COVID-19 costs add $12.5 million to spending of Lambton budget

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Tax increase projected at 1.75 per cent in 2021 as feds and province cover COVID costs

COVID-19 is driving up costs for the County of Lambton in 2021.

The proposed budget, released Wednesday, shows it will cost about $12.5 million to cover the costs of tracking the virus, keeping people in long term care homes safe and making sure people have safe housing and a source of income.

But those costs aren’t expected to directly impact taxes since Lambton has received federal and provincial grants to cover most of the direct costs.

In fact, Lambton’s warden says the biggest discussion around the 2021 county budget may be about a grant to Bluewater Health.

Lambton County’s Treasurer, Larry Palarchio, outlined the draft $203 million operating and $36.4 million capital budget documents Wednesday.

Palarchio says if passed, the budget would require a 1.75 per cent tax increase, about the rate of inflation.

The treasurer told councillors $657,000 in new assessment revenue helped bring down the planned increase by 0.8 per cent.

Warden Kevin Marriott, who had been pushing the county to adopt budget increases in line with the rate of inflation for years, is pleased with what administration is putting forward for discussion.

“I can live with inflationary numbers,” says Marriott noting most of the wage increases at the county are in that neighbourhood.

While the substance of the operational and capital budgets might not be hotly contested, Marriott expects councillors will have a lot to say about grant requests.

Bluewater Health is looking for a $10 million grantover 10 years. It’s targeting spending the cash in a number of places including the redevelopment of Bluewater Health’s Charlotte Eleanor Englehart Hospital.

Petrolia Mayor Brad Loosley has been urging the support of the request, urging his council to pass a motion supporting the grant, which council did.

But county councillors have been wary about giving any new grants this year. Councillors passed a motion in October saying council wouldn’t give out any new grants in 2021. The warden says Bluewater Health is aware its request could be delayed until 2022.

But Mayor Mike Bradley convinced councillors to discuss the grant at the March budget session.

“So, there’s two motions on the books; the one said we will not do any new grants in 2021 and then the second motion was to have please have a look at it,” says Marriott adding it is likely to be “hugely debated.”

If the grant were to pass, it would add an additional 1.25 per cent to the budget.

Council will also discuss whether it should move forward on a roundabout at Petrolia Line and Kimball Road which would cost $400,000 in 2021 for planning and another $1.4 million for construction in 2022.

COVID-19’s $12.5 million impact

Spending in the three departments facing the COVID-19 pandemic head on are seeing significant budget increases in 2021.

Social Services budget is up $5.27 million over 2021 for a total of $79.7 million in total spending. That’s the largest budget of any of the county’s divisions.

Social services expects to spend $3.5 million more on homelessness initiatives in the wake of the pandemic – with the federal government chipping in $1 million for a new program called Reaching Home.

Valerie Colasanti, the general manager of social services, is also anticipating a two per cent increase in the number of people accessing Ontario Works in 2021 when the federal Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit expires. She’s anticipating up to 2,844 cases per month.

Public health – which heads up the pandemic response in the community – is also spending significantly more than 2020. County figures show $29.4 million will be spent on public health services. That’s up $2.249 million over 2020.

And the long term care division will spend $3 million more this year than last for a total of $36.8 million in 2021, should the budget pass as is.

The treasurer says the county has been given grants and subsidies from the federal government which covered the $12.5 million costs due to the pandemic.

Lambton Meadowview Villa needs $9 million in repairs in five years, replacement

Lambton Meadowview Villa in Petrolia is feeling its age.

Jane Joris, general manager of the long term care division, says in the next five years the nearly 30 year-old building will need $9 million in repairs.

This year, there is $697,000 in capital improvements to the building this year – about 43 per cent of that will come from reserves. The improvements include redesigning the dining room, replacing the elevator and upgrading sidewalks.

Another $124,300 will be spent on equipment for the home.

The budget also includes $400,000 to help renovate a portion of the building for a new 10-bed facility designed for people with dementia. The unit will more like a home, with consistent staffing. The province still has to approve the idea.

While there will be spending on the Petrolia nursing home, Joris says county councillors have to start looking at replacing the home.

Joris, in a report to council, says the building no longer meets provincial design standards and is “nearing the end of its life.”

The replacement costs of the same size of home is about $40 million. That doesn’t take into account the growing need for long term care. Over 30,000 people in Ontario are waiting for long term care.

But there is some concern among councillors about paying for a new home.

There are few reserves for the replacement of Meadowview Villa, with Joris noting the county puts less money into reserves at Meadowview than its other homes. The county sets aside money from the funding generated by private and semi private care into reserves for replacing buildings. The county has decided to put only 50 per cent of that cash into reserves this year.

The county will spend $13,751,748 a year to operate Meadowview in 2021. That’s 22 per cent of the total cost to run the home.

County may set up reserve to buy Bayside Mall

The county’s treasurer is suggesting councillors set up a reserve fund to help buy the Bayside Centre in Sarnia.

In July, the county approved long term agreements with Season Retirement Communities which firmed up the county’s lease for more than 80,000 square feet of space for the Shared Services building. It has an option to buy clause which would see the county purchase the building for $23.5 million.

Palarchio is suggesting setting up a $500,000 this year and growing it to $14 million by 2031.

“If the county exercises its option (to buy), the $14 million will represent a significant down payment on the $23.5 million purchase price,” the treasurer writes in his report to council.

Palarchio adds it would be likely council would likely have to take out a mortgage on the property and paid back through rent revenues generated by the building.

Councillors will discuss the budget March 3 on a virtual meeting which is streamed live on the county’s website.