Norfolk budget talks continue next month

Norfolk residents will learn more next month about their 2019 tax bill.Day 2 of Norfolk County’s levy-supported budget deliberations ended Thursday with an agreement to resume talks Feb. 20.Between now and then, treasury staff will provide detailed documents for the general economic data contained in the main budget binder.A month from now, councillors will have a clearer idea of how the county’s assorted departments intend to spend the millions of dollars Norfolk residents and businesses pay each year in taxes.Mayor Kristal Chopp said she is tired of flying blind on what the main budget numbers mean.“I don’t know how we can go through this budget the way it is presented,” she said.“It’s not a knock on you guys (senior staff). I know this is how you were directed.”Chopp noted that there are headings in the main budget binder with titles such as “materials and supplies” and “engineering services” that are worth millions of dollars but contain little to no detail.Waterford Coun. Kim Huffman said it is impossible for her to ask intelligent questions and propose useful changes if she doesn’t know what the general numbers mean. She looks forward to seeing department-by-department details of how county staff intend to spend the public’s money.“To wade through this process makes no sense to me,” Huffman said. “If we’re going to make a change that’s a change we need to make. I would prefer that council in the future see the drilled-down documents. This format just doesn’t work.”Council last week received some “drilled-down” documentation on some aspects of the 2019 operating budget.Port Dover Coun. Amy Martin described the documents as “beyond helpful.”Martin added she is “baffled” to think that previous councils struggled through budget deliberations in the absence of this information.Chopp wants the new council to have the same access to the treasury department’s real-time financial software as senior staff.At Thursday’s meeting, county solicitor Nicholas Loeb said that could be a problem because there is privileged information in the system that even elected officials are not allowed to see.Examples include details about contracts with private-sector suppliers that contain trade secrets and proprietary information only available to staff on a need-to-know basis.Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act also prevents municipal politicians from learning details about individuals that have accounts or business with the municipality.Chopp replied that council members are privy to a great deal of information that they are required, by law, to keep confidential. She said council can be trusted to do the same with information contained within the accounting system.“This is meant to be an open and transparent corporation,” Chopp said. “It’s a public corporation. Give us the goods on numbers.”Before Thursday’s meeting adjourned, senior staff was advised to have cost-cutting and cost-saving ideas ready for the Feb. 20 meeting. Council also imposed a temporary moratorium on non-essential hiring.At the end of Thursday’s meeting, Norfolk homeowners were looking at a 4.1 per cent increase in their residential taxes.For someone with a home with an assessed value of $233,250, this would translate into a $110 tax increase over 2018, if the draft budget were approved as is. Total taxes on such as household at this point would amount to $2,814.MSonnenberg@postmedia.com

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