This Week at Council: New Strategic Plan Process Begins, and the 2023 Budget Confirmation

This was a very busy week at city council with three meetings, one of which was a super-long meeting indeed. Obviously, that long meeting concerned the confirmation vote for the 2023 budget, which saw council trying to balance community need with a hopefully smaller tax burden for the public. This balance was also kind of reinforced by another meeting this week, which looked at creating the next Strategic Plan.

Regular Meeting of City Council – January 24

This meeting was pretty straightforward. Council reaffirmed appointments made to the key committee positions at Committee of the Whole a couple of weeks ago, and they endorsed Councillor Ken Yee Chew’s candidacy for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Board of Directors. Council also passed a motion to direct CAO Scott Stewart to present his 2023 performance objectives at the February Committee of the Whole meeting.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

Workshop Meeting of City Council – January 24

After a break, council met again for a workshop that would initiate group discussion about the next Strategic Plan. But first, Mayor Cam Guthrie saluted former City Councillor Bob Bell who passed away last week. Guthrie said that Bell was in the middle of fulfilling a retirement dream by re-visiting an area of Chile that was literally named after him, Bell’s Bay. Guthrie also praised Bell as someone who did a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff to help people.

After that, council began a process that will see the final version of the 2024-27 Strategic Plan ready for a vote this coming July. Sabine Matheson, Principal of StrategyCorp Inc., led council through the collected feedback they got from one-on-one conversations with the councillors so that they can better understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) that the City is facing.

There was a lot of agreement about Guelph’s strengths, but council highlighted a couple of weaknesses like how there’s still an impression that this is a tough place to do business and how the high cost of housing is making it difficult to attract and retain people who work in the arts.

In terms of opportunities, some councillors said that there can be more relationship building between businesses, groups and the government across a variety of areas and that the City needs to get better talking about its successes. Threats? There’s a lot of consensus here, and some surprising additions like our fractured media landscape and the lack of trust in institutions, which are as a big a threat to Guelph as they are to other places across the western world.

Council also offered some suggestions for ways to update the five pillars including accelerating the implementation of the 10-year transit plan, voter turnout in elections, improving sports amenities, and making City facilities more both physically and economically acceptable.

Strategic Plan update discussions will continue at another council workshop on February 22.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

Budget Meeting of City Council – January 25

It was an #ONstorm inside and out on Wednesday as city council got together to reaffirm the 2023 budget, which turned out to be more complicated than even your wildest expectations might have assumed. The bottom line is that council was able to shave off another half-a-percentage point from the levy increase for 2023, but that may come at the expense of tougher decisions that need to be made for the 2024-27 budget.

After the budget presentation by staff, which largely focused on budget pressures including inflation, the supply chain, COVID, the environment, economic conditions, and legislative changes, council heard from about a dozen delegates:

  • Reps from the Guelph Wellington Seniors Association asked for council to move forward with the Old Age Strategy and support measures that make Guelph more old-age friendly.
  • Chamber of Commerce CEO Shakiba Shayani talked about how the business community is concerned about lack of affordable housing (because it has an impact on workforce), and that they’re not seeing service levels as commensurate with taxes being paid. She also talked about her work with the mayor’s task force on downtown issues and why more needs to be done.
  • Helen Fishburn, CEO of Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington made a case that improving mental health should be the responsibility of all levels of government.
  • Sarah Haanstra from the Guelph Community Health Centre laid out the importance of the Welcoming Streets program and getting continued support.
  • Dominica McPherson from the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination asked council to hang on to the affordable housing reserve and to continue to invest in it despite the staff recommendation to eliminate that fund because of Bill 23 impacts.
  • Kristel Manes from the Business Centre Guelph Wellington and Alison Crumblehulme from Innovation Guelph both advocated for council to fund the support for local business organizations and build on the economic development and tourism strategy after punting the decision in 2021.
  • Community member David J.A. Douglas asked council to share with the community how provincial decisions are having an impact on the local economy.
  • And finally, there was a trio from the Pickleball Guelph Association who asked for council’s help to support the fastest growing sport in North America by finding somewhere for a few dedicated pickleball courts.

The decision making began after lunch and a couple of questions of clarity about the impact of interest rates of short-term investments, and a nearly testy conversation between Mayor Cam Guthrie and Councillor Linda Busuttil about the origins of the mayor’s task force and the manner by which it was created. Once the confusion was settled, the complete main motion was put on the floor and council began to grow it, and then shave it

The first motion was about restoring the Affordable Housing Reserve by depositing the usual $500,000 into the account. Councillor Christine Billings suggested that this motion was counter to recommendation 1.a.iii, which called for the elimination of the transfer, but Guthrie said that the motion could stand. As it turned out, had Guthrie listened to Billings he might have saved some time in the ensuing hour-long debate.

Much of the back and forth had to do with where the $500,000 would be transferred from, another contingency reserve? Could we fund it from the surplus? When do we get the final report about the surplus? What would we spend it on? How do we make that decision? There was also a flashback to the Affordable Housing Strategy, which staff called “probably outdated” by now.

Eventually the motion was cancelled and council pulled clause 1.a.iii unanimously. Councillor Rodrigo Goller then put a fresh motion on the floor to transfer the $500,000 from the Tax Operating Contingency Reserve to the Affordable Housing Reserve, and that too passed unanimously.

The next two motions concerned making the Kids Ride Free program and sliding scale affordable bus pass a permanent feature for Guelph Transit. The former still must survive the fare strategy review in a couple of the months and the latter will need to be made a part of the base budget in 2024, but both programs were approved to continue through 2023 despite Councillor Dan Gibson’s reminder that “free” doesn’t mean free.

After that, council made $202,500 in funding for Welcoming Streets a permanent part of the budget by beefing up that Community Benefit Agreement. They also approved $300,000 in funding from the base for the Business Service Agencies Agreement after being persuaded that Guelph underspends on supporting business advocacy groups.

A motion crafted by Mayor Guthrie asked council to take $150,000 from the contingency reserve to seek out expertise that will allow the City to take stock of all it’s social service obligations, gaps in the system, and local service agencies that offer help in order to better understand the need in the community. CAO Scott Stewart said that the goal is bring a report back to council in the fall in advance of debating the next multi-year budget, and perhaps inform some direction on the next Strategic Plan before it’s passed in July if that’s possible.

Council had a lot of questions about the goals of this motion, whether or not it was about responding to Bill 23 or if the issues are bigger than that. Gibson asked if this should be something that advocacy groups like the Association of Municipalities of Ontario should handle, but Guthrie said that those groups don’t understand Guelph-specific needs or the relationships between the City and organizations like Community Health or the Royal City Mission.

In terms of subtractions from the budget, Billings made a motion to fund the $500,000 in budgeted impacts from the Tax Operating Contingency Reserve noting that the likely $9 million positive variance from 2022, or the Government of Ontario’s promise to soften the blow to municipal governments from Bill 23’s changes, will pay off later. Staff said that their original recommendation was made out of an abundance of caution about the known unknowns from Bill 23, but despite the warning, council voted in favour of Billings’ motion.

Not as successful was a motion from Gibson who wanted to take out nearly a million dollars in phase-in costs for operating expenses at the future South End Community Centre and new central library. Gibson explained that it would be a good move to delay the costs for a year, since the capital projects themselves were delayed, but the majority of council felt it would be fiscally imprudent to stop the phase-in now and take a bigger hit later. The motion failed and a subsequent motion to remove half the amount also failed.

Gibson also proposed cutting $2.8 million for the infrastructure renewal transfer saying that with the actual pace of construction slowing down because of economic pressures, then maybe council can slow down banking tax money for the infrastructure levy. Most of council didn’t like the idea of cutting the whole thing for 2023, but nine members went along with a compromise to cut half.

That would bring the total levy impact down to 4.46 per cent, and that’s as low as it would go. Despite Guthrie’s request to have a unanimous vote for the reaffirmed budget, Gibson and Billings ended up voting against.

Councill passed three additional motions. One that will see the City of Guelph once again raising the red flag to the Federal and Provincial government about homelessness and mental health funding, another to refer pickleball facility queries to the 2024 budget, and a third to also refer a plan for expanded amenities in Dovercliffe Park to the 2024 budget.

The meeting wrapped nearly nine hours after it began as council, staff and the media headed out into the snow.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

The next meeting of city council is the Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday February 7 at 2 pm.

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