Petrolia Council considers passing budget without looking at full details

Richard Poore explains the community centre budget Thursday during the Petrolia Council's first public view of the budget.

Petrolia Council may pass its 2016 budget tonight without looking at the full detailed document.

Town councillors got their first public look at the budget Thursday during an afternoon budget session at Victoria Hall.

The proposed budget increases municipal spending to $6,189,794 – $314,894 more than last year.

That works out to about a five per cent increase on the municipal portion of the tax bill.

But town officials say ratepayers will likely only see their taxes go up 1.4 per cent or about $21 more for every $100,000 of assessment. Treasurer Rick Charlebois says the education portion of the taxes is decreasing – likely by about three per cent – and the portion collected for the County of Lambton is likely to remain the same.

The county has yet to release its budget for 2016 but Mayor John McCharles says county staff are well aware municipalities are having a hard time because of provincial funding cuts and are trying to hold the line so municipalities can increase their taxes without hurting the ratepayer’s pocketbook.

Water and sewer rates are also going up this year – each by three per cent.

Traditionally, councils go through the full budget document. This year, staff streamlined the process, showing councillors how much each department would spend compared to last year and highlighting verbally any changes being made. No cuts were made to spending during the session.

Councillors did see the full budget for water, sewer and Victoria Playhouse Petrolia. Those departments do not require tax dollars but run on the revenue generated by the service.

Staff told council if they wished to see the full budget document, it is available but they weren’t given the document.

Mayor John McCharles likes the strategic budget session saying in the past councillors have “micromanaged” the budget, talking about making small cuts to save money. “I don’t believe in micromanagement,” he says. “As far as day-to-day operations, I don’t thing there is a lot we can do with that. Sure there are things you could nickel and dime…but that’s not a good way of management…what you do is normally with a deficit…I’d rather have a surplus at the end of the year.

McCharles added each councillor has the option of seeing the full budget document. “It’s wide open to them if they want to see the line-by-line budget,” he says. “This is a better method of budgeting.

“I’ve seen enough detail..If I can’t trust my staff to do their job then we should be looking for different staff…I think our management team is doing a good job.”

Councillor Ross O’Hara agrees. He hasn’t asked for the detailed budget either. “Our job is to know what’s in the budget but we have to have some trust in our administration to spend money wisely,” he says.

O’Hara adds he doesn’t know “exactly where every dollar is going” and that the five per cent increase in municipal funding is “high.”

The town will hold a public meeting Monday at 5:30 pm to outline the budget to ratepayers. If there are no public concerns, the suggestion Thursday was council would likely pass the budget that evening.

The Independent asked both McCharles and O’Hara about the timing of passing the budget. It was introduced to councillors Thursday, a public meeting is being held today and council may pass it a few hours later.

If the budget is passed Monday, the information about the budget would not appear in local community newspapers until after it was passed, decreasing the number of people who would have information about the document since both McCharles and O’Hara say they’ll be lucky to get 20 people to the public information meeting to ask questions.

“The majority of the public elect people to do that job,” says McCharles.

O’Hara said Sunday he had been thinking about the process and is ready – if there are any public objections – to ask council to delay approval of the budget.

The mayor also suggested it is not critical to approve the budget Monday. He says there is “no panic” to pass the document adding staff would like to see to the budget approved so they can move forward.

“I’ll maybe bring that up that we don’t have to be in a rush,” he says adding this is a reasonable budget which puts the right amount of money into the current year which putting enough money away in reserves to plan for the future.


Budget Highlights

Petrolia will now have a part-time fire chief instead of a volunteer. The town and Enniskillen, which share the cost of the department, have agreed to pay $40,800 for the service from the current volunteer chief. Petrolia’s share of that will be about $26,000.

The town will spend just over $1 million on policing this year. The OPP contract came in just $1,000 less than last year.

While many rural municipalities see their provincial funding slashed, Petrolia will get $81,000 more from the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund in 2016.

The town will return the $10,000 the Nicol Trust gives to the municipality for the upkeep of Victoria Hall this year again. Councillors want the money to be used for scholarships at LCCVI instead. Mayor John McCharles, who is part of the selection committee, says even with the town’s contribution there is likely to be only three scholarships this year.

The proposed budget sets aside $5,000 for a Chain of Office for the mayor. Many communities, including Lambton County, Warwick and Sarnia have the ornamental chain for mayor’s to wear during meetings. Typically it is made up of medallions with the names of the community’s mayors since inception.

The second phase of Petrolia Line will continue this year. No tax dollars will be allocated to it. The provincial grant will cover most of the cost this year. Charlebois says $25,000 will be taken from reserve to pay for landscaping along street.

About $300,000 will be spent in road resurfacing this year.

Public Works is investigating building its own salt storage barn for $50,000. The town pays a premium to the county for storage which officials believe could easily pay for the building in a short time.

Victoria Playhouse Petrolia will shoot for $1,000,000 in ticket sales this year. Last year they sold just under $950,000.

The Community Centre didn’t meet what CAO Manny Baron calls “an aggressive budget” set last year. The town expected to use $306,113 to support The Centre – instead it spent $478,905. In 2016, officials expect $461,775 in tax dollars to be spent.

Water and sewer rates will both go up three per cent this year. That’s less than anticipated. A report which Petrolia had been closely following to set its rates had suggested sewage rates rise 10 per cent this year.

The town was able to put more money into its newly established working capital reserve. It anticipated setting aside $370,000 from a special levy set up last year. Instead the town contributed $494,060. Charlebois says the town added $73,000 in special dividends from Bluewater Power, $50,000 of surplus from 2014.

The town will spend $121,400 on special events such as Canada Day and PizzaFest this year. Last year it spent $90,553. Officials expect to offset some of the costs by selling sponsorships to events – $25,000 revenue is expected there.

The arena is slated to get a new zamboni. That’s expected to cost about $80,000 after the trade-in on the old unit.