Billings council passes 2020 budget despite uncertain times

The Old Mill in Kagawong

KAGAWONG – Billings township council has agreed to pass its 2020 budget while it and other municipalities in the province go through uncertain times in dealing with costs related to COVID-19.

“In looking at our 2020 budget, I know there will be some discussion among council,” said Billings Mayor Ian Anderson at a council meeting April 7. 

Billings CAO Kathy McDonald explained to council, “In March, when we decided on bringing the budget forward, it included a three percent increase and things were normal at that time. But things are very different now with COVID-19 and we have helped contribute to the costs of the new MHC (Manitoulin Health Centre) ventilators, signage and advertising involved (in COVID-19).” She pointed out the proposed three percent budget increase included putting $54,000 into reserves for capital assets.

“In the municipal webinars I have been attending, we are being told that if we have a budget set, pass it and not make any changes until we know where COVID-19 is going to take us,” said Ms. McDonald. She pointed out there are things that can be left in the budget, such as a half ton municipal truck that had been proposed. She also noted any capital purchase, or project, decisions would have to have council’s permission. She said the township will probably not be receiving funding this year to hire any students, for example. “Right now we have no idea where COVID-19 will be taking us.” 

“I don’t have specific questions, but I echo what the CAO said,” stated Councillor Barker. “I have mixed feelings about the budget,” he added, noting that in large part due to municipal staff the budget was in place early. “The federal and provincial governments are having to spend a lot of money towards fighting COVID-19, and I can see our partnership funds being reduced. And we have contributed to things like the MHC ventilator campaign. The budget was basically set before COVID-19 hit the fan. Can we assess projects on a case-by-case basis as we know what we are up against in the next few months? Can we address big ticket items case-by-case?”

Ms. McDonald said this is the way council could proceed. “Council will have opportunity to address each project (even if the budget is passed).”

Councillor Sharon Alkenbrack said, “I think the (proposed) budget should be supported. I am worried about where we are going this year (because of costs involved with COVID-19). If Kathy feels the budget should be approved with the points she outlined, then that is what we should do.”

Councillors Sharon Jackson and Michael Hunt agreed that the budget should go ahead. Councillor Hunt raised a concern on the cost of the waterfront project and if government funding is still in place for this project. 

“I believe the funding is in place,” said Ms. McDonald, who noted the township does not have this in writing, and it will be a matter of when council decides the project will go ahead. However, she told council “I think for the next two years at least, it is going to be very rough for municipalities. Governments are having to spend a lot of money (due to COVID) and I don’t think there will be a lot (funding) coming to municipalities.”

Mayor Anderson said in hearing from and reading information from health care professionals, no one knows how long the COVID-19 virus will affect things, but the estimates are a year to 18 months. “No one in authority in health care is expecting this to be a short turnaround. Nobody is expecting the virus to be eliminated in the next few months.” He noted his support for passing the budget as is. “We also have very good reserves thanks to planning by the CAO, clerk-treasurer over the past few years. I am definitely not suggesting our reserves will bail us out but we are in a better financial state than some. And we are going to have to be prudent in the way we deal with the budget and any expenses.”

“So if council approves the budget there are items that we can reassess or take out?” asked Councillor Barker. “I am nervous about depleting our reserves and it wouldn’t take long to do this.”

“We would not be making any big purchases without the authority and decision by council,” said Ms. McDonald 

Council unanimously voted in favour of approving the 2020 budget as presented. “For the record, I am in favour of this as well,” said Mayor. Anderson. “I think it’s the right decision.”