Editorial: Passing the buck in South Dundas

South Dundas is presently in the middle of its annual budget process which began with council facing a 6.3 per cent residential property tax rate increase. At the end of the first budget meeting, staff were directed to get to an increase of 5.5 per cent. Then council called it a day.

Any tax increase affects property owners. While some people can easily absorb a 5.5 per cent increase, others with low or fixed incomes have little room in their budget to pay more. Statistics Canada said late last year that the average household income in South Dundas increased by $10,000 in the last five years. That increase is attributed to inward migration of families from Ottawa, not a real wage increase for South Dundas residents. Outside of some government employees, few have seen their pay increase in the last year – or longer. Inflation still sits above six per cent and food inflation is above 10 per cent.

Before the budget process began, South Dundas council approved a 5.2 per cent wage increase for its municipal employees – the highest wage increase so far of any municipality that makes up SDG Counties. In its one budget meeting, South Dundas council made few cuts or decisions. In fact, two-fifths of council were ready to approve the budget as presented with its initial 6.3 per cent increase, saying yes to everything – it was good enough as-is.

New spending includes vehicle purchases, computer replacements, consultant fees for a wage study, and a new phone system. There are over $125,000 in community requests for donations and in-kind assistance, but only $71,000 of that has been budgeted for – no list was publicly released of who will receive your money.

To be clear, a municipal council has an important role in the budget process. Staff draft a budget and council makes the decisions on behalf of the community it represents. That precedence has not just been set by previous councils in South Dundas, but by all municipal councils in the province. Dealing with the annual budget is one of the biggest and most important tasks of an elected municipal official.

Neighbouring South Stormont Council faced a four per cent residential property tax increase. Through cuts, it was reduced to three per cent, which is the same rate that it approved in 2022. Through cuts, tough choices, and compromise, many of Ontario’s municipalities are settling in to an average three per cent residential property tax increase. In contrast, South Dundas council asked staff to make the decisions, and directed the tax rate to land at about 5.5 per cent.

Most economic forecasts indicate that Canada will enter a recession in 2023. Comparatively, in a family budget, when money is tight, families make difficult decisions to balance their budget and live within their means. Instead of buying a new vehicle, the old one is repaired to get by for another year. Roofs are patched rather than replaced. Cutting a few ‘nice-to-haves’ to afford the ‘must-haves’ is what families do. It is not unreasonable for citizens to expect the people who are representing them in spending their tax dollars to do the same.

To date, South Dundas council is avoiding making tough decisions by directing staff to make decisions for them to approve. This process robs residents of the transparency that is gained through open discussions and debate. Unless something changes before the budget is finalized, residents will have to pay more – a lot more.

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