Niagara Falls city councils and staff cut their jobs out for them as they try to prepare a palatable operating budget during a challenging pandemic.
A first draft of the budget was presented to politicians on Tuesday, which the staff described as “very preliminary” and which contained few or no COVID-19 mitigation factors (e.g. use of reserves). It should facilitate the discussion and provide feedback and advice from the council to staff. No final decisions were made.
A summary was projected revenues of $ 128.8 million and projected expenses of $ 132.6 million. This leaves a deficit of 3.8 million US dollars. Municipalities must not have deficits, so city councils and employees must find ways to make up for this difference, be it through tax increases, benefit cuts or other means.
“We really don’t have a spending problem. We have an revenue problem based on much of the revenue that has dried up due to COVID, ”said Ken Todd, the city’s chief administrative officer.
The council moved the operating budget to its February 9 meeting and asked the municipality’s finance director to share ideas for the council to consider if the city does not receive planned revenue from hosting two casinos this year.
Over the past several years, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming community has raised approximately $ 25 million to host Fallsview Casino and Casino Niagara. However, with both facilities closed since mid-March due to the pandemic and no reopening date in sight, city councils are concerned about leaving such funds.
“I get some concern when we don’t have a fallback position,” said the Household Chairman and Counsel. Victor Pietrangelo.
Hotelier and Coun. Vince Kerrio said most of the people he speaks to in the tourism industry believe that reopening casinos “depends on when our country is vaccinated to the point where the virus is brought under control”. He said the city should have a budget based on the belief that it will not receive any planned revenue from the casinos.
“I don’t think the casino will open up enough to generate enough money to give us anywhere near that type of money, so we’d better look at it from the start.”
Mayor Jim Diodati agreed, adding that the city should push a “more conservative plan”.
“I wouldn’t want to expect that it will be there and it isn’t there and then we have to make it up to you. I’d rather be proactive and prepared for it. I’m the biggest optimist, but I still like a safety net just in case. “
Treasury Director Tiffany Clark said the removal of the projected grant of $ 5.8 million in the tax-assisted operating budget ($ 8,625,000 in OLG funds, of which $ 2,730,000 will be transferred to a reserve fund) will increase the levy by 8.1 percent would lead.
“It’s not necessarily something you want to do all at once – you want more strategy to get it back on track, but we can certainly have the discussion about it,” she said.
Clark asked if the council had a target percentage for employees to meet, “that’s reasonable”.
Pietrangelo said he previously announced that he would like to see an approved budget with no tax hike.
Coun. Wayne Campbell said he couldn’t support a zero percent hike, adding that if the city doesn’t raise the levy to at least match inflation, “you’ll have to cut services.”
“We need to continue the level of service we have in our community,” he said.
Clark said she made some suggestions in her report that would cut the budget to 1.5 percent, but that didn’t include removing any of the worried casino revenue councilors who might not be coming.
“I’m being honest, I can’t get you to zero. If you want to get to zero, you have to tell me what services we would like to consider when cutting, ”she said. “We don’t have enough reserves to get there. I can’t put enough money into this COVID budget to get to zero without serious service-level discussion. “
Kerrio said there was a “difference between service cuts and budget cuts”.
“Every time you make a budget cut, it doesn’t have to be a service cut,” he said. “I wouldn’t see a service cut, but neither can I say I did not have the opportunity to go straight into the budget, whether or not there are places for budget cuts that wouldn’t affect service at anything, or if so it would be minor. So I say we need to look a little more into this before we can really say this. “