Huntsville Council continues to struggle with its efforts to decrease expenses in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the fact that its facilities are closed and not generating revenue, and given the probability that property taxes may be paid late.
In a report to council, Huntsville manager of finance Julia McKenzie indicated that the impact of lost operating revenue as a result of COVID-19 could be about $2.4 million, but a decrease in expenses related to wages and maintenance could offset the loss of revenue, which according to preliminary calculations could result in a net loss of about $175,000.
In terms of the ability of property owners to pay their property taxes, McKenzie also noted in her report that capital cashflow could be impacted, but stated it was still too early to tell. “To prepare for this risk, staff have reviewed the capital spending for 2020 and have identified potential changes to the approved capital budget for 2020. Based on preliminary estimates, the total capital spending that could be deferred to 2021 is $2,532,377 of the $5,373,635 budgeted,” she stated
Councillors like Jonathan Wiebe have also noted that the municipality may be called upon to help its residents, particularly through not-for-profit groups at the forefront of helping people acquire food and other necessities —at least until money flows from senior levels of government.
But knowing how and where to cut back on expenses, and for how long, is proving to be divisive. Council spent most of its time in closed session at its March 30 meeting. The meeting was the second of its kind held electronically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for distancing measures.
At the heart of its closed session discussions seemed to be a resolution it passed at its March 26 meeting instructing staff to determine which services could be considered essential and to immediately lay off staff who are not part of delivering those services. That resolution also directed staff to bring back a report to council’s next meeting on the actions taken thus far. But when council met again on March 30, it immediately passed a resolution to reconsider and table that earlier resolution “in order that we may consider the new information provided by staff,” said Huntsville Mayor Karin Terziano before council went into closed session.
About two hours later council emerged seemingly divided. The new resolution that came out of the meeting, closed to the public, stated that council would be in support of the steps identified in a confidential report by Huntsville CAO Denise Corry “to ensure business continuity of municipal operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The recommendation was amended to include a request that the CAO bring back another report regarding one of the steps discussed in closed session to the next council meeting, scheduled for April 6. That resolution passed with councillors Bob Stone, Tim Withey and Jonathan Wiebe voting against it, while councillors Nancy Alcock, Dan Armour, Jason FitzGerald, and Brian Thompson voting in favour.
Service levels were also debated, particularly those related to public works
Council also debated what services should be cut. Among its considerations were whether sweeping the roads of winter sand, dust suppression and ditching and brushing culverts should be among the items left out this year. The contract for beautifying the downtown with flower baskets was also on the table.
“We are talking about sweeping roads and we are losing the lives of fellow Canadians here. So we are strapped with the responsibility of saving money because that’s what we feel we need to do, and we’re losing lives and we’re talking about sweeping roads.”
~ Councillor Jason FitzGerald, on sweeping roads this spring not being an essential service
Councillor Bob Stone said projects ought to be done in-house wherever possible. “Cancel the [public works] contracts, do the work as best we can with the staff we have and do the important bits first and let the rest fall where it may,” he said. “As far as the flowers, I know we contract those out and they have to be planted now. If we have to enlist citizens once things get rolling again and plant some flowers for baskets on Main Street, I’m sure they would come in droves.”
Councillor Nancy Alcock concurred with Stone and said that she had already been approached by people asking how they could help. “To me the idea of the planters, that’s a perfect project at some point down the road, whenever we get there.”
Councillor Dan Armour, in response to FitzGerald’s comments about sweeping the roads not being essential, said, “I think the government goes down with the ship and I think we need to try and keep our town as pleasing to people as we can.” Armour argued that if things settle down by July, August or even September, “and people start coming to their cottages and all that stuff, we still gotta have a town for them to come and visit that is safe.”
Cleaning the streets is important. It’s a toxic waste we’re leaving out there covered with oil and gasoline and who knows what else, cigarette butts, so I think we need to clean that stuff up.
~ Councillor Dan Armour
Alcock concurred with Armour and said she agreed with cleaning the streets. “It is a safety issue, and it can be as much a safety issue in the rural areas as it is in the town, so I think that one I would support.”
Councillor Dione Schumacher wanted to know if the sweeping contract is cancelled whether there would in fact be people the municipality could enlist to do the work if things get better.
Director of Operations and Protective Services, Steve Hernen, said he could not answer that question. “The sweeping contractors are all filling their schedules. You book early, you get in the slot,” he said, adding that there may also be a small penalty for cancelling.
He asked council for direction and said the Town only has one sweeper and last year it took six to get the town roads swept.
In the end, council instructed Hernen to see if the Town could reduce the level of sweeping with the contractor in order to reduce cost.
Dust suppression was also on the table and council voted in favour of leaving it out this year.
As for flowers on Main Street, council also voted in favour of not paying a contractor to place flowers in the downtown area this year.
In terms of capital projects, council directed department heads to bring back a list of projects that could be postponed, rather than going through each project on a piecemeal basis while referring to report submitted by McKenzie, which assumed that all non-essential capital projects could be cancelled as per council’s initial instructions. On that issue, Armour suggested that funds like those going into the downtown streetscape project could be diverted in order to get other projects done this spring. “We’re still putting a million dollars into the Main Street reconstruction revitalization, so I think we should be diverting some of that money into getting some of these streets done and if in 2021 Main Street’s a go, we may have to debenture some of that money at that time but I think road maintenance is important right now for our economy, and to keep people working.”
Councillor Jonathan Wiebe also expressed concern with employee safety, and Hernen said steps have been taken to ensure employees are protected as they conduct municipal business.
Council will meet again on Monday, April 6 at 6 p.m.
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