Town of Lunenburg increases spending on planning and development, new staff in 2023/24 budget

(Lunenburg Town Hall. Photo: Jesse Ward)

Update, May 5: The Town of Lunenburg announced today that members of the public are invited to attend the May 9 meeting of Council to ask questions and provide input on the budget. A list will be available at Town Hall by 5:30 p.m. for you to sign up to speak at the meeting which begins at 6 p.m. More information at this link.

Anticipating an increase of more than $1.2 million in revenue, the Town of Lunenburg’s operating budget to be approved by council next week sees a significant increase in funding for staff salaries and $175,000 for planning on the development of Blockhouse Hill.

At a Committee of the Whole meeting on May 2, Town of Lunenburg Council recommended Council approve the operating budget and water utility operating budget for 2023/24 at the upcoming Council meeting on May 9.

The Town of Lunenburg defines Committee of the Whole meetings as a meeting for “Council to feel they have enough information or have had enough conversation around an issue to be able to make a recommendation to Council for action.” Meetings are attended by Council and staff department heads who they can ask questions.

(While the Town’s Council Highlights summary of the meeting says “No decisions are made at Committee of the Whole meetings”, Council does pass motions at these meetings whether to approve budgets to be brought up for formal approval at the next council meeting, so councillors could technically deny approving a budget at this meeting.)

While the town’s residential tax rate did not increase, the median house price used to calculate residential property tax increased a significant 21 per cent from the previous year. This led the change in a $1.07 million or 14.1 per cent increase in revenue for the town from property tax over the previous year.

The Town is anticipating a balanced budget at $9,902,620 this year, a 13.85 per cent increase from last year’s budget at $8,697,500.

This was the final public meeting before Matt Risser, Mayor of the Town of Lunenburg, resigns during the meeting of Council on May 9.

During the discussion following staff’s presentations on the budget, Risser said the budget “represents a long-overdue need to modernize our corporate organization and regulatory frameworks, and I’m thrilled about that.”

He said he wanted to emphasize the work council has done on increasing the Town’s operating reserves over the last three years, and said one item he wished he made “more headway on than we have” is the disposal of town-owned buildings the town has been pursuing divestment of.

This meeting prefaced a Special Meeting of Council to be held on May 16, for which no agenda has been distributed yet, where the Town says they will “provide an overview of the financial status of the Town and outline some required capital spending over the next 5-10 years.”

Multiple new staff hired, town says it is to fulfill goals in Comprehensive Community Plan

Jamie Doyle, Chief Administrative Officer for the Town of Lunenburg, gave opening remarks on the budget that directly addressed the most significant increase in spending – staff salaries.

Salaries increased in multiple departments as multiple new staff were hired. 

Most notably, Corporate Services Staff increased salaries to $382,100 in the operating budget from $122,500 last year, and Community Development (Planning) increased salaries to $277,0000 in the operating budget from $163,700 last year.

“I’ll take you back a decade. In 2013, the town had 34 employees, which equated to 16.28% of the 2013 budget at that time,” said Doyle.

“Fast forward ten years, we now have 40 employees. That equates to 18.6 per cent of the proposed operating budget. That’s an increase of 6 employees over a decade. That, in my experience, is incredibly low.”

Doyle remarked that one of his first undertakings as CAO, which started in April 2022, was to “complete a reorganization of staff that was outlined by council and reflected in the Comprehensive Community Plan.” 

Page 184 of Lunenburg’s 248-page Comprehensive Community Plan (CCP) outlines a goal for “Internal Operations” that remarks on the need to: “Undertake an organizational review (including an evaluation of operational performance, assessment of staff roles and responsibilities, etc.) with the purpose of identifying changes that will be required to enable implementation of the CCP and other goals of the Town.”

That is what the CCP says regarding the general need to have an organizational review of staff. The CCP has two goals outlining specific people who should be hired:

  1. One goal is “Establish a staff position that can support economic development initiatives.”
  2. One goal is “Establish a staff position that can support arts and cultural management, as part of a broader strategy for municipal community development resources.”

It is currently unclear whether these two staff positions explicitly identified in the CCP were established. The town does not publish a staff directory or updated list of the status of specific CCP goals.

Doyle remarked on recent hiring.

Doyle said there is a commitment to build a “more robust and well-rounded” department that would see the town’s recreation, community development, and planning responsibilities under the same department named “Community Development”. He said a new organizational chart is currently being developed for this department.

“Community development is one of the high-priority initiatives of council and the organization to steward and implement the CCP. This requires staffing expertise,” said Doyle.

Doyle said three employees have been added to the Community Development group to “ensure responsible, well-conceived planning processes,” that there is “an identified staffing gap within the recreational group to help facilitate the orderly function of our rec facilities,” and that a clerk position was added “to overhaul our legislative functions, bylaws and policies to ensure that the town of Lunenburg is operating in best practices within policy development.”

Higher property assessments lead to significant increase in revenue

Kathleen Rafuse, Senior Accountant with the Town of Lunenburg, presented an overview of data from the budget for council.

Rafuse showed a chart outlining the market value of properties in Lunenburg over the last five years. 

The market residential assessment for residential properties in town increased significantly over the last year, from $318.18 million in 2022 to $381.51 million in 2023, for an increase of $63.3 million or 19.9 per cent.

(Chart: Town of Lunenburg)

Residential property taxes are the largest single source of revenue for the Town and make up 43.4 per cent of the proposed operating budget, at $4.28 million.

The town expects $8.67 million in revenue from property tax revenue (including sewer) in 2023, a figure 14.1 per cent greater than in 2022, which saw $7.6 million in revenue.

There were no increases to the residential or commercial tax rate in the last year. There was a sewer rate increase of 7.5 per cent, for an increase of $48.22 per year per dwelling unit.

Rafuse outlined how the current tax rate of $1.376/100 of assessment would see a property with the median residential assessment of $232,500 taxed at an additional $302.72 annual increase over last year, at a total of $3,199.20 compared to $2,896.48 in 2022/23.

$1 million budgeted for RCMP based on salary increases

Rafuse highlighted the fact that mandatory expenditures have increased by $156,000 or 7.9 per cent in the last year, mostly due to RCMP funding. 

Data shown by Rafuse revealed RCMP funding for 23/24 is at $1 million, a 23 per cent increase over the last three years, from $815K in the 2020/21 actual expenditures.

The increased budget is based on RCMP salary increases, without any change in service. Rafuse said the Department of Justice provided the Town with a confirmatory letter confirming the amount the Town will pay this year.

General government services spending increasing by 31.7 per cent, including annual increase in councillor and mayoral pay

Rafuse highlighted the General Government Services in the budget have increased by 31.7 per cent for a total increase of $245,000.

Rafuse said $135,000 in this figure is towards additional positions and wages related to positions in this department.

Annual honorariums for the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Councillors are also increased annually to track inflation in the Consumer Price Index.

As a result, council member honorariums are increasing by 7.5 per cent, from $15,710 starting November 2022 to $16,888 starting November 2023.

The mayor’s honorarium is increasing from $31,658 to $34,032 this November, and the deputy mayor’s honorarium will increase from $25,324 to $27,223.

Additionally, the budget line item for councillors to attend conferences and receive training increased to $7,100 from $2,800.

Budget increase of 61.5 per cent for planning, zoning and community development

Arthur MacDonald, Director of Community Development, presented the budget for his department.

MacDonald showed his department significantly increasing spending by $410K, or 61.5 per cent, for a total of $1.07 million.

Spending of $175K is going towards a line item titled “Blockhouse Hill Planning” that McDonald indicated is for a planning study. 

“The funds have been included in the operating budget to provide funding for hiring of a consultant for the development of a residential concept proposal for the development of the lands in keeping with the town’s Comprehensive Community Plan,” said McDonald.

A grassroots group formed by residents of the Town of Lunenburg, Friends of Blockhouse Hill, is gathering signatures from residents asking the Town to hold a plebiscite on whether they should proceed with this development, and halt the development process unless a majority of citizens ask for it.

Risser has said he would not consider holding such a plebiscite at any amount of signatures because he believes that this is an important project for adding housing inventory to the Town.

Organizations in town with business on the hill including the Board of Trade and Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival have also expressed significant concern with how plans for a development on the hill could affect their operations.

McDonald said $124,900 was for wages and benefits for an additional full-time planner “and a reallocation of support staff to carry out the implementation of the CCP.”

What did councillors and the CAO say and ask about the operating budget?

Jamie Doyle, CAO

Jamie Doyle, CAO, concluded his introductory remarks on the budget saying: “Across the board, I have, and I hope you all have, noticed a dramatic increase in output from the organization that range from core infrastructure, rehabilitation work to RFPs and studies being to begin larger planning initiatives as outlined throughout the CCP.”

Matt Risser, Mayor

Risser says he wish the Town made more headway on disposal of buildings, CAO provides update

“We all know that buildings continue to be a cost, and you know one of the things that’s not frequently referred to is the staff time allocated to buildings, which is a lot,” said Risser.

“So I’m wondering, one of the things now that I’m leaving office, that I wish I would have made more headway on than we have, is the disposal of some of these buildings. So I’m wondering if somebody can speak to where we’re at on that.”

“And I know we’ve done the Angus Walters House, and now we’ll finish up the old New Town School. But some of these other buildings that do create a cost on our budget lines, where are we at with the legwork required to to dispose of them.”

Doyle answered this question.

“One thing I’ve noticed – I’ve said this before publicly, is the amount of the complexity and time it takes to dispose of some town-owned property within town limits. It’s amazing what you can find on property when you start to look,” said Doyle.

“So we are making some progress, certainly with 17 Tannery Road in the Annex, and even that had an extra complexity that we didn’t foresee that we’ve got to deal with. A lot of our properties have items like caveats and easements that we have to deal with, no stranger to you all.”

“Certainly, the CN Building, there’s lots of – if I can say – land housekeeping to be done there. This building as well [referring to Town Hall]. We all know there’s all kinds of money to be spent to fix this place, not to suggest that we’re selling it, but it’s still cost.”

“The academy’s another one. You mentioned staff time, Mr. Mayor, I can attest I’ve spent an enormous amount of my time addressing some of those Academy issues across the board, whether it’s potential leases versus capital work being done there.”

“So you are quite correct. We aren’t moving as quickly as we would have liked, but at the same time we really want to make sure that we do it well, so if we dispose of something it’s clean and it’s ready to be developed and not hindering somebody whether it be a not-for-profit group or a private sale with some homework to do, so – still making progress just not as quickly as we’d like.”

Regarding the town’s progress towards divestment of property, the Town’s decision to evict the tenants of Blue Zone Wellness and Fitness Centre and NSCAD from the Old Fire Hall attracted controversy after the building has sat now unoccupied for more than one year, with no plans announced for what will happen next with the property.

Risser remarks on satisfaction with increase of budget for Community Development

“I know, for the public’s benefit, Community Development sees a big spike. But I’m of the view that it was previously underfunded, so I’m ok with that,” said Risser.

Risser asked McDonald about $50,000 budgeted for an Economic Impact Study that was approved in a past council meeting where council agreed they would not spend the money unless it was matched by $50,000 from other sources. 

McDonald said the town is still looking for potential grants and partners, and struggling to come up with it, so it will probably be a decision of council later on to decide how to proceed.

Risser says Town is underspending on roads

Risser asked Tyson Joyce, Town Engineer, to speak on the transportation budget.

“I understand labour’s up, and I understand Public Works has been doing a good job of doing a lot of very tangible work over the past months, but there’s a couple line items where we’re underspending there, and I’d like to see those come up if we can, particularly sidewalks, crack sealing, that kind of stuff – we’re paying more for labour, but we’re still underspending, and have been a couple of years,” said Risser.

Joyce remarked the town had overspent on asphalt the previous year, decreasing the budget for this year, and the department has also been dealing with multiple infrastructure maintenance priorities.

Risser asked Doyle whether the town was looking at contracting out labour for roads maintenance. Doyle said the Capital Planning Committee could decide at a later date if the town should contract out this labour.

Risser asks for update on Operating Reserves

Risser asked Rafuse for an update on the town’s Operating Reserves.

Rafuse described the town’s approach to saving funds for operating reserves and procuring grants.

“Probably about three years ago, council directed staff to start trying to ensure that we had more money in the bank, and that we had rainy day funds, and that is a direction that council have been very passionate, and staff have been very passionate about – building our reserves,” said Rafuse.

“You will see that we have taken the majority of the funds that have been collected from the deed transfer tax and the amount of one per cent every year goes into a capital reserve that is used for our infrastructure in the town, be it a a new road or a new sewer line. Those funds have been very beneficial to ensuring that we can look after our inventory of assets that we have that really require those type of funds.”

“We have also been working on trying to reestablish just a general operating surplus. What we do every year after the financial reports for the end of the year have been approved. If there’s any residual funds normally, we put that in our general operating reserve.

“So if council need it for a special project, or if we have a special emergency that comes up, we actually have the funds to fund that ourselves.”

“And we have also been very active in pursuing grants, so that we ensure that if we can get something that costs us 100 per cent, but 75 per cent of that is funded from another source, we’re only spending $25 of our own money, so yes, there have been some active changes that have been initiated by this Council to ensure that we are actually building reserves, so that we have those funds, and we properly manage our way through any fiscal challenges that we have.”

“We all know that we have an investment that we are going to have to make in all of our infrastructure, and it it will take a while for us to actually come up with a viable capital plan, where we can manage our way and planning to get to a point that it’s not such a great deficit.”

Peter Mosher, Deputy Mayor and upcoming Acting Mayor

Peter Mosher, the councillor who is Deputy Mayor and will become Acting Mayor on May 9 following the resignation of Risser, asked if the budget line item for elections at $10,000 is higher because of the upcoming by-election.

Rafuse mentioned the number is higher in anticipation of the by-election this year. She said the cost for a full election is around $23,000, so a reserve that already stands at $35,000 will have $10,000 used to pay for the by-election.

Ed Halverson, Councillor

Halverson asks for figure on Academy debt financing

Ed Halverson, the only councillor who has publicly indicated his intention to run for mayor in the upcoming by-election, asked why the budget presentation had debt financing costs for the Lunenburg Academy separate from the costs for other buildings. He asked for debt financing costs on the Academy.

Rafuse pointed out that the budget document distributed debt financing for the Academy across several different line items where components of the Academy were bundled with other facilities items. She said she would send the number to council.

Funding for maintenance, capital projects and debt financing for the Academy has been a prominent topic in town since The Barnacle broke the news in April that the Town is pursuing divestment of the property. Risser has called the building an “unsustainable burden” on taxpayers for its maintenance costs, and the Town says they are currently only considering selling the building to the Lunenburg Academy Foundation.

Halverson asks about status of municipal borrowing limit 

Halverson also asked where the Town of Lunenburg is with the municipal borrowing limit, and for an explanation of how it is calculated, “so people will understand how it works as well.”

Rafuse said the Town is at 7.8 per cent.

“We are holding an amount open for when we have to borrow for the wastewater treatment plant which we are anticipating, probably will take us to between 12 and 13 per cent depending upon what the prices come in at – because as we know everything is escalating as we work through the processes.

Rafuse said the limit of the Town is allowed to borrow of its own source revenue, which excludes electric and water, is 15 per cent.

“There is a formula that you have to utilize, that you calculate your own source revenue divided into your expenditures, and that’s how much you are allowed to borrow,” said Rafuse.

Halverson asks about potential extra RCMP costs from union settlement

Rafuse’s presentation, remarking on mandatory expenditures to the RCMP, said the $1 million the town is paying to the RCMP does not include possible upcoming backpay costs due to a union settlement.

(The Federal Government announced in the 2023 budget that it will not absorb retroactive costs associated with the RCMP’s latest collective bargaining agreement. Some Canadian towns with populations under 10,000 are facing surprise bills greater than $100,000 for backpay in their budgets this year.)

Halverson asked Doyle about what communication he has had with the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities (NSFM) or any other authority who can indicate what the Town will owe in backpay.

“The communication through NSFM, or any other governing body that represents municipalities to the Federal Government – it has almost fallen on deaf ears to be honest, as unfortunate as that is.

“And I feel like this issue’s followed me from Alberta, because it’s all across the country where it’s being downloaded to municipalities. And I do believe the cost has been downloaded, but I don’t remember the cost for us off the top of my head.”

Rafuse said the NSFM has explained that any retroactive pay that has been billed to a unit that is not under a private force, the retroactive pay was already being paid in the annual billings.

Halverson asked for confirmation that it looks like we may not have to pay back pay. Rafuse said, “For this year – they haven’t said, confirmatory, one way or other, if we will, but they haven’t solidified anything.”

“The not knowing is the worst part,” said Halverson, “Because whether it’s this year or next year, somewhere down the line that’s that’s gonna be a large nut to crack if it does get downloaded to our municipality.”

“I’d have to share your sentiment,” said Doyle, “But I guess the solace is we’re also not alone. So I’m hopeful that folks like NSFM can help us lobby in a way that we can’t to certainly help us be relieved of those potential payments.”

Halverson asks about accessible sidewalk study

Halverson asked about whether it would make sense to tie the accessible sidewalk study the town has “played off for a year” to the town’s parking study which is underway.

Doyle said the two issues and their studies are too big to be put together.

Halverson said they should probably be run concurrently as two separate projects.

“I think when you think about accessibility standards throughout town of Lunenburg, it’s almost insurmountable as it is to try to retrofit,” said Doyle. “So I think we have to take it with caution to make sure that we do it appropriately and cost-effectively.”

“One thing that I will note, with the output of work from this organization this year, it is certainly monumental, but we are running out of capacity. So when we start to think about what we’re able to push out the door, as well as manage or do in house, we try to prioritize that in ways that align with the CCP as well, and not to say that accessibility doesn’t, but we’re trying to get through some of the backlog of the planning things first, too.”

Melissa Duggan, Councillor

Melissa Duggan inquired about the budget item for public washrooms listed at $26,800 and asked if this was just for the one bathroom facility operated by the Town on the waterfront.

Rafuse confirmed the $26,800 is just for the one bathroom facility operated by the town on the waterfront.

Jenni Birtles, Councillor

Jenni Birtles asked why the mowing budget for the cemetery increased by $14,000.

Rafuse said the budget had not increased by $14,000 because last year council had approved, post-budget, to take the budget up to $20,000 – when a tender came in this year at $26,000, the Town reduced another area of the budget to maintain the cemetery’s appearance over the summer.

Susan Sanford, Councillor

Susan Sanford asked whether the budget line item at $135,000 for street lighting accounted for the project to change the town’s lighting over by 2022. 

Rafuse said the lighting project was already complete.

Stephen Ernst, Councillor

Stephen Ernst said, “I don’t have as much a question as much as I just want to say, that is a very thorough and well-done budget, and I certainly want to thank all of staff, but particularly to thank Kathleen, who really stepped forward this year due to our finance director’s unfortunate ill health, still being away with that. And certainly I want to, on the record, publicly thank you for that.”

A complete copy of the budget is available in the Agenda Package here.


4 responses to “Town of Lunenburg increases spending on planning and development, new staff in 2023/24 budget”

  1. Alison F Strachan

    I understand there may be some room for public feedback on this. I’ll stay tuned. Since “studies” or “consultant reports” seem to be a spending silo at TH, I would have loved to see, and kind of expected to see, a study on a solar field projected for this 2023/24 budget since we’re soon to be making decisions on the electrical front.

    Thanks for keeping us updated.

    1. Paula Rennie

      Seems there has been some reconsideration about allowing the public to comment (as they were in days past):

  2. George

    Nearly 2% of the town work for the town??? This is unreal. Need a complete review of the number of positions in the town.

  3. […] one week before the budget was voted on at a regular meeting of Council, the Committee of the Whole held an hour-long meeting with a presentation by senior staff to review the budget […]

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