Comments posted by Marlene Bergsma, Standard Staff

In St. Catharines, the average homeowner is facing a $28 city property tax increase this year, as members of the city’s budget committee put the finishing touches on the draft 2008 budget Monday night.

Committee chairman, Peter Secord, said he is pleased with this year’s results, even though the proposed 2.75 percent tax hike is greater than the committee’s target of an increase no greater than the rate of inflation. “The inflation rate is currently 2.22 percent,” said chief administrative officer Colin Briggs.

“This is realistic,” Secord said shortly after the budget committee approved the final cuts.  “This balances with trying to get to the inflation rate and with not cutting services.”

Secord said he is “relieved” the draft tax increase is lower than the 4.25 percent originally proposed.

“Other towns are coming in higher,” Secord said.

Included in the final cuts was a decision to reduce the number of new buses for St. Catharines Transit to two from three, for a savings of $353,000.

Secord made the motion to cut the bus and St. Andrew’s Coun. Andrew Gill supported it.

“I think it’s the responsible thing to do”, Gill said.

The transit commission will still be buying seven new buses this year, with five hybrid vehicles being paid for with the provincial gas tax and provincial transit infrastructure funds, and two regular buses being funded through the city’s operating budget.

The draft budget will be circulated to the rest of city council next week for final approval April 14.

That night, members of the public will be able to make presentations to council before the final budget is approved.

Secord said the spending plan “is not set in stone” and there may yet be further cuts or additions.

The draft budget shows overall city spending up nearly three per cent, for a total of about $90 million, including library, transit and museum operations.

Other cuts approved Monday night by the budget committee included delays to drainage improvement at the Kernahan Park playing field, new lights for the tennis courts at Community park and new traffic signals.

The $400,000 in traffic signals will be funded by new provincial grants instead, said Shelley Chemnitz, the acting treasurer, while the other projects will be postponed.

In other budget discussions, Gill attempted to freeze the parks and recreation department’s funding at last year’s levels, saying there are opportunities for savings since the departure of parks and recreation director Ron Zizman.

But Secord said Gill should make his motion on April 14 so all the council can debate it.

“There are so many efficiencies being identified, and with the reorganization going on, I’d like to freeze recreation and community services a t last year’s budget.” gill said.

“You can’t do it; we are the only ones here,” Secord said, referring to the absence of the three other members of the budget committee: Mayor Brian McMullan and counselors Jennie Stevens and Jeff Burch. Gill hinted that the closing of Haig Bowl Arena  and the West St. Catharines Seniors Centre would also save money, but those two ideas were not discussed further.

Later, Secord said he would oppose the closing of the Haig Bowl Arena, while Grantham Coun. Dawn Dodge, who is a member of the transit commission, said she will be trying to return the funding for the transit bus.

Transit Manager, Dave Sherlock, said the commission must buy 21 new buses in the next three years to meet its goal of being fully accessible by 2010 and to be able to expand service in west St. Catharines to the new hospital.

If the proposed $28 increase is approved on April 14, the owner of an average house assessed at $174,000 will pay a total of about $1,036 in city taxes in 2008, which does not include education or Region taxes.

Last year’s city budget increase was also $28 for the average household.

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