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‘X’ doesn't mark the spot for budget tweaks: Penetang mayor

Finance treasurer director tells Penetanguishene council that some reserves are meant for multi-year projects, as mayor pitches removal of operating reserves from budget calculations
Penetanguishene Mayor Doug Rawson.

A tell-tale sign of a curveball by council is how many times municipal staff responds by stating that council ultimately has the final say; such was the case during a suggestion on reserves from Penetanguishene Mayor Doug Rawson.

At the recent committee of the whole meeting, a report on the 2025 budget timeline and survey was brought up during the finance and corporate service section.

Once formally passed by council, budget surveys will be accepted from members of the public, council, and municipal management levels until the end of September. Two public consultations on the budget are scheduled to occur in November in preparation for the budget discussions at the end of 2024.

When asked if there were comments or questions, Rawson expressed his thanks for the pre-council public consultation aspect with eagerness to its return.

Rawson then pitched his idea.

“(For) council last year, we said: ‘We want to set the (tax) rate at x.’ Staff did the work and they brought back the draft plan budget at x,” Rawson began, establishing the placeholder.

“I’m of the belief and feel strongly,” said Rawson, “if we set the rate at x, when staff presents that to council, you should not be using reserves when you present that to us. I think that should be council’s purview to say: ‘We got it to x by using… this reserve.’

“Then we can decide if we want to use the piggy bank,” Rawson added.

Banter between CAO Jeff Lees and Rawson resulted in several instances where Lees tried to reply to the remark from the staff perspective.

“I think staff are happy to take direction from council in terms of how we get to x,” Lees replied. “It’s a struggle every year, as I know committee and council can appreciate. Certainly while there’s tough decisions made at the committee table, there’s tough decisions made at the senior leadership table as well.”

Lees stated twice more that staff were happy to take direction, with the ultimate decision going to council on the budget decisions. Rawson thanked Lees for the response but admitted difficulty comprehending that aspect of the budget process, or where the suggestion would best be addressed.

Coun. George Vadeboncoeur chimed in with his views on the difficulties that could be faced if staff were directed not to use reserves in their calculations. 

“It’s where you get into adjustments to that – you reduce the tax levy contribution, up the reserve contribution – that’s where it could get tricky,” said Vadeboncoeur. ‘We’re proposing these capital budget items, and this is the reserve contributions, and it all fits together. Where it might be more transparent is to say: ‘We had this much of a reserve contribution and we’re actually going to increase that now and reduce the tax levy contribution to make it fit.’ But how do you do that across maybe 20 or 25 capital projects?”

The mention of capital reserves provided a moment of clarity, prompting Rawson to correct himself.

“Sorry, I’m referring to operating budget,” said Rawson, regarding the previous budget. “We had a reserve draw-down in the operating; I echo the capital piece, I think that’s part of the capital picture.

“If we ask for x in operating, I don’t want to see reserves being pulled in operating,” Rawson reiterated.

However, the suggestion continued to cause members of council and staff to share that council ultimately had the final say in the budget; at least twice more.

“It’s a delicate balance because I think every year staff do make recommendations, even in the operating budget, on transferring money to the reserve,” stated Lees. “In addition, we make recommendations to council on drawing from the reserve in different areas. What I was going to suggest is if you can leave this with staff, we’ll be returning in June to committee with some guidelines.”

Likewise, director of finance/treasurer Carrie Robillard commented: “This is just a preliminary report to kick off our 2025 budget process in terms of the timeline.”

“Some of the reserves that we implement and that we do transfer funds to are for a purpose, and that’s for multi-year projects,” Robillard added. “It’s for more of a short-to-medium financing mechanism to fund capital projects; so just keeping that in mind, some of them are obviously more longer-term to set funds aside for other purposes.”

The report was received as information and the motion was carried, with formal council ratification anticipated in an upcoming meeting.

The 2025 budget timeline and survey report can be located on the agenda page of the Town of Penetanguishene website.

Meetings of Penetanguishene council are held on the second Wednesday of each month, and can be watched live on Rogers TV cable 53 when available, or on the Rogers TV website.

Archives of council meetings are located on the Town of Penetanguishene YouTube channel.

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Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Derek Howard covers Midland and Penetanguishene area civic issues under the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada.
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