By Paul Dreossi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
January means budget time for all municipalities. Last Tuesday, two members of the Board of Directors from the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (“UTRCA”) presented their draft budget to the Council of Perth South.
The proposed budget includes a 10.4% increase from what was levied in 2019, to which several Perth South councillors voiced concern. Perth South taxpayers contributed a total of $51,713 to the UTRCA in 2019, which is set to increase by $5,368 in 2020, to a total of $ 57,081.
Part of this double-digit increase is relative to the Provincial Government’s imposed funding formula, called the Current Value Assessment, or CVA, that is based on land values in a region. The issue is that the recent steep increase in rural and agricultural land values equates to an increased taxation for the residents of Perth South. Furthermore, this means an increased taxation per capita for residents that reside in a low population-density municipality with rapidly increasing land values. Two thirds of the 10.4% proposed increase are, however, downloaded costs from provincial cuts.
Perth South Council questioned the “considerable hikes” in development and permit fees collected by the UTRCA in their municipality. Examples of these regulatory charges include: increased fees for building and farm development permits, fees for re-zoning and severance changes, and fees for permits pertaining to changes to drainage systems on farms and rural properties. Several councillors voiced their opinion that these increased fees are being collected and used in other municipalities rather than being invested in Perth South, questioning the general effectiveness of UTRCA spending.
Given the consistent annual increase in UTRCA levy’s from Perth South over the last six years, several councillors wondered if this trend would continue into the future. At a time when provincial cutbacks abound, is it fair, they wondered, to pass these costs onto the taxpayer? Further, how efficiently are these funds being used by the UTRCA?
Ian Wilcox, General Manager for the UTRCA, was on hand to discuss the logic of the draft budget and its implications. Wilcox illustrated that the Provincial Government has severely cut back funding to the UTRCA while, at the same time, mandating the conservation organization must act as “agents” for the province. For example, the management of flood control, a public safety issue, is now the responsibility of the UTRCA, yet funding for flood control as been cut by the Ministry of Natural Resources by 50%. Further, since Bill 108 passed, the province has not made any procedural outlines on how the UTRCA will manage this task.
Wilcox acknowledged the high per-capita cost to taxpayers in Perth South, indicating that the provincially mandated funding formula, that is based on property values, has been a long-standing policy that unfortunately equates to higher costs to rural taxpayers. He illustrated the proportional funding formula means that the City of London pays approximately 3.7 million dollars to the UTRCA. Wilcox pointed out that only 33% of the UTRCA’s budget is levied from the 17 municipalities that it serves, rather than the steeper provincial average of 48%.
Wilcox acknowledges that provincial cuts, including those mandated by Bill 108, are having massive implications to the UTRCA’s proposed budget. Given the lack of direction from the province, Wilcox expects the 2021 budget will be further impacted, reflecting the true cost of the current cuts. The challenge to the UTRCA Board will be how to balance public safety, environmental priorities and funding as they move into the New Year.