My Thoughts on a Responsible Plan for Guelph Budget 2021

As many are aware, Guelph council is in the midst of planning the 2021 City Budget.  And after spending the past few weeks digesting all of the information, as well as public input, I’d like to offer some thoughts on what an appropriate and responsible 2021 Guelph City Budget might look like.

In May of this year I wrote about the City’s commitment over the past six years to “save in the good times“, and how this commitment has set the City on a firm foundation to respond to the COVID public health and economic crisis (Link Here). I wrote about the city’s tax rate stabilization reserve being completely rebuilt since 2014 ($2.1M, to a projected balance of over $13M in 2020); and the city’s total contingency reserves being rebuilt from $10.8M (2014), to a projected balance of over $23.4M (2020).

So as a follow up to this article, I’d like to offer a second (equally important) piece to the equation.  “Save in the good times…………in order to stimulate in the bad.”  Since the 1930’s this has become a core function of Government (stimulate during recessions), in order to cushion economic impacts and excelerate recovery; and this function is something Guelph is well situated to perform.

Armed with healthy reserves, Council must focus on responding to the thousands in our community who are still out of work; have returned only part time; have lost a business; or, are facing another round of income insecurity this winter. To achieve this, one thing is clear. Council must work harder to minimize the tax increase in 2021 (currently projected to be 3.6%), all while committing to targeted and immediate reserve funding of community supports to promote resiliency and recovery. Community Grants, Arts and Tourism, Youth Sports, Care Facilities, Welcoming Streets Initiatives, Small Business Tax Reductions (just to name a few), all need to be supported in 2021. And because of our collective success in rebuilding reserves, we can do this. All while acknowledging the impact this pandemic has had on Guelph households and small businesses by minimizing the tax increase.  These adjustments (funding through reserves) are no different then what every household in our community is having to do this year.  

Further, through this strategy, council will be modelling a similar approach to the provincial and federal government‘s pandemic relief and recovery initiatives (i.e. payroll support, rent relief etc), by focussing on immediate funding needs while keeping an eye on recovery.

City Council, City staff and the executive team have done diligent work over the past six years putting us in the financial position we are in today. Now it’s time to provide targeted support in 2021, which includes minimizing a property tax increase.

Elections Matter #Guelph……… PLEASE TAKE THE SURVEY!

It’s understandably difficult to find room in the current Election News Coverage to talk about municipal elections BUT here in #Guelph we are already planning for the 2022 municipal election. And we need your help!

Many municipalities across Ontario are seeking ways of broadening access to voting (i.e. vote by mail, over the phone, or internet voting), and increase voter engagement during elections. #Guelph is no different.

We want to ensure your voice is heard in 2022 and we want as many of you to speak as possible. So if you have ever considered (or would consider), casting a ballot in the 2022 Guelph municipal election by means other than “in-person” at a polling station (i.e. childcare issues, concerns over COVID, travelling abroad, work conflicts, accessibility concerns etc), it is very important to take 5 minutes and complete this survey. GO!

https://www.haveyoursay.guelph.ca/voting-methods

Thank you to all residents for reaching out to me over the past few weeks with your thoughts on this file. It has been great corresponding with you and hearing your feedback. And after responding to dozens of email about my position, I thought it best to provide my thoughts in advance of this evenings council meeting so residents knew where I stood. So here goes. Short and sweet.

As illustrated in the Watson and Associates Report, there are in fact only three, single tier municipalities in all of Ontario that currently employ “Full Time” councillors.  Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton. Of importance to note, all of these cities have considerably larger populations than Guelph.

There is (of course) no “rule” for determining when and how large a city must be before moving to full time councillors, but the consultants report does serve as a benchmark. Similarly, and by comparison in the same table, it is clear that Guelph city councillors (two per ward) are appropriately paid for their time ($41,528/year). 

Secondly, as per the consultants report.  Guelph City councillors (based on personal interviews), spend on average about 20 hours per week on council business.  This equates to 80 hours per month or approximately 840hrs/year when you consider council breaks (council breaks for two weeks at Christmas and four weeks each summer).  This equates to approximately $48/hr for part time work.  No system is ever perfect, but if you support a two councillor per ward model in Guelph, it is clear that the current system is well designed and the compensation is comparatively, very competitive.  

Thirdly, for councillors to whom the following statement feels true (see below), I would reiterate the importance of time management when performing this duty in the community.  On a personal note, I commute to work each day, coach youth sports and have a young family. I have worked full time for the past 6 years while also serving on city council. At times has it been stressful to manage? Of course (just see budget time each year)! At the end of the day however, being effective at something comes down to effective time management. To serve as a councillor and still maintain full time employment is absolutely possible with effective time management………….just ask me 😉

Finally and most importantly, the position of an elected councillor is first and foremost a public service.  It should never be seen as a job.  If a primary motivator in running for council is to be ”paid appropriately for your time”, you are missing the call to public service.  I have read no better quote articulating this message then an email I received earlier last week. Thank you to the resident for passing this along. I hope this message helps ground our conversations this evening.

Five Years of Budgetary Surpluses Have Prepared our City for Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis

Since the depression of the 1930’s there’s been a prevailing economic philosophy amongst western democracies thatadvocates for managed growth through regulated free market economies. Simply put, to avoid the historic boom and bust of free unregulated markets, governments should seek to manage inflation and growth during the good times, as well as cushioning losses of economic productivity in the bad times. 

“Save in the good times, stimulate in the bad times!”

From my perspective, even at the municipal level, governments can (and should) practice this general philosophy. Because if it is an expectation that governments intervene to cushion economic impacts during recessions, it should also be understood that governments must commit to stockpiling surpluses and restraining spending during strong economic times in order to avoid continuous debt being loaded onto the next generation. While a number of western democracies have seemingly departed from this general philosophy in recent years, the fundamental principle still holds true, and is something our city can take pride in when looking back on recent years of local government in Guelph. 

The citizens of Guelph have the right to know how the city has managed public resources over the past number of years, and how this culture has set us on a firm foundation to respond to this public health and economic crisis. Case in point, since 2014 the city’s tax rate stabilization reserve (the key tool council can use to mitigate unforeseen increases in operating costs), has been completely rebuilt from a dangerously low balance of $2.1M, to a projectedbalance of over $13M in 2020; a six-fold increase. Further, over this same period the city’s total contingency reserves have also been rebuilt, from a balance of $10.8M (2014), to a projected balance of over $23.4M (2020). 

How was this accomplished? 

It was accomplished through the city’s executive, outside boards, staff and council diligently turning a -$1.1Mbudgetary shortfall in 2014, into five consecutive surplus budgets of $1.14M (2015); $3.08M (2016); $3.5M (2017); $3.25M (2018); and just announced for 2019 ($5.47M). These surpluses (coupled with disciplined spending), have been central in rebuilding these critical reserve funds during strong economic times, and have prepared our finances for responding to the public health and economic crisis we find ourselves in today. Armed with healthy reserves, it is now council’s opportunity to support our community through this years (and future years) operational and capital budget.  

So while many large municipalities today are calling on upper levels of government for emergency financial aid to sustain services, our community should be reassured that today, Guelph’s core city services are strong, funded, and will continue to be there during this crisis. On a personal note, I am proud to acknowledge the good work of our City’s executive team and staff over the past six years for helping put us in the position we are in today. Moreover, I include in my thanks the near 1,000 city staff members who are currently at home on emergency leave, as well as the residents of Guelph who are at home, helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  You are all helping to ensure a strong local government and a strong, resilient city when we get back on our feet.  We are all in this together.

A 20% increase in the City’s Tax Supported Operating Budget since 2015 is out of touch with reality for many Guelph families

19.33% in 5 years (2015-2020)…..that will be the cumulative increase (even after assessment growth) to the City’s tax supported operating budget if Guelph Council supports a 4% (and potentially higher) increase to the budget this week.

Just as important, these increases all come while the city has run $11.1M (approx) in operating surplus’s over the same period of time (2015-2019).

How did we get here?

Well, as it stands, the current projected budget increase for 2020 is 3.08%. This, for many, already seems high but built into this figure are all of the year-over-year cost increases to City departments and operations; a 1% increase to the 10 Year Compounding Infrastruature Levy (currently in Year 4); as well as the much needed 10% increase in the Guelph Police Services budget. Yes, there is also the much publicized hospital capital request ($4.5M over 6 years for an expansion of the Guelph General Hospital), but the 2020 contribution ($750,000) can likely be paid through the operating surplus reported by staff in 2019 ($2M).

Setting aside the police request and the infrastructure levy, staff have once again brought forward an operational budget increase that aligns with inflation (between 1-1.5%), and should be commended for it.

And this (from my perspective), should be what defines the 2020 budget. A fiscally defensible budget that supports our valued police service and promotes community safety, all while taking care of the infrastructure assets under our care. Instead however, I suspect the budget increase will climb significantly higher on Tuesday, as signalled by council last week in their intentions to add items.

Items like $1.7M in transit service expansions that are projecting poor ridership for the foreseeable future. Routes such as the proposed Hanlon Creek Business Park expansion that will cost over $900,000 per year to operate and has a projected revenue stream of only $16,000 in 2020. The result being another underperforming transit route that will be over 98% subsidized by the tax base.

To be fair, there have been a number of attempts to moderate the increase. Councillor Mark Mackinnon’s motion to delay the introduction of a second capital infrastructure levy until more information is known in 2020, passed, as well as my motion to reduce the over $1.4M worth of tax based subsidization for downtown parking, also passed. But most of the impactful motions brought forward to date, such as phasing in the new community bus line, or phasing in the new Hanlon Creek bus route, have been rejected.

As a result, a budget that should be about supporting our Police Service and investments in our built assets, will likely include many additional, non-essential items that could/should be phased in over time. Not simply all at once. This approach however (all at once), does help explain why Guelph is approaching a 20% increase to the budget in just five short years.

On Tuesday, I’ll be happy to be wrong.

UPDATE | Guelph Zoning Bylaw Review | Parking & Driveways

For many families in our community, the City’s Zoning Bylaw Review related to residential parking and driveway widths is a very important file.

Lost in the headlines of the Budget (it seems) over the past few weeks, is the City’s announced Workshops and Open Houses related to this city wide review.  

For those following this file closely, I wanted to draw your attention to two specific workshops coming up next week.

These are very important meetings for residents to attend to voice your opinions as staff have recommended the restoration of the existing enforcement provisions of the Zoning Bylaw (I.e. the enforcement provisions we worked hard to pause earlier this year).  This would mean a return to the previous system of enforcement.  And for many, a return to an unworkable system. Please consider attending. 

If you cannot attend in person, the City has also established a website for resident feedback at HaveYourSay.Guelph.ca.

Update on City-Wide Suspension of Driveway Bylaw Enforcement

On June 10, 2019, Council voted in favour of continuing the city-wide suspension of enforcement for some driveway width infractions on specific types of properties (providing that specific criteria is met). 

The criteria set out is as follows:

  • That any driveway (residential) is no wider than five (5) metres;
  • That there is no negative impact on lot drainage;
  • That no hard surface shall be located closer than the 1.5 metres setback from a municipally owned or boundary tree and not incur loss or damage to the tree;
  • That the remaining front yard, excepting the driveway (residential) shall be landscaped and no parking is occurring within this landscaped open space;
  • That the boulevard portion of the driveway (residential) does not exceed 3.5 metres, and
  • That City-owned water shut-off valves shall not be located within any portion of the driveway that exceeds the Zoning Bylaw sections as listed above.

As a result, staff will be following up with open complaint files relating to driveways of semi-detached and on-street townhouses to confirm that the specific criteria set is met or that the property is now in compliance with the Zoning By-law. 

In order to ensure customer service levels are maintained, staff will be staggering follow up correspondence and inspections by street over the coming weeks. Below is the process that will be followed by staff:

No more than 2 weeks before the follow up inspection, the property owner will be mailed correspondence outlining Council’s decision (including the criteria), and the process that will follow (inspection, opportunity to comply with the Zoning By-law or, if possible, the criteria set out to suspend enforcement).

After the inspection, follow up mail correspondence will be sent, advising the owner the following (whichever is applicable):

•         that the property now complies with the Zoning By-law;

OR

•         the Zoning By-law requirements to comply; and

•         if the property has the ability to meet the criteria set out by Council for suspension of enforcement and what the property owner can do to meet that criteria.

If compliance with the Zoning By-law or criteria set out by Council is required, a timeline of 90 days will be given. After 90 days, an Inspector will re-attend the property to confirm whether or not compliance with the Zoning By-law or the criteria set out by Council for suspension has been achieved. If compliance with the Zoning By-law or the suspension criteria has been achieved, follow up mail correspondence will be sent, advising the owner of the following (whichever is applicable): 

•         that they now comply with the Zoning By-law;

OR

•         that they meet the criteria set out by Council for suspension of enforcement and an explanation of what that means (and doesn’t mean). Essentially that they do not comply with the Zoning By-law, but that enforcement has been suspended.

If compliance with the Zoning By-law or the criteria set out by Council for suspension has been NOT been achieved, legal action may commence.

Visiting with the Miller’s on Schroder Cres to talk about Driveways

‪On Monday, June 10th council will decide whether or not to continue pausing enforcement (with conditions) of the Driveway Width Zoning Bylaw for semi-detached & townhomes in Guelph; all while the City completes a comprehensive review of the Bylaw over the next two years.

In advance of this meeting, I took the time this week to visit with friends Virginia & Paul Miller on Schroder Cres to discuss how their neighbourhood street has responded to the pause in enforcement since September 2018.

Discussing Guelph’s first proposed off-leash dog park at Peter Misersky Park

Update on Driveway Width Bylaw Enforcement | May 2019

On Monday May 13th council will receive an update from staff on a “Procedure to Request Temporary Suspension of Enforcement of Driveway Regulations: Draft Framework”.

This is an important step in the City getting things right for property owners and renters living in semi-detached and on street townhouses. The full report from staff can be found here https://guelph.ca/wp-content/uploads/council_agenda_051319.pdf

Below is an overview of the report and recommendations from staff. If you would like to commment (or delegate) on this issue to council please submit your comments to clerks@guelph.ca.

Background
Council received Report IDE-2018-129 on September 10, 2018 in response to a Motion that proposed the temporary suspension of enforcement of specific zoning regulations relating to driveway widths to allow individual neighbourhoods to request a temporary suspension of enforcement of specific zoning regulations which relate to driveway widths of semi-detached and on-street townhouses. The temporary suspension would take place while the City undertakes a comprehensive review of Zoning By-law (1995)-14864 (herein referred to as “the ZBL”). That report provided a problem statement; background and rationale for the current regulations; an assessment of the risks/benefits of the proposed Motion; an identification of alternatives, including an assessment of associated risks/benefits; other information requested by Council; and a staff recommendation.
A Motion (see ATT-1) relating to an alternative to the staff recommendation was approved at the September 10, 2018 Council meeting. This motion directed staff to develop a process to allow individual neighbourhoods to request a temporary suspension of enforcement of specific zoning regulations which relate to driveway widths of semi-detached and on-street townhouses, while the City undertakes a comprehensive review of the ZBL.
The draft framework is being presented in order to receive by Council and public feedback. Once all feedback is reviewed, staff will bring forward the final recommended procedure early in the third quarter for Council consideration.

Procedure
To help create a level of consistency for residents and to utilize an existing administrative model, the procedure is survey based and modelled after “Traffic Services On-street Parking Reviews – Convenience Request Policy”.
The Procedure to Request Temporary Suspension of Enforcement of Driveway Regulations (herein referred to as procedure) is being designed to implement a traceable, consistent process to allow affected neighbourhoods to request and potentially receive a temporary suspension of enforcement.
The September 10, 2018 Motion (See ATT-1) directed staff to develop a procedure that would only apply to the following sections of By-law (1995)-14864 (herein referred to eligible sections):
• 4.13.7.2.3 A Driveway (Residential) in an R.2 Zone shall have a maximum driveway width of 3.5 metres;

• 4.13.7.2.4 Despite Section 4.13.7.2.3, a surfaced walk within 1.5 metres of the nearest foundation wall is permitted providing that it is not Used for parking;
• 4.13.7.2.5 The Driveway (Residential) width in an R.3B Zone shall not exceed the Garage width of the unit, as measured from the outside walls of the Garage or no more than 50% of the Front Yard, whichever is less, to a minimum of 3 metres wide. The Front Yard, excepting the Driveway (Residential) shall be landscaped and no parking shall be permitted within this Landscaped Open Space;

• The first sentence of Table 5.2.2, Row 15 (The Front Yard of any Lot, excepting the Driveway (Residential), shall be landscaped and no parking shall be permitted within this Landscaped Open Space. Despite the definition of the Landscaped Open Space, for Buildings that do not have a shared Driveway (Residential) access, a minimum area of 0.6 metres between the driveway and nearest Lot Line must be maintained as landscaped space in the form of grass, flowers, trees, shrubbery, natural vegetation and indigenous species and may include a surfaced walk in accordance with Section 4.13.7.2.4.); and
• 5.3.2.8 Maximum Driveway (Residential) Width of R.3B Zone On-Street Townhouses shall comply with 4.13.7.2.5.

Eligibility
The approved Motion (see ATT-1) offered guidance to staff on the performance standards of which types of properties would be eligible for a temporary suspension. Temporary suspension of enforcement would only apply to properties with a semi-detached dwelling or on-street townhouse that comply with the ZBL or are non-complying but can meet the following performance standards and are not currently in legal action:
• The Driveway (Residential) is no wider than 5 metres;
• The Driveway (Residential) does not have a negative impact on lot drainage;
• No hard surface is located closer than a 1.5m setback from a municipally
owned or boundary tree and there is no loss or damage to the tree;
• The remaining Front Yard, excepting the Driveway (Residential) is landscaped and no parking is occurring within that landscaped Open Space;
• The boulevard portion of the Driveway (Residential) does not exceed 3.5 meters; and
• The City-owned water shut off valve(s) is not located within any portion of the driveway that exceeds the ZBL sections as listed above.

An owner of a semi-detached dwelling or on-street townhouse that can meet the above performance standards may apply in writing on behalf of the “neighbourhood” (see later discussion on survey area) to request a temporary suspension of enforcement.
In addition, a standard form will be made available online and will also be sent to eligible properties with an open enforcement file (providing that legal action has not commenced).

Review by City Staff
Upon receipt of a request, staff will review the request to ensure that the eligibility criteria can be met and that a previous survey request had not been already reviewed in relation to a prior survey. A survey request will only be considered once in relation to a survey area. If the eligibility criteria can be met and a previous survey had not been previously completed, a survey will be sent by staff to the property owner(s) of the survey area, and the Ward Councillors will be notified.

Survey
Staff are proposing the use of a typical mail out survey to the affected area. The mail out would include a letter explaining the survey and a form that could be filled, signed and returned to City Hall and would be sent to the registered owner of the property (as per MPAC records). These mail outs would also include information on how to complete an online version of the survey (similar to those used for on-street parking reviews). In order to provide an opportunity to respond, owners of the affected area will be provided with fifteen business days (3 weeks) from the time of the mail out to complete and return survey. One response per property will be accepted. Ward Councillors will be notified at the time a survey mail out is conducted.

Results
Once the survey ends, Staff will advise the requestor of the survey, the affected residents, and Ward Councillors of the survey results. In order for a temporary suspension to occur, more than 50% of the surveyed area will be required to respond in favour of a temporary suspension. If more than 50% of the property owners respond in favour of a temporary suspension, the temporary suspension will automatically come into effect. The temporary suspension of enforcement would only apply to the eligible sections and only to surveyed properties with a semi- detached dwelling or on-street townhouse that meet the minimum performance standards. Given the transparency of the procedure and that the decision will be based on majority rule, there will be no appeal process or opportunity to conduct a second survey. Additionally, the temporary suspension of enforcement would only be in place until such time as the new ZBL has been passed and is in full force and effect, at which time owners of affected properties will be notified that the suspension is over.

Conclusion
The Request for Temporary Suspension of Driveway Enforcement Procedure meets the intent of the Motion by allowing a transparent and consistent process for affected residents to apply for, and potentially receive, a temporary suspension of enforcement until a new ZBL has been passed and is in full force and effect.

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