17 Nov Oxford budget deliberations begin
Oxford County has tabled its draft budget and as it stands now, it has a tax levy hike of over 15 percent. Members of council haven’t yet had a chance to offer their thoughts on what or if they would like some items reduced or deleted altogether, but they will soon get their opportunity.
Budget meetings are scheduled for Wednesday, November 15 at 9:30 a.m. (just before the Echo’s press date) along with other sessions on November 29 and then a regular council meeting on December 13 to likely approve it.
Woodstock Mayor Jerry Acchione said he was surprised when he first saw the budget document’s price tag. “To be honest with you, I was shocked. I knew there would be a big ask and for some reason, I thought they were going to come in with 10 percent. I was not expecting 15.3. In today’s financial hardships for so many people, there are a lot of things that need to be looked at. Are they really a priority at this time and can people afford to do this?”
Oxford County Warden Marcus Ryan admitted there are big things in this budget, partly due to a new strategic plan. “We just had an election a year ago and those councillors heard from many people about the things they want. There are some big things in it.” The budget’s increase over 2023, according to Ryan, can partially be blamed on inflation. “It is a reflection of what everyone is experiencing. Every time we get groceries, pay rent, renew their mortgage, or fill up their vehicle with gas, those prices have all gone up. Municipalities buy those same things to varying degrees.” He added the cost of maintaining roads, bridges, water treatment plants, and ambulances have all risen. On a positive note, the warden does say a soon-to-be-released report on assessment growth should ease some of the budget pain. “We are going to take out some assessment growth from that 15 per cent. Every new home and new business that adds value to property is a new taxpayer and that reduces the burden on the existing ratepayers. We will get that report later in November. Whatever per cent that is comes right off the 15.”
According to figures sent to the Echo by Lynn Buchner, the County’s Director of Corporate Services, “we expect that the 15.8% year-over-year increase in the county’s levy will be reduced to a 15.2% increase over last year’s levy apportionment. “Please note these are preliminary and subject to change before the budget is approved,” added Buchner.
The draft budget includes the equivalent of 41 new full-time positions ranging from 9.4 in Paramedic Services to 7.9 at Woodingford Lodge and 3.5 in the Oxford County Library system. In addition to more library staff, they are asking for $5.2 million dollars, an increase of nearly 22 per cent from this year. Southwestern Public Health is also asking for a 19.4 per cent increase totalling $3.3 million.
Acchione said while he believes county staff used what council has requested in budget discussions to create the document, he said it’s just too much of everything. “I think it’s too many things, way too many people. Again, in this tough financial environment, we really need to be careful and I’m not sure this budget that is being proposed is recognizing the hardships some people are facing.”
He added his job going forward is to figure out what areas can be put in the parking lot for now and what money needs to be spent next year. “I have no doubt every single thing involved in the budget is a priority of council, but I don’t know if it has to be done in 2024. I’ve marked up my pages quite a bit already and I am looking forward to this week’s first sit-down to talk about it publicly with staff. There are definitely more than a few areas where I am ready to say listen, this isn’t the highest priority for next year.”
Ryan said the proposed increase of 41 full-time equivalent staff members is a direct result of what residents of Oxford have been asking for. “That is a driver for a lot of these initiatives. The big spends of a million in housing, a million in long-term care, and $2.3 million in ambulance, a lot of that money is people to deliver those services. When an ambulance comes to your house because you have a heart attack, first off buying an ambulance costs a lot of money and to put two people in it who are professional and experienced and working a lot of hours, that costs a lot of money as well.” He added that of the 41 proposed new jobs, 11 are partially or fully paid for by grants. Ryan also felt it was important to note that Oxford County ratepayers have had tax increases less than the cost of inflation over the last five years so there is some catching up to do now which is a part of the proposed tax increase.
One thing the mayor of Woodstock and the warden of Oxford County agree on is that taxpayers should be involved in the budget process, something that doesn’t happen generally speaking. “This is their budget. They are the ones who have been making requests of what they want to see, and it’s been clear housing is a big priority. The availability of and affordability of safe appropriate housing is a significant concern for Woodstock residents,” said Acchione. Ryan added he always wants to hear from more people. “I’d encourage people to go to the (Oxford County website). The budget is very long and very detailed, but it starts off at a very high level talking about the priorities that council told staff to build the budget around.”
Acchione said millions of dollars added to the tax burden of Woodstock residents, if the budget is passed as is, is something he is concerned about. “A four million dollar add just from the county alone to the taxpayer of Woodstock is significant and I am definitely uncomfortable with that.”
The City of Woodstock is also tabling its budget this week.