Siscoe says his budget exercised considerable spending restraint because he heard from taxpayers that council needs “to do more with less” and try “new ways of doing things to see if there are savings to be had.” Pictured is St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe. Photo Credit: Mat Siscoe/Twitter.
St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe has presented his 2024 budget, which calls for a modest property tax increase of 1.49 per cent. Siscoe deliberately went against city staff’s recommendations for a higher property tax hike.
In explaining why he sought to limit the growth of property taxes, Siscoe noted that “taxpayer affordability has to be at the forefront” of council’s priorities as it deliberates on setting its policy agenda for 2024.
The 1.49 per cent property tax hike follows on the heels of a 1.12 per cent property tax hike last year.
Siscoe’s budget stands in contrast to the budget of Niagara Region. While at the regional level politicians are planning to raise property taxes by 7.02 per cent, Siscoe’s restraint will allow taxpayers in St. Catharines more breathing room.
About half of a St. Catharines resident’s property tax bill goes to the Niagara Region, while around 40 per cent goes to St. Catharines’ lower-tier municipal government.
This was the first budget introduced by Siscoe since the province gave the mayors of all Ontario municipalities with populations of over 100,000 residents strong mayor powers last year.
The legislation that introduced strong mayor powers requires mayors to present a budget to city council no later than on Feb. 1. Siscoe presented his budget a few weeks ahead of that deadline.
Council will now deliberate on the budget and councillors have the ability to amend Siscoe’s budget. However, Siscoe’s strong mayor powers allow him to veto any amendments proposed by council and the only way council can override that veto is through the support of two-thirds of the members of council.
Meetings are scheduled for council to consider Siscoe’s budget and possible amendments on Jan. 22 and Jan. 31.
Siscoe’s proposed tax hike is considerably less than what city staff initially proposed. Staff had put forward a 3.67 per cent property tax hike proposal as recently as last November.
Siscoe says his budget exercised considerable spending restraint because he heard from taxpayers that council needs “to do more with less” and try “new ways of doing things to see if there are savings to be had.”
Perhaps the most controversial element of Siscoe’s proposed budget is to contract out St. Catharines’ forestry services to the private sector. Siscoe claims that the move will save the city nearly $500,000 this year and even more money in the years ahead.
Union steward Ron Hughes of CUPE 150, which represents arborists now working for the city, claims Siscoe’s rhetoric about the long-term savings is misleading and that not all costs have been adequately considered.
Some members of council, including Councillor Caleb Ratzlaff, are skeptical of Siscoe’s privatization push. Ratzlaff has already said publicly he will offer an amendment to Siscoe’s budget that would cancel the planned privatization move.
Rory Bourgeois, a municipal operator and union leader in charge of the forestry file, said in speaking to council that although proponents of Siscoe’s approach suggest the forestry division of the city workforce is costly and inefficient, no clear evidence had yet been presented to substantiate that claim.
Siscoe has yet to give any indication that he’s prepared to back down. However, he did indicate that if a majority of council passed Ratzlaff’s amendment, Siscoe would not seek to veto it.
Other savings mechanisms are built into Siscoe’s budget as well.
Some savings were found through using money set aside last year to fill jobs that remain unoccupied and additional savings were found through contracting out some security services. Siscoe’s budget also draws money out of the city’s tax mitigation fund.
Siscoe’s 1.48 per cent property tax hike proposal is less than proposals in Welland (3.15 per cent), Niagara-on-the-Lake (9.4 per cent) and Lincoln (2.9 per cent).
The news on the tax front may not be as rosy going forward. The budget planning document released by city staff includes plans to raise property taxes by 3.33 per cent in 2025 and 3.62 per cent in 2026. The restraint exercised this year may not carry forward into future years.
Jay Goldberg is the Ontario Director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. He previously served as a policy fellow at the Munk School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. Jay holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Toronto.