The sign on the highway leading into Sarnia lists the population at 73,000. But Mike Kelch is deeply concerned that it is actually lower and suggests if a County report is correct the City’s population decline will be unaffordable in the next 20 years.
“Everything I see indicates we aren’t attracting new businesses, the population is in decline and those that remain will have lower incomes with less ability to pay taxes,” says Kelch who is concerned about growing municipal costs and a soaring municipal payroll.
This year’s municipal budget at just under $140 million is 2.1 per cent higher than last year. And the issue for the City is that 65% is for payroll which is soaring in numbers of employees and cost.
“Everyone gets a raise every year,” says Kelch, a long time City Councillor who is debating whether to seek re-election this fall.
Finance director Lisa Armstrong whose department received an 11% increase this year agrees the City is facing a financial crisis. Assessment increased by just $250,000.00 this year.
Armstrong says the City needs $250 million worth of infrastructure improvements and with a declining industrial base the bulk of municipal costs are falling on to the residential taxpayer.
More than a third of the City’s 600 plus employees make more than $100,000.00 and the number continues to grow.
Armstrong herself is an example.
Since beginning with the City in 2015 Armstrong’s pay packet has increased by $13,000.00. As a department head her increase this year is more than $8,400.00. She is being paid $147,058.00 plus benefits.
Armstrong says her increase is due to her pay bracket which moved her up 8%.
Others with substantial increases on the Sunshine List include City Clerk Dianne Gould - Brown who received a $5,800.00 increase that moved her to $116,418.18. Gould - Brown is a key factor in the administration’s decision to have paperless ballots in the upcoming election. That decision has been greeted with outrage.
City lawyer, Scott McEachran received a raise of more than $6,500.00 and will now be paid just over $141,000.00. His department has increased from one to four people and costs are up nine per cent.
Armstrong noted McEachran is also acting Chief Administrative Officer and fills in for Margaret Misek-Evans who is paid just over $185,000.00.
Mark Dillon, step son of Councillor Matt Mitro is also on the Sunshine List. He has been with the City a year and a half, is paid $110,442.00 and his IT department now has a staff of four. Dillon has publicly spoken out about the need to increase staff in his department.
Kelch describes the County’s report as “sobering” and suggests a worst case scenario for the City would be a population decline to 63,000 over the next two decades. “There is a reality here,” says Kelch.
“We will get a bump over the next two years while the NOVA Chemicals expansion is underway,” but Kelch asks what happens after that? “We need to understand the 20-year outlook and in my mind affordability is number one. We need to take a look at all our spending to make sure taxpayers will be able to pay the bill”.