Sarnia council budget meeting. December 5, 2023 Blackburn Media photo by Melanie IrwinSarnia council budget meeting. December 5, 2023 Blackburn Media photo by Melanie Irwin

2024 Sarnia budget set at nearly $180M

Sarnia council trimmed its 2024 tax increase down to 5.22 per cent, setting a $179.53 million operating budget in just over two hours of deliberations Tuesday morning.

That represents a $49 increase per $100,000 of residential assessment for homeowners within the transit levy area, and a $47 increase for those outside the transit levy area.

Amendments in insurance renewal costs and the St. Clair Region Conservation Authority budget were approved quickly at the beginning of budget deliberations.

Council proceeded to further trim over two per cent in funding from the original draft, and Mayor Mike Bradley said he respected the process.

"The reality is that [when] we blend in the education tax, which hasn't changed, and the county [levy], it will come down much lower," said Bradley. "That's how these blended budgets work."

Council moved $2 million from reserves to advance the Bright's Grove Library Project and another $1 million from reserves to support the redevelopment of Ferry Dock Hill.

Mayor Bradley didn't support either transfer of funds.

"That's a huge number to take from reserves. Reserves are taxes that have been collected and if you deplete them too far, you're leaving yourself very, very exposed, instead of having the fiscal discipline to put it in the regular budget process," he said. "That was my point on the Bright's Grove Library. I'm not opposed to the project, but let's do it the way that does not take on debt, or you deplete your reserves, you're going to pay a price down the road, because that money will not be there next year."

Bradley said the onus is now on the group promoting the creation of the Bright's Grove community hub.

"They hinted in one of the discussions at a $1 million donation. We would welcome that. We still have a $9 million to $10 million project, so any donations, any fundraiser, would make a difference," he said.

Councillor Anne Marie Gillis, who asked for support to create the Bright's Grove Library Project Reserve, called it a "worthy project" that had no impact on the general levy increase.

"It will allow the fundraising to kickstart and that's pivotal to the success of the project," Gillis said. "Because it's deemed to be a community project, we also know that funding will be sought after by grants, and those grant applications will be made by the county."

A total of $53.5 million in investments were approved in Sarnia's capital budget.

Mayor Bradley was encouraged by investments in road resurfacing and to improve city facilities and recreation spaces.

"A number of years ago we spent zero [dollars] on paving in the city, now we're spending [over] $3.5 million, which will do a lot to upgrade the city. We're also, I'm glad to see, rejecting cutting the parks department. So, there's a lot of investment going into the arenas, into the parks, to renew those assets," Bradley said.

Specifically, $3.75 million will be spent on road resurfacing, $2.5 million for shoreline protection and $5.2 million to improve city facilities and recreation spaces.

About $8.7 million was also approved for combined sewer separation projects, to protect the water system against extreme weather events, and about $2.6 million to replace water mains.

Mayor Bradley broke Sarnia council's tie vote to reduce the overall Sarnia Police Services 2024 budget by $475,000.

"I think it's disappointing that the police chief and the police [board] chair will not come to these meetings to be accountable," Bradley said. "It's $33 million. It's the biggest part of our budget. So, I think council sent a strong message. We're cutting that budget, and we cannot direct what to cut, but I think it's going to push back on some of the things they're promoting that we think can wait and that includes the public relations person, that includes a dog [canine officer], and things like that."

Sarnia Police Services Board Vice-Chair Kelly Ash did attend the meeting, and turned heads when she left the gallery in a huff after the cut was made.

"I was very disappointed with the vice-chair of the police board getting up and leaving here and slamming the door," Bradley said. "That's the sort of thing I've been dealing with and that's why I left the board. There's an institutional arrogance there, that says you can not question, you can not ask them questions that we need to know as the people that must go out to the public and raise those tax dollars and it's huge, we're talking $33 million dollars."

No new grants were approved.

An $80,000 grant for Blue Coast Primary Care - Recruitment & Retention was approved for four years when the 2023 budget was set earlier this year.

Interest earned on reserve balances, amounting to $1 million, was directed to the operating budget to help reduce the general levy.

Attempts made by councillors Bill Dennis and Anne Marie Gillis to use reserves to further reduce the levy were unsuccessful.

A motion to approve the overall budget is no longer required, due to newly deemed adoption provisions contained within the municipal act.

Clerk Amy Burkhart directed council to terminate the 30-day amendment period after changes were made Tuesday.

The move accelerated the adoption of the municipal budget and a bylaw confirming the proceedings was adopted.

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