TIMMINS - As Timmins moves into 2016, Mayor Steven Black took some time to reflect on what the city has accomplished in 2015 and what is in store in the future.
First on the docket will be hammering out the annual operating budget.
“Like every year, it has its unique set of challenges when council is trying to get some things done in the community plus the general operating cost of the city so we have to try to balance it all and come to a number that residents can accept or find reasonable,” Mayor Black said. “No one is ever happy when there’s any increase in spending, but if you want to continue to offer the services we already do and improve the capital side as well, that’s something council will have to debate and will have to identify what are priorities and what can be to pushed off to other years to keep the tax increase reasonable.”
The question of what the city can expect in terms of the tax breakdown next year is certainly one that lingers on the minds of residents across Timmins.
As a whole, Black said a slight increase in unavoidable.
“I can say without lying there will be a tax increase this year as a whole for the city. I don’t think there’s any way possible you would see a tax decrease with the infrastructure deficit we have locally, the Connecting Link, and other projects — so a small reasonable tax increase will be in the future for the years to come,” he said.
It’s hard to say for certain how much of an increase, but there’s at least a 2.5 % increase projected just to cover costs for outside agencies and boards like police, fire, the library and the health unit without even tackling city hall’s needs.
New provincial charges for police training have been downloaded onto the municipality, Black explained, and when you also include the provincial funding freeze for the health unit, the property assessment increases some residences are in for and much needed infrastructure projects down the road, it seems unlikely that tax-savings will be in the future.
When it comes to raising taxes, however, it’s prudent that the uptick be evaluated in terms of how much bang taxpayers are getting for their buck, the mayor said.
“If you invest in some of these projects and it seems like it’s going to have a big difference, if it ends up translating to a $10 or $15 increase, you look to see what do you have to offer to the community at $4,000 and then at $4,010, is it really worth it to invest in that project?
“And obviously you wouldn’t want to move forward on a project that’s going to have a drastic alteration to your tax rate unless you have partners there to offset it.”
Balancing the demand for a tight fiscal operation at city hall with the desire to improve quality of life and upgrade recreation and infrastructure is one that council will undoubtedly wrestle with this year.
“One of the challenges for 2016 is to put the KPMG Core Service Review and the Strategic Plan on the same table because obviously they are two very different studies and sometimes have quite contradicting directions for the community,” he said.
On the one hand, KPMG proposed cost-cutting solutions to better stretch the city’s $100 Million operating budget.
The Sierra Planning and Management study, contrastingly, proposes investing more dollars into the city with an emphasis on enhancing the cultural presence in the community by dumping $80,000 into the creation of a public arts strategy for Timmins and $30,000 for a new cultural and recreation programming guide, for example.
While Black’s on board with finding ways to save money, he’s not opposed to investing either so long as the project is a good fit for the majority of those in the city.
“Right from my campaign forward I’ve said we need to be willing to look at some of these recreation and quality of life aspects in our community to ensure Timmins is a great city to live in and raise families,” he said.
The proposed aquatic centre is a prime example.
With the aquatic centre feasibility study now underway, council will be deciding in the upcoming budget process whether they will take the project to the next step early in the new year.
The future of the Hollinger Park is also one of the key assets in the community, he stressed, and he encourages the creation of a long-term strategic plan in order to map out what needs to be done to not only upkeep but also revitalize the space.
Providing desired upgrades to the city cannot come without also addressing much-needed infrastructure improvements, however.
And when anyone thinks infrastructure in Timmins, their thoughts most likely land on the future of the city’s main thoroughfare: Highway 101 East to Riverside Drive.
“The Connecting Link is definitely going to be one of the largest capital projects the city is going to venture into over the next decade. It’s not going to be a one-or-two-year fix,” he said. “We’ll get the full preliminary studies in the new year but the very early numbers from the Minister of Transportation, and I will emphasize preliminary, was $95 million and the project is broken down into a 10-phase project right now done over 10 years.”
Black said they are likely to break the project down even further and have it span over a longer period to reduce the stress placed on motorists who rely on the roadway on a daily basis.
He also hopes to acquire provincial funding for the project to offset some of the cost that will be placed on the municipality which could, he projected, approach $100 Million when all is said and done.
“I still insist the province has a big role to play in that. It’s a connecting link (between provincial highways), so I’m hoping we’ll be receiving the dollars from the province sometime in the spring and we’re hoping to come up with a long-term agreement with the provincial government and the feds over the years, rather than dealing with a yearly grant application process,” he said.
It’s not all about spending, spending, spending for the future, however, as Black believes two large foreign investment oppportunities could mean big things for the city’s tax base and job prospects.
The plan for the Calabrian Corporation to open a new liquid sulphur dioxide production facility in Timmins is “pretty much a done deal” he said and there is a Chinese investor looking very seriously at building an insulation manufacturing plant here, as well.
“I think that’s very promising and hopefully we’ll see that come to fruition in 2016 because I think when you look at those types of deals, if you can land a major foreign investor to start the initial project, usually you see some of their colleagues and other investor partners looking at doing business in those new areas as well,” Black said. “Hopefully, we can land the first one and it leads to many more investment opportunities for Timmins in the years ahead.”
Focusing on new manufacturing opportunities is a key element to the mayor and council’s plans to diversify the economy in the coming years.
Although major employers like the Kidd Creek operation have a good six to eight years left of viable mining time, Black feels it’s critical to be proactive in ensuring the community isn’t hit too hard when these major employers eventually wind down and close up shop.
Lake Shore Gold offers a great deal of promise in terms of expansion and longevity, but there are certainly going to be big changes afoot as the larger operations move out within the next decade.
“When it’s an employer of that size and nature in the community, you have to prepare quite early as it will be quite a shift when it does wind down and cease operations so I think that council has to look at that even though the impact won’t be seen in our term.”
He also stressed that, “You don’t always have the benefit of knowing when things are going to wind down, you can have unexpected closures that catch people off guard,” referring to the sudden closure of the Kidd metallurgical site announced in late 2009.
What is he hoping to see unfold this year?
“There’s always lots of talk about General Magnesium and the talc operations and I hope in the years ahead we see some actual facilities being built to prove to the community that they are going to be here. And obviously the Ring of Fire is something that all of Northern Ontario is eagerly sitting by and waiting to see what happens — but I still think we’re years away from seeing any real progress there.”
Black also said he’s committed to maintaining the annual festival and concert series’ that take place in the city, continuing to promote a large-scale Canada Day celebration and to welcoming the two new Syrian families who will soon be calling Timmins home this year.
“Council is very aware of the fiscal restraint that is desired in the community and we’ll approach the budget with a balance between the restraint demanded by the average taxpayer but also understanding that we have needs in the community to fulfill so Timmins is still the great place it is today for future generations,” he said.
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