Brian White had barely made the comment when NOVA Chemicals provided a solution.
White complained about the City’s deteriorating industrial base as the City finalized its $139.7 million budget last month. In the last two decades residential taxpayers have had to pony up a greater percentage of the budget due to a 10 per cent decline in industrial assessment.
Budget documents from finance director Lisa Armstrong show that Sarnia’s assessment grew by just over $250,000.00 in 2017 but its industrial base slumped to just seven percent.
Armstrong says the City needs $250 million to keep up with infrastructure requirements but only allocated $25 million to capital spending this year.
“We have an assessment problem caused by years of industrial decline,” says White “and we can’t sustain that by attracting seniors”.
White added, “Municipal cost increases are falling on the backs of residential taxpayers”.
He went on to suggest the City consider borrowing for infrastructure improvements because he isn’t “comfortable with the rate it is happening”.
Armstrong noted that $76.1 million of the $139.7 million budget comes from taxpayers, mostly residential, one third of which are seniors who have moved here during the past decade.
“Council needs to change its stance if it is going to borrow,” says Armstrong who has been dealing with soaring costs, especially on the payroll side of the municipal budget. Nearly $80 million is allocated to employees.
Mayor Mike Bradley expects there will be “huge spinoffs” from the $2.2 billion polyethylene expansion at NOVA Chemicals but it won’t be the “wild west like we saw in the 1970s when the Corunna plant was first built”.
Bradley says he gives NOVA a lot of credit for expanding here, stretching construction out so that local contractors can be used and controlling the impact on the community so it is less dramatic.
While there will be tax benefits to the City Bradley suggests the NOVA project won’t solve the City’s budget problems. “We have a spending problem not a revenue problem,” he says “and we have more staff and more debt this year”.
An opportunity to save money by eliminating the “kiosk and switchboard position” at the front entrance of City Hall went over badly for the Mayor. Council approved a reduction in business hours by shaving a half hour at City Hall. The new hours are 8:30 am to 4:30 pm.
The kiosk and switchboard at the front entrance will be eliminated creating what Bradley described as a “less friendly atmosphere at Fort Sarnia”.
Bradley preferred the elimination of “non – essential personnel” pointing to the influx of information technology hires, a second lawyer and a communications specialist, which he described as “unnecessary”.
He also went after Councillor Matt Mitro for not declaring a conflict of interest. As Council approved a $25 million police budget Mitro suggested information technology personnel at City Hall work with IT at the police department.
Police Chief Phil Nelson didn’t mince words when he snapped back at Mitro “I don’t know what IT at City Hall would do involving IT at the police department. We are primarily a 911 center that dispatches fire and emergency responders”.
“I’m only suggesting IT at City Hall participate and cost sharing be explored” said Mitro.
His stepson in law Mark Dillon heads the four-person information technology department at City Hall.
Nelson ignored the suggestion and Council didn’t pursue it.
In light of the NOVA announcement White believes Council should reconsider its capital spending. “We need a business mindset,” says White. “We need to show businesses and industry that we are serious about our community and its future”.
While the City has a borrowing limit of about $180 million White believes adding $20 to $40 million to capital spending would send a positive message to the outside world.
“The message we are getting from the NOVA Chemicals expansion is that industry is stabilizing and with low interest rates and low debt now may be the time to spend more and clean up our decaying infrastructure,” says White.