Hantsport’s town council will be making some tough calls in the coming months.
But, rather than sugar coating the town’s financial situation, council is asking the public to speak up, tell them what services work, and which services residents feel they can live without, before budget deliberations are in full swing.
More than 60 people attended a two-hour public meeting Town of Hantsport officials hosted at the local fire hall Jan. 23.
The open forum discussion started with Mayor Rob Zwicker explaining the budgeting dilemma council is facing as they attempt to balance the books while moving forward with a $242,000 shortfall in tax revenue for the upcoming fiscal year.
Council must consider raising taxes, cutting services or, most likely, “a combination of both” to make up for the loss, Zwicker said.
“A one cent increase on the residential tax rate increases revenues to the town by about $5,700,” the mayor explained while narrating a brief slideshow presentation.
Increasing the commercial rate by one cent would bring in an additional $1,100, he added.
Zwicker said half of the town’s $2.2 million dollar budget is consumed by such non-discretionary items as education, policing, Valley Waste, debt servicing and sewer services. The rest, about $1.1 million, must pay for plowing roadways, sidewalk work, recreation, transit, fire, maintenance equipment, building maintenance and repair, the tourist bureau, regional emergency services and town staff.
Citizens offer their two cents on town budget
When the floor opened to the public, Don Miller asked council to explain why policing services cost $336,000 a year.
“We do not have police presence. Not what we were supposed to have,” Miller said.
Zwicker said council wrote a letter to the provincial Justice Department to request a policing review.
Coun. Margot Bureaux said she is willing to start looking into what it may cost to partner with the Town of Kentville for policing services, as she did once before during her first term on council. Bureaux said the town would have to notify the RCMP of their intent to use another service provider at least one year in advance.
Another citizen asked council why Valley Waste charges the town $98,696.
Deputy Mayor Harold Bulger explained that the Town of Hantsport covers 1.55 per cent of the Valley Waste budget, and the lump sum works out to about $163 per household annually.
Joe Foy urged council to ensure the amount of new borrowing the town accrues each year is clearly noted in budget documents drafted in the future.
“I think the amount of new borrowing that we undertake this year given the situation that we’re in… should be a very, very small number and I don’t care how much it hurts.”
Foy stressed the importance of noting how much new capital borrowing is added to the budget yearly in order to adequately monitor spending.
“I find it awkward to say that things are about balanced,” he said, in revisiting the topic after hearing CAO Rob Frost say the town is expecting to finish this fiscal year with a small surplus.
“It seems to me that, unless I’m missing something, we’re about $200,000 in the red for this year. We borrowed the $200,000, but guess what? That’s why we’ve got 10 per cent of our budget going to the bank every year and every year it gets bigger.”
In response to Foy’s comments regarding spending, Zwicker said “a capital freeze could very well be in the cards for council.”
“I just don’t wanna have to move,” responded Foy, to laughter.
When asked if council examines salaries and expenses in budget deliberations, Zwicker said, “everything is on the table.”
Public questions Minas Basin assessment drop
Zwicker announced that the Property Valuation Services Corporation (PVSC) recently informed council the tax level of the Minas Basin Pulp and Power Ltd. property in Hantsport dropped from $6 million to $1.5 million with the closure of the mill.
“They argued that the dollar per square foot is rather generous and that if we challenge we’d probably lose and get even less tax revenue.”
Zwicker said council was told the low market value, state of the pulp industry and obsolete status of the warehouse contributed to the drop in assessment.
Several citizens urged council to appeal the decision, or at least get a second opinion.
Peter Murray, a former town councillor, was among them.
“The town should hire a consultant. We are talking a lot of money with that loss and, in my opinion, I think we should hire…a professional appraiser that will get us a cost to do this,” Murray advised.
“I think that the town should at least look into a consultant to review that loss and if they think that we have grounds for an appeal, then I would strongly suggest that the council do that.”
A couple citizens expressed concern that the former production facility that has been reassessed as an obsolete warehouse will be used by Minas Basin’s neighbouring sister company, CKF. Inc. They urged council to reconsider appealing the PVSC’s assessment.
Coun. Paul Morton said losing the appeal process could mean losing more tax revenue.
“They said they assessed it at $8 per square foot down there, if we appeal and we lose, they could assess it for $4 for square foot. Chances are we would lose the case.”
But the public insisted.
“It seems like those warehouses are being used for what they are built for… there should be an appeal process for things that are ludicrous,” Brian Bishop said.
Frost said town officials consulted a lawyer regarding the matter, and were told “the amount that might be increased on the assessment wouldn’t be worth the legal fees that we’d end up paying at the end of the day, and it could end up being less.”
Zwicker, an engineer at CKF Inc., noted that while the Minas Basin mill is no more, the town continues to work closely with Scotia Investments Ltd. in dealings regarding CKF.
“When you go into an appeal process you’ve got to be prepared to lose and you’ve got to be prepared to have a relationship suffer.”
Citizens, council talk doctor difficulties
Coun. Faye Hill said she knows of at least one doctor that has asked the Capital District Health Authority about the opening that will become available at the Hantsport Collaborative Practice when the current doctor leaves in March.
One woman, a senior citizen, said she feels Hantsport’s struggle to secure a long-term doctor is an indication that “it’s all about money.”
She says waiting for a new doctor to come to town is stressful for people requiring health care regularly, and their caregivers.
“It’s easy to say you’re between Wolfville, and you’re between Windsor, but that’s not convenient because those doctors in Windsor, and those doctors in Wolfville, fill up. It’s not as easy to get another doctor as they like to say; it really isn’t,” she said.
Zwicker concurred, and said it is difficult to keep a doctor in a small town located between Kentville and Halifax — places with larger hospitals capable of making more appealing job offers.
“It’s absolutely terrifying not to have a family doctor,” Zwicker said.
Council agreed to continue working with Capital Health to find a new doctor.