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Public can give two cents on Region's budget

By Maryanne Firth, St. Catharines Standard

The target has been set for 2017.
When regional staff work to shape next year’s budget over the next few months, they will do so with a one per cent tax hike in mind.

Niagara Region’s budget committee knocked down staff’s initial two per cent guidance recommendation last week, asking instead that a lower goal be set and achieved.

St. Catharines Coun. Bruce Timms, who made the one per cent amendment, said he felt that target was more “reasonable” to ask of Niagara taxpayers.

“Last year we set a zero guidance and staff did a pretty good job of figuring out how to deal with that,” he said, adding he’s confident they will be able to work with the new figure this time around.

A one per cent increase will not result in a “big catch-up” sometime down the road, Timms said, which is possible with a continued freeze on the tax levy.

The initial staff recommendation was based on inflation pegged at about two per cent, but the St. Catharines councillor felt that increase was too high to ask of the public.

The average income increase for Niagara residents is about 1.1 per cent and for Canada Pension Plan recipients is 1.2 per cent, he said.

“One per cent would be a better target based on those two simple facts.”

While the goal was approved by committee, it needs to be ratified by council June 30.

Input from the public on the upcoming budget is also sought.

Beginning July 4, a survey will be posted for four weeks at asking for feedback from the community about where regional dollars should be spent.

Business and resident focus groups will be held throughout the summer.

“The Region is encouraging as many people as possible to be a part of the budget process,” committee chairman David Barrick said.

“We want them to know their voices are heard and are taken seriously,” said the Port Colborne councillor.

Public feedback will be gathered and included in a September report that will outline what staff is proposing and what residents have indicated the Region’s priorities should be, Timms said.

“The burden on the taxpayer is our concern,” he said, while adding there’s also a need to ensure Niagara is perceived as a “reasonably low-priced place to live.”

That perception may assist with encouraging businesses to open up shop in the region, Timms said.

Once the staff report is received with one per cent guidance adhered to, council can look at priorities for spending additional dollars made available through assessment growth and provincial uploading, as well as a $1.6-million taxpayer relief reserve contribution from 2016, Barrick said.

“We’ll still have monies available to determine how to allocate in the fall, but it does put some pressure on staff to ensure the priorities rise to the top.”
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