Brockville has kept its costs under control on the backs of city workers, so the province shouldn’t make it hard to get more financial help, Mayor Jason Baker argues.
Earlier this week, the mayor reiterated an argument he had previously made, as city council’s finance and administration committee recommended an application for Phase Two of the Safe Restart program with senior levels of government, meant to help municipalities struggling with the COVID-19 economic shutdown.
In the first phase of the Safe Restart Agreement, Brockville is getting $1,313,900, as well as an additional $102,647 to support the city’s transit system.
Provincial officials administering the program say the second phase is meant to provide “further financial support to those municipalities that require additional funds to address extraordinary operating expenditures and revenue losses arising from COVID-19 in 2020.”
The city is applying to the program to seek compensation for spending and lost revenue related to the COVID-19 assessment centre at the Memorial Centre.
City manager Janette Loveys said the criteria for that second phase of the program are quite stringent, requiring municipalities to demonstrate they are suffering from the pandemic’s economic effects and need money over and above the previous allocation.
Any other item at the city level would not meet that test, she noted.
Baker is concerned about how hard the province appears to be making it for the city to tap into that second phase of funding.
He reiterated earlier comments about how the city has made sacrifices to keep its costs down during the pandemic, and he hopes the provincial program won’t end up rewarding other municipalities that were not as rigorous.
“Because the city of Brockville looked after its own house, we should not now be penalized in the way they’re structuring the Phase Two request,” said the mayor, adding he has spoken about this to Premier Doug Ford and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark.
“I’ll be following this very closely.”
Baker asked staff to check with neighbouring municipalities about what they are requesting. He noted none of those municipalities have had to operate a COVID-19 assessment centre for the entire region.
“I wouldn’t make the same decisions again if I thought we’d get penalized for it, because let’s face it, a large part of the (city’s projected 2020) surplus is on the backs of our employees in lost wages,” said Baker.
“I don’t smile about that; it was just the necessary evil.”
The full city council is expected to endorse the Phase Two request at it regular meeting on Tuesday. It was too early for staff to determine the amount of the application.
On Tuesday of this week, the finance committee discussed the latest update on how Brockville’s books are faring amid the pandemic, with a report detailing numbers as of late September.
That latest variance report now points to a year-end operating surplus of approximately $393,234.
That’s down from an estimated surplus of around $459,000 in the previous report, and $659,774 at the end of July.
The revised September estimate is based on a $500,000 contribution being made to the city’s priority reserve (formerly the arena reserve), a contribution that had previously been withheld because of the ongoing economic uncertainty.
Baker wondered whether staff expected any other expenses in the final months of the year that could eat into that surplus further, including the possible reopening of the Centennial Youth Arena.
“Right now we don’t have the business case, but that may change come late October into November, to open up the Youth Arena,” Loveys replied.
“At this point we don’t have anything that’s coming out of left field.”
Baker acknowledged the one wild card with coming expenses is winter weather.
City hall has been looking at a revenue shortfall due to the pandemic, mainly the result of facility closures, reduced interest rates on city accounts and the economic slowdown, of $1,955,400.
In response, officials have taken steps to mitigate the impact through such measures as deferring capital projects and delaying the hiring of new staff to fill vacant jobs, the latter resulting in a payroll reduction of $1,524,512.
Also on the positive side, enough Brockville taxpayers have paid their bills on time to avoid cash flow problems at city hall.
City finance director Lynda Ferguson this week said the encouraging cash-flow picture she presented council members in September remains; even if the projected operating surplus has gone down in the intervening month, on the separate matter of tax revenue the city has not taken a hit.
“As our numbers evolve, we’re still in a good place because… the taxpayers did pay, better than expected,” said Ferguson.
While council has removed penalties on non-payment of 2020 taxes for people in dire economic straits because of the pandemic, councillors have repeatedly urged those city taxpayers who can afford to keep paying their tax bills to do so.
They have done so, and Baker said the encouraging tax numbers mean the city won’t have to lean on its borrowing bylaw to cover operations.
“We were concerned that we would be maxing out that borrowing allowance to make the weekly and the monthly bills. We didn’t have to end up doing that,” said the mayor.