Sarnia’s mayor calls this year’s budget “toughest ever”

Marco Vigliotti

City taxpayers face the unenviable option of higher taxes or fewer services under the proposed 2015 budget.

The spending blueprint recently unveiled to the new council recommends a 6% property tax increase – much higher than the 2% target the outgoing council gave city staff.

Finance director Brian McKay said municipal insurance costs, salaries and debt inherited from the RBC Centre are key factors.

“A lot of this increase is going towards … anticipated claims based on new legislation and WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board),” he said. “WSIB for the city – and actually for municipalities across Ontario- is up 29%.”

“I’ve never seen an increase like that.”

At issue is how the WSIB views municipalities, specifically in regard to fire and police employees, McKay said.

“A lot of the presumptive legislation on occupational disease … has hit municipalities in 2015.”

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said the changes allow fire and police staff to “automatically” collect WSIB contributions if they report certain workplace-based illness without going through the application process.

The draft budget proposes freezing spending in certain areas, including building materials, to ease the strain on coffers. But inflation results in the city losing purchasing power, McKay noted.

Cutting jobs also comes with problems, because some municipal positions are tied to provincial and federal grants.

“This is the toughest budget ever,” Bradley said.

Despite the projections, McKay said Sarnia’s financial health is improving as the city continues to make strides in eliminating debt.

A municipal debt that peaked at $67 million in 2008 is projected to be just over $26 million by the end this year, and $21 million in 2015.

The city’s pay-as-you-go approach has delayed some projects but has also reaped significant cost savings, McKay said.

The lower debt has also freed up $8 million for capital projects between 2010 and 2014 that would otherwise have gone to interest payments, according to city hall figures.

The newly elected council will begin deliberations on the 2015 budget on Dec. 9.