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City heading toward balanced, tax-supported budget despite pandemic

'We are showing a ($4-million) surplus at the moment, but that is anticipated to normalize by year-end to be roughly on-budget,' says mayor
2020-12-28 Michael Prowse
Michael Prowse is the chief administrative officer at the City of Barrie.

Barrie taxpayers are getting some bang for their buck, even in a pandemic.

The city’s budget and business plan status as of June 30, 2021 shows tax-supported revenues and spending should be a wash by year’s end as services get back to normal.

“We are showing a ($4-million) surplus at the moment, but that is anticipated to normalize by year-end to be roughly on-budget,” said Mayor Jeff Lehman. “(It’s) certainly a lot better than we were doing at this time last year during the first months of the pandemic.”

“We’re not forecasting a larger significant surplus at the end of the year and I don’t think at this point we’re forecasting a significant or large deficit,” said Michael Prowse, Barrie’s chief administrative officer. “This is just an incredible job of really leveraging our costs with our revenues as closely as possible.”

Flattening a $4-million surplus in six months is expected to be the result of accelerating operational spending on departmental programs and the potential costs and lost revenue possible with further COVID-19 impacts in the last half of this year.

The city had significant utility savings when its facilities were closed  recreation centres, libraries, etc.  and by decreasing staffing levels. But fall programs are revving up and there’s some degree of ice rental with seven of eight rinks open and the eighth coming, while capacity for drop-in programs has slightly increased.

“We’ll continue to offer as many opportunities with variety as feasible, given the health restrictions, as recreation and culture play such an important role in the well-being of our community,” said Dawn McAlpine, the city’s general manager of community and corporate services.

“I’m hoping that as we continue to live through the pandemic, we’re able to offer as much as we can in terms of our residents for opportunities for fitness and socializing, even under the different circumstances that we’re all getting used to,” Lehman said.

Another good indicator is the participation increase in RecACCESS, a fee assistance program that provides support to low-income families and individuals in Barrie by providing qualifying participants with a RecPASS membership and youth credits that can be applied to the registration fee for qualifying programs and activities. 

The program's annual target is 1,550 people and it was at 1,978 people at June’s end.

“So in a year when everything else was cratering, in terms of participation, that one did go up,” Lehman said. “We did see in fact 500 more people using our recreation programs and facilities because of that. It was another way the city almost unintentionally ended up supporting people through COVID.”

City treasurer Craig Millar said property assessment growth this year is expected to be one per cent, although the city did budget for a slightly higher number.

Tax arrears numbers, whether people are paying their property taxes, are also a positive story in a pandemic.

“I was amazed to see… that arrears are actually lower than forecast, not by much, I think it’s very close to the forecast,” Lehman said. “That obviously is very good news, because one of the fears we had was there would be a slide in arrears.”

“It’s looking to trend to what it was in 2019… which I will call a normal year,” Millar said, “so it’s positive and maybe a bit surprising, but generally speaking people are paying their taxes.

“Some are taking advantage of the extended due dates… to waive the late penalties to the end of September, but I can only really describe it as positive," he added. "We don’t have it broken down by class, but it’s overall a positive story, I think, for the community.”

The annual target for tax arrears as a percentage of the current year’s levy is six per cent. At the end of June, if it was 5.97 per cent.

Prowse said other local governments aren’t doing as well as Barrie, although he declined to mention names.

“I can assure members of council that every single week I sit on calls with other municipalities across Ontario that may have finished last year with a significant deficit and may, as of June 30, be reporting a further deficit in their numbers,” he said. “They exist and they are similar-sized to the city of Barrie, and they are not faring as well as we are.”

The city has $5.12 million available from Safe Restart Funding for COVID-related expenses or revenue shortfalls. There is also an additional $1.63 million available from the Safe Restart Transit Phase 3 program for transit-related pressures due to the pandemic. These funds are not reflected in the up-to-June 30 results and will be applied at year end when the annual impact of the pandemic is known.

Barrie councillors gave initial approval Monday night to receive the 2021 budget and business plan status as of June 30. City council will consider final approval of this motion at its Sept. 20 meeting.

Bob Bruton

About the Author: Bob Bruton

Bob Bruton is a full-time BarrieToday reporter who covers politics and city hall.
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