Police spending accounts for half the increase; GRT fares go up, iXpress service and student summer jobs cut
By James Jackson
For the Post
Waterloo Regional Council approved its $1.2 billion budget for 2013 on Wednesday night, adding $45 to the average tax bill.
Included in this year’s budget is a 2.74 per cent tax rate increase, slightly higher than the 2.5 per cent tax increase in 2012 and almost double the average rate of inflation last year.
The increase was more than some councillors had hoped for, but aims to strike a balance in what has proven to be one of the most difficult budget sessions in recent memory, they said.
“From our perspective, anything below (a 3 per cent increase) strikes that balance,” said Coun. Sean Strickland.
“The budget is more than a numbers game,” chief administration officer Mike Murray told council. “Every decision you make to add or not add, to cut or not cut, has an impact.”
The $135-million police budget makes up more than half of the increase as council approved a 7.3 per cent budget increase for the service over 2012, which will account for a 1.73 per cent tax increase.
It could have been more, however, as North Dumfries Mayor Rob Deutschmann proposed adding another $500,000.
“The city and the region are expanding and certain crimes are on the decline, but as I meet people in the region and North Dumfries, the view is they want more enforcement,” Deutschmann said.
Councillors rejected the motion.
“It’s the first time in 34 years I’ve heard people arguing to increase the police budget,” Chair Ken Seiling said.
Councillors also voted to spend $2 million for a range of social services after provincial funding cuts left a $3-million shortfall in discretionary benefits.
Cuts came in several areas — notably to transit, roads and waste management — to get the tax rate increase below 3 per cent.
About $1.2 million in contributions to the long-term funding strategy for roads was deferred for this year, eliminating a 0.3 per cent property tax increase.
Kitchener Mayor Carl Zehr requested the cut be reduced to $600,000, saying the deferral will only hurt the region in the long run, but he garnered no support.
About $400,000 was also cut from the transportation budget for weed and grass cutting on regional roads, eliminating nine student summer jobs.
Zehr and Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig had some concern over the visual impact of allowing weeds and long grass to remain uncut.
“We must consider the impact on tourism and economic development,” Zehr cautioned. “I cannot support this.”
Grand River Transit will see its iXpress service reduced to from every 10 minutes to every 15 minutes during July and August, saving about $350,000. Staff told council some passengers would be left standing at stops about twice per day due to overcrowded buses.
“When building a brand it’s more than just a name, but customer experience,” said Deutschmann, who did not support the reduction. “We’re hurting the brand by affecting service.”
“This is something that stops people from taking transit,” said Coun. Jane Mitchell. “I will not support this.”
Council also opted to stop paying for incoming and outgoing text message fees for bus information, saving $100,000. Customers are now responsible for their own text fees.
A 7 per cent fare hike will also come into effect July 1.