Public assessments of Gravenhurst’s draft budget ranged from good to bad, to downright ugly during a special meeting between councillors and residents over the weekend. Residents were invited to share their opinions on the town’s financial plans during a special council meeting at Gravenhurst town hall on Saturday, March 2. As the budget currently stands, residents can expect an effective tax increase of 1.4 per cent on their total residential tax bill. The figure amounts to an increase of about $17.21 per $100,000 of property assessment.
Major drivers of the budget include a reduction in the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund transfer payments to the municipality, the salary for a full-time fire chief, a new pay scale for volunteer firefighters, and an increase in utility costs for the Centennial Centre.
Gravenhurst resident Elizabeth Palatics praised councillors for deciding to keep lifeguarding services at Gull Lake Rotary Park.
“They are not just kids that you’re hiring; you’re hiring qualified adults that provide a huge service to this town,” she said. “They enforce safety rules, they interact with the public and they provide a safe environment for everyone to enjoy.”
When Palatics learned that town hall was considering cutting the $23,000 cost for retaining lifeguarding services at the park, she began circulating a petition last summer, which garnered hundreds of signatures, to save the program.
“I was so surprised, and I’m very proud to say there was not one negative comment,” she told councillors. “Everybody was in full support of this program, and everybody was begging town council to please keep it going.”
Palatics reiterated to council the high levels of responsibility that lifeguards assume. She cited examples of lifeguards at the park reacting to everything from drownings and medical emergencies to assaults.
She told councillors that in one incident a few years ago, lifeguards had to rescue a man who jumped into the water after being sprayed with bear spray. She said lifeguards also had to rescue two passersby who dove in to assist.
“A non-swimming male tourist from Toronto jumped in off the docks thinking it was shallow and needed to be rescued, as did a young local boy who strangely got his foot caught between two docks as they meet,” said Palatics. “He was caught face down in the water. Both of those cases were spotted by the lifeguards on duty, and the lifeguards came to the rescue.”
Resident Gord Durnan also had similar words of praise for council’s decision to keep lifeguards on duty.
“It was a great success this summer; thank you for keeping it in this year, and thank you for everything you do for our great community,” he said.
Deputy Mayor Jeff Watson noted an additional $15,000 in the budget has been allotted to rehabilitate the park’s volleyball court, and another $25,000 for resurfacing the tennis courts.
Speaking on behalf of the Muskoka Lakes Association (MLA), Rick Spence was considerably more critical.
Reading from a prepared statement by MLA president Michael Langdon and political and land use committee chair Anne McCauley, Spence said the group does not believe the capital and special projects levy reflects the total amount of the capital portion of the budget.
“The public should be aware that the funds for almost half of the capital expenditures, or over $1 million, are coming from the municipality’s own reserves,” he said. “This depletion of reserves represents a deferred expense that will have to be repaid by augmenting the reserve levels in the future.”
Spence also questioned the finances of the town’s building department.
“Why do building department costs exceed revenues in 2013 by $148,769?” he asked. “The MLA also notes that the council has scheduled a meeting mid-March to discuss the building department fees. We hope that his budget discrepancy is resolved through that discussion.”
Spence further took issue with numbers in the town’s 10-year capital works budget, and criticized the two-tiered government system that Gravenhurst operates under.
“Economic development is an important function for Muskoka, but we are concerned that each municipal economic development officer is competing with others in the district for the same scarce resources and funding,” he said. “The MLA suggests that the economic development officer in each municipality collaborate with their counterparts and determine a specific niche that is appropriate for each individual municipality.”
Though Spence said the MLA interpreted the draft budget to mean residents will see a 6.2 per cent tax rate increase, Watson clarified the fact that the number actually refers to the Gravenhurst portion of the total municipal tax bill.
“The Gravenhurst portion of your tax bill only makes up 30 per cent of the overall tax bill,” he said.
A report on the budget released by town shows the town keeps $0.28 for every dollar in taxes collected. The district portion takes up $0.53, while education consumes the remaining $0.19.
Watson also questioned how the MLA interpreted the budget’s numbers, but said council will be working together with the MLA to clarify the numbers in the coming days.
“There’s some inaccuracies of what you presented today, but we will discuss them and come forward with those numbers, and get back to your association and give you the answers,” said Watson.
Town CAO Dave Weldon also addressed the MLA’s interpretation of how the building department is funded. The MLA had claimed the department is mandated by the province to wholly fund its operations through revenues collected through fees and other charges.
“The mandate from the province is that the fees collected for building permits cannot exceed the cost associated with issuing them,” said Weldon. “It does not mandate that they must be wholly funded by department fees, as we can’t charge more than what the cost is.”
In contrast to previous delegations, cottager Glen Egan pulled no punches in his assessment of council’s performance and financial sense.
“We’re going to do a big rehab downtown, we’re going to give grants, we’re going to get the whole downtown looking perfect, but how do we recover the money? Up the taxes? I don’t think so,” he said. “The local businesses are going broke now, how can you up the taxes to pay for the improvements?”
He roundly criticized council for the state of the town’s roads and for what he called “reckless spending.”
“This council has been a disaster. The last council was a disaster. This town is going into the toilet. You people don’t want to hear it,” he said. “The only one with any common sense is Lola Bratty.”
His rant came to an end after Mayor Paisley Donaldson interceded.
“It’s not an open yelling match sir,” she said.
With a brief statement, resident Gerry Flaherty capped off the meeting on a more positive note.
“I, a taxpayer of Gravenhurst, am quite happy with the way things are being run at town hall,” he said. “You’ve put a lot of effort into it. I as a taxpayer appreciate your efforts.”