump up the tax increase to about 4.2 per cent. He doesn’t expect councillors will approve all the spending in one year when it starts budget deliberations March 16.

Lambton County Budget By the Numbers

Lambton County politicians will begin deliberations of the $197.5 million budget March 16. Here are some of the numbers shaping the document:

*$197.5 million in total spending up from $188 million in 2015

* $71 million to be raised through taxes in 2016 compared to $68.5 million last year.

* $26 million to be spent on capital projects – $2.4 million will be borrowed to finance some of it.

* $1.565 million in salary and wage increases

* $342,893 in mandatory benefit increases

* $222,661 increased rental cost for Lambton County Shared Services in downtown Sarnia

* $450,154 more for tax write offs

* $171,297 more from Provincial Offences fines expected this year

* $767,233 less in Ontario Works spending as the province takes over more of the costs

* $235,373 less for insurance premiums.

* $1.64 million available as 10-year funding commitment to Bluewater Health ends

* $2.9 million for social housing repairs.

* 3 per cent – the amount of the budget which is reserves.

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