Three long nights of debate didn’t quite finish budget discussions for Windsor’s town council.
So the big questions, like will taxes be going up or down and whether or not the town will financially back West Hants’ soccer facility, remains to be seen until a final recommendation is made — likely on their next budget meeting on March 19.
Mayor Anna Allen said the impending merger with West Hants on April 1, 2020, has had an impact on the discussions.
“We are already exchanging some services, which will increase our preparedness towards consolidation,” Allen said. “The stage is being set for joint services next budget year and years ahead. As council goes through the budget we are very aware of the consolidation and thinking forward.”
Some of the major spending items on the books, including a new aerial fire truck for the Windsor Fire Department and road reconstruction projects, could impact the town’s debt and tax rate, which would be borne exclusively by town residents, even post-consolidation.
Allen said council is taking a close look at the proposed budget to ensure assets and services are being maintained without having costs skyrocket for residents.
“As always, council wants to maintain existing services our citizens have come to expect,” she said. “Council directed staff to maintain the tax rate if possible but also recognizing the pressures to add new budget items.”
Major operating expenses for the town continue to include emergency services, including the RCMP and the Windsor Fire Department, as well as road maintenance.
A new aerial fire truck, which would replace the town’s aging one, is estimated to cost approximately $1.6 million and would require some financing to pay for it.
Council is also dealing with lower revenues on several fronts, including an expected lower return on the federal gas tax, a smaller bump from the deed transfer tax compared to last year, and falling arena rental revenues.
Doug Armstrong, the town’s director of finance, said if all of the proposed capital spending goes ahead as currently drafted, the town’s debt is expected to rise to above the 15 per cent threshold set by the province over the next two years. Once that happens, the provincial Department of Municipal Affairs would need to approve additional financing.
Any new spending that could impact the town’s debt will also have to be approved by the transition coordinating committee, which is overseeing the merger with the Municipality of West Hants.
Chief administrative officer Louis Coutinho said this difficult financial situation is a reality that many small towns across Nova Scotia are dealing with, especially with maintaining expensive road networks that require constant upkeep.
Still, over the past three years, the town has managed to end its fiscal year with significant surpluses, with the excess funds plumping up the town’s reserve accounts.
Coun. Jim Ivey said it might be time to start tightening the town’s purse strings to prevent this from continuing.
Ivey acknowledged that the budget process isn’t perfect and expenses are based on “best estimates,” but said council has an obligation to ensure their spending is at tight as possible.
“The trend over the last number of years indicates it as an area for improvement,” Ivey said. “The surplus reserves being realized each year are approximately two to three times the budgeted level. While the budgeted numbers will never be exact, the variance identified is too great for my satisfaction.”
Ivey suggested that town departments are over-estimating their costs for services, which is putting unnecessary pressure on the tax rate.
“If we can successfully tighten our budget levels with better accuracy, we can then more accurately plan and manage our need for reserves for our future investment in new or declining infrastructure that needs replacement in our community,” Ivey said.
The budget is expected to be ratified by council at their regular meeting on March 26.