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‘Modest’ tax increase likely as West Hants works to finalize budget

For the latest news coming from the Municipality of West Hants, visit this website.
For the latest news coming from the Municipality of West Hants, visit this website. - Carole Morris-Underhill

Fire departments see budgets trimmed

WENTWORTH CREEK, N.S. —

West Hants residents will likely be paying a little more when the taxman comes knocking.

Council held a special committee of the whole meeting April 16 to further fine tune its final budget as an independent municipality.

The meeting lasted about an hour, with the focus largely being on the April 2 recommendations to remove the contract for the economic development officer and make adjustments to various fire services budgets.

After much debate, council agreed to keep Colby Milne of Roman 3 Solutions in the budget. The $55,000 line item is for a contract agreement.

Chief administrative officer Martin Laycock said staff were advised to put money aside to hire an economic development officer during the 2018-19 budget.

“However, it was decided it would be better to just get the foundation work done and to do that we hired Roman 3 Consulting,” said Laycock in an interview following the meeting.

“Council has just extended that contract, which would be renewed Aug. 1 this year and extended it to March 31, 2020 because Bill 55 does not allow us to get into contracts beyond 2020,” he explained.

The vote to keep the firm’s services was not unanimous, with four of 10 councillors voting in opposition.

The reasons varied, with the main one being that some councillors didn’t think now, with the merger with Windsor underway, was the right time.

Warden Abraham Zebian said council ultimately decided to keep funding the position.

“It’s evident that council feels the value of the position, the value it’s created in the community,” said Zebian in an interview.

“He’s been out to speak to numerous businesses; he’s done quite a bit of work on various projects that are valuable to council and the community,” Zebian said, noting he’s been working on moving the Highway 101 interchange project near the Forest Lakes resort forward.

West Hants councillors had questions about the type of fire calls Brooklyn firefighters were responding to in 2018.
West Hants councillors had questions about the type of fire calls Brooklyn firefighters were responding to in 2018.

TRIMMING FIRE SERVICES

A good portion of the discussion on April 16 focused around the Brooklyn Fire Department and proposed decrease in funding to custodian services.

Council agreed to take 10 per cent off of the contribution to each of the county’s fire department’s as well as remove the capital expenditure for new radios for Brooklyn Fire.

However, when it came time to cutting back the janitorial budget — removing $10,000 from BFD Station 2 (so it would be $15,000) and $20,000 from BFD Station 1 (so it would be $30,000) — councillors had strong views.

Coun. Debbie Francis said she was concerned about how it would impact the Brooklyn station.

“We’re deciding the fate of an employee that we do not employ,” said Francis, noting that maybe the BFD could still find it in their budget to keep the person employed.

Coun. David Keith was also opposed to the cutback.

“We are going down a slippery slope if we start taking money away,” said Keith, noting that Brooklyn is a busy station and that they need to have that custodian position so that they will be able to quickly roll a truck out the door.

“We are opening up a can of worms. These are volunteers. They don’t have to be there. They’ve got jobs; they can go someplace else here. What happens if they leave?” he asked.

A letter written to council from Art Crowell, the president of the board of trustees for the Brooklyn Fire Department, was received prior to the April 16 discussions. The letter was to provide clarity on some of the issues that were raised by councillors.

The letter noted that the $50,000 for the maintenance and apparatus superintendent was split between $9,500 for janitorial supplies for the main station, substation, and civic centre, and the remaining $40,500 was for wages and benefits at Station 1.

“The Brooklyn fire stations are located in a rural community and the vast majority of our volunteer firefighters work outside the community through the week. As a result, we require our caretakers at each station to be fully trained and qualified to operate all units,” the letter reads.

“This ensures, that in the event of a fire call during the daytime hours during the weekday, we will have a quick response with a qualified operator.”

Crowell noted that they believe it’s “a prudent strategy” to provide the best service for the citizens of West Hants.

Coun. Kathy Monroe said she simply wanted to see that budget item fall more in line with the other stations. Hantsport Fire Department’s janitorial line item, for example, is $15,000.

Further, she said the county’s firefighting force is a volunteer one, yet Brooklyn is asking to fund a position.

“Their theory or their logic is they need somebody sitting at site and I think that, to me, in my mind, is the equivalent of a paid firefighter,” said Monroe, noting that is not how West Hants believes in managing its fire services.

If stations are concerned about having access to a driver, there’s a solution available, she said.

“If you’ve got a need to have a driver, train more drivers.”

As for the concern about empty stations, Monroe said that is not the case. The volunteers routinely can be seen hanging out at the various stations in West Hants, even when there aren’t calls or training taking place. They go for the camaraderie.

“They are pretty well-occupied on a regular basis,” she said.

Council eventually agreed to pare back what they provide to Brooklyn for custodial services.

NEXT STEPS

Zebian said the overall budget is a good one, featuring two large capital expenditures – the sports complex and a new station for the Hantsport Fire Department.

“It’s a modest increase for the large, large additions to the budget,” said Zebian.

Heading into a special council meeting on April 23 at 5:30 p.m. to finalize the budget, Zebian said residential taxpayers are looking at a rate of $1.0323; an increase from $1.0163 per $100 of assessed residential property. Commercial property taxes would remain the same at $1.80 per $100 of assessed commercial property.

“Overall, on average, on a $140,000 home, it’s about a $58.40 increase for the year,” said Zebian.

“I believe staff did a fantastic job; they gave us a very successful budget for a very modest increase in the tax rate. West Hants council’s value for dollar has been achieved through this budget.”

Laycock said Hantsport’s residential tax rate will stay the same at $1.66, and the commercial rate would remain at $3.82 per $100 of assessed value. However the funding being transferred to the reserves would be different.

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