By Heather Abrey
Kitchener Post staff
Kitchener residents will see a 1.4 per cent increase to their tax bill this year after Kitchener council approved a budget that included a $480,000 cut to the proposed Kitchener Fire budget.
Four firefighters will be cut through attrition in 2013 — they won’t be replaced when they leave or retire — accounting for the $480,000 reduction to the $29-million proposed fire department budget. Fire services in 2012 accounted for approximately 30 per cent of the city’s budget and is the largest single expense for the municipality.
Some councillors blamed the arbitration process for having to cut costs and staff. Across the province, many municipalities face firefighter contract disputes that have gone to arbitration. Salary increases awarded through arbitration often outstrip those in negotiated contracts.
“Like everyone here, I too am upset that we are in this position,” said Ward 1 Coun. Scott Davey. “However, if compensation was in line, this issue would not be before us. The preferred solution is simply not in our control.”
The budget also featured final allocations for money leftover in the Local Environmental Action Fund (LEAF). LEAF was set up to fund “transformative” local environmental projects, but suffered from a lack of public participation. Council eventually decided to cancel the fund, but had to decide how to spend nearly $3 million that was left over. The issue came to council several times and was repeatedly deferred.
Ultimately, the fund was broken into four pieces: $320,000 to deal with the emerald ash borer infestation; $1.4 million for trails; $600,000 for McLennan, Kiwanis, and Victoria parks, as well as the Huron Natural Area; and $500,000 for debt reduction.
An additional $4.3 million to fight the emerald ash borer was included in the capital budget, and city staff were directed to search for an additional $600,000 for trails.
Ward 9 Coun. Frank Etherington got part of his wish with a $15,00 increase to the leisure access program, which provides assistance for low-income residents to participate in sports programs, and a $6,000 reduction to the council’s technology and home office budget. Both items have been high on his list of changes for some time.
The city’s leisure program has consistently gone over budget for the last three years, and last year had to make up the $38,000 shortfall through private donations, largely from the Canadian Tire Jumpstart program.
“As the economy slows and an increasing number of people are unemployed, the demand for leisure subsidies climbs. Staff tell me that it spikes every time we have a plant closure or series of job losses in the community,” he said.
“I don’t want to ever see disadvantaged kids, seniors or adults who are living below the Stats Can poverty cutoff do without programs that help ease or break that cycle of poverty . . . I was delighted to see the support I received from councillors. We got $15,000 in a very tight budget situation.”
The home office and technology budget allows councillors to access $5,300 per four-year term for items such as computers, printers, cell phones and furnishing a home office. Councillors also receive a separate operating budget to pay for expenses such as internet and cell phone bills.
At the Jan. 17 budget meeting, Etherington suggested a cut of $1,250 from each councillor and the mayor’s home office and technology budget, which would amount to a $13,750 cut.
Etherington said councillors rarely use all the money, leaving thousands of dollars sitting unused in the fund. In 2012, $18,000 went unused, he said.
The proposed cut received little support from council, which eventually voted for a compromise of a $600 cut per council member, which amounts to a $6,600 reduction.
“I plan to try again next year,” said Etherington. “I think what will now be a $4,700 annual allowance for each councillor is still excessive during a period where we are watching carefully every dollar spent.”
The tax increase — which amounts to about $13.73 on a $247,000 property assessment — does not include regional or school board taxes.
Water and sewer rates increased by 4.75 per cent each. The stormwater fee increased by 1.5 per cent.