By Cecilia Nasmith
In what could become a regular feature of Northumberland County council meetings, chief administrative officer Jennifer Moore took the mike at their May meeting or a verbal update on how funding changes at provincial level (to date) affect the county's budget as already approved for 2019 – and, in some cases, the effects to the budget process in 2020.
“I know there has been a lot of attention and conversation about funding changes. We thought we should give an update on just how these are impacting Northumberland County,” Moore said.
Such an update can only be a snapshot in time, she added, as the picture is always changing. Sometimes it seems new information is coming in every day, sometimes a significant amount of time passes before they get details.
“There's a lot that's up in the air at the moment, but staff are doing their best to stay on top of it.”
The problem is that, since the long process of planning and passing the 2019 budget, realities have changed.
Providing a snapshot of how things stand at this moment in time, Moore offered a few highlights.
The province made some comments about uploading this service but, to date, this idea is still under review. The province has committed to consultation, Moore said, and professional paramedic associations, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and other health-care groups are lobbying to keep the delivery of this service as it is.
“We are committed to making sure our resident receive the same level of care as they are currently receiving,” Moore added.
Meanwhile, provincial allocations for this service are frozen at 2018 levels. The kicker is that request for 2018 were based on costs in 2017 – effectively putting 2019 funding at 2017 levels. Since then, of course, wages, gas prices and any number of other costs have risen.
“The expectation is that we will absorb those costs,” she said.
“The province expects us to find efficiencies and not impact service levels.”
Staffing is a key element to being able to provide the level of service that they do, Moore said, but their salaries and benefits are 75% of the budget. The other 25% is full of items that cost more now than they did two years ago, such as fuel, medical supplies and building operations - “fixed costs that cannot be adjusted.”
As a result, this budget item has a $144,000 shortfall under current conditions.
Many conversations are taking place about provincial changes to health-unit funding. In Northumberland, the county is expected to pay a portion of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit's costs based on a funding formula set out by the province.
That formula had been 75-25 provincial-municipal, though the province had in recent years failed to provide a full 75%. The 70-30 split the province is now proposing is not far off what the reality is now, Moore said.
However, further changes are anticipated around programming that was once 100% funded by the province. These programs are seeing a change to 70-30 and 80-20 formulas.
As things stand just now, this is a $99,000 budget impact for the county this year and possibly $350,000 in 2020.
Business and Entrepreneurship Centre
This program offers a lot of economic-development benefits in terms of entrepreneur and small-business support, and funding has been reduced by $90,000 for 2019 and 2020.
“Staff continue to review processes and consider how programs can be modified in order to deliver streamlined processes and programs,” Moore said.
The budget shortfall here, in current conditions, is $107,000 in 2019 and possibly $300,000 in 2020. At the same time, changes to program parameters promise increased caseloads.
The county is involved in many such programs, many of which were previously covered 100% and now will be a matter of 80-20. Administration expenses for these programs was also covered 100%, but is going to 50-50.
Expansion funding that was 100% is now 80-20.
“Service levels are expected to remain consistent despite the funding reductions,” Moore said.
This is the one-time grant recently announced by Northumberland-Peterborough South MPP David Piccini, with amounts to the county and to each of its member municipalities to help them find efficiencies and modernize operations. The share for Northumberland County was $725,000.
It was supposed to be spent entirely at the municipality's discretion, Moore said, “but most municipalities have taken a cautious approach, which is what we are doing as well.”
A number of their initial idea relate to IT updates, and they have conferred with member municipalities on the potential of shared initiatives.
Some funding improvements have been made to offset the reductions, but Moore's best estimate is that the county is operationally short by $650,000 for 2019.
“This is guaranteed to change as more information comes forward, but this is the ballpark we are working with in our current year. Staff are working to adjust on the fly as best they can.”
This is not the first time a government has pushed for efficiencies, Moore said, and the county has evolved into quite a lean operation.
“We operate with 18% less staff on a per-household basis compared to other municipalities. We've had a stable levy increase for a number of years now,a nd still expanded our roads program, built up reserves, enhanced programs and services,” she listed.
“We have risen to the challenge before, and will continue to put forth our best efforts to do that.”
As well, Moore said, “We will continue to assess changes as they are announced.”