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Taxes rising in Innisfil following split at council

After a lengthy debate, Innisfil council passed its 2022 budget at its first meeting of the year.
Innisfil Town Hall. Natasha Philpott/InnisfilToday

In the end, the flower beds – and, hopefully, a less shocking tax increase in the future – won the day at Innisfil town council.

The town's 2022 budget was approved at Wednesday night’s meeting, following a lengthy debate and split 5-4 recorded vote in committee-of-the-whole.

The total property tax levy for the town will increase 2.49 per cent for 2022, an estimated blended impact of $110.74 for the average residential property tax bill.

Council had previously committed to a one per cent tax increase for 2022 when completing a two-year budget in Nov. 2020. But at its final meeting of 2021, Chief Administrative Officer Oliver Jerschow strongly encouraged councillors to reconsider their spending for 2022.

At council’s direction, staff made additions to the budget that reflected “important resource requirements needed to deliver services to our residents in 2022 and beyond,” a staff report stated. Those resources include 11 new full-time staff members and three bylaw students, equating to a nearly $770,000 impact on the annual operating budget.

As well, the town would restart its contribution to the capital levy. The usual one per cent levy, paused as part of the two-year budget passed in 2020, will be halved to .5 per cent.

Off the top, Coun. Rob Nicol and Coun. Ken Fowler argued now was not the time to be adding to the budget at the expense of the ratepayer.

“We promised our residents a zero per cent and one per cent yearly budget increases to give everyone the opportunity to plan their budgets and provide some clarity for two years,” Nicol said. “We all knew there would be pain afterward.”

“People right now can’t find work… the frontline workers are burning out; this is not the time to make them choose, in essence, between food and flowerbeds,” Fowler added. “We understood we were taking it on the chin a little later, but right now I’m more concerned about taking care of the residents than minor details…. I don’t think it’s fair to put an additional strain on households that are already struggling”

Among the change requests suggested by town staff were to hire additional staff to help improve the delivery of town services, including two new grass cutters, a horticulture operator and a garbage collector. Four of the 12 additional positions will account for an additional $246,239 in revenue, offsetting a portion of their cost.

“The town is and will be experiencing a lot of growth in the coming years, and it will be important to have the proper resources in place to ensure that we are able to effectively manage this growth, while delivering quality services and building financial tools and plans that will ensure the financial sustainability of the town,” the staff report stated. “To ensure these proper resources are in place, it is prudent to invest now, as under-investing in our community will make it more difficult in 2023 and future years to keep pace with demands.”

Deputy Mayor Dan Davidson and Coun. Donna Orsatti spearheaded the reconsideration of the budget at the Dec. 8, 2021, meeting. They felt it was their responsibility as councillors in this term not to punt a tax increase further down the road, to the detriment of the municipality and its ratepayers.

“It’s not about flowerbeds,” Davidson suggested. “If we don’t do this now, it’s going to… impact future capital budgets and the town’s ability to maintain its assets.”

“None of us are trying to make it difficult for residents,” Orsatti added. “When we get into 2023, whoever is on council at that time, we have the potential of then having to jump to a four per cent budget to have a catch-up. And in the meantime, we haven’t been able to provide the services at a level that is necessary for our community.”

Mayor Lynn Dollin certainly saw the merit in the argument from Davidson and Orsatti, but she was equally concerned with promises she and her colleagues had made to their constituents. Making a change to the budget equated to going back on her word.

She once again shared the story of a lakefront resident who regularly emails her regarding the tax increase he – and all residents – were promised by councillors in Nov. 2020.

“How can I say, ‘Yes, Mr. Lindsey, we did it, we passed it,’ and then say ‘oops, sorry, changed my mind?’” Dollin said. “It’s my word that I’m concerned about. I know when you pass a zero, you’re going backwards… and I know we could use some help. I totally understand that.”

Dollin looked for a compromise – to spread this revised increase out over two years as opposed to all in 2022 – but it did not gain traction. However, the town nearly increased its services for 2022 without increasing its tax rate.

Coun. Kevin Eisses questioned if the town could utilize its reserves for 2022, as it had in 2021, to blunt the tax increase.  Fowler, in particular, was eager to see this come to fruition.

“The reserve fund is there for these sort of scenarios. I would be more inclined to use that for the one per cent,” he said. “This way we provide the services, we keep our promises to our residents, we assist them in their time of need."

“I just don’t feel right putting this on the shoulders of the taxpayer,” Fowler stressed, adding that the amount required would account for approximately 20 per cent of the between $4.5 and $5 million in the tax stabilization reserve.

While this would keep the tax rate at the promised level for 2022, it wouldn’t solve the issue long term. As town Chief Financial Officer Mike Melinyshyn pointed out, the full-time jobs being added for this year would remain on the books going forward and be included in future operating budgets councils have to consider. Ultimately, that could lead to the four-or-five per cent tax increases many councillors were trying to avoid.

A second recommendation was prepared to have the change requests proposed by staff be funded from the tax rate stabilization reserve. With this option, there would be no additional money put into the town’s capital reserve, as it would merely be moving funds from one town bank account to another, Melinyshyn said.

However, this recommendation never officially hit the floor, as councillors approved the initial recommendation, with Dollin, Eisses, Fowler and Nicol in opposition.

The recommendations of committee-of-the-whole, which included the budget, were passed unanimously by council later in the meeting.