By Jeff Gard/Today’s Northumberland
About 30 residents turned out to a protest Sunday afternoon in front of Cobourg’s Victoria Hall that was organized by Ryan Crossen in response to a number of issues, including the proposed increase in remuneration council voted itself less than three months into the new term as well as the substantial tax hike taxpayers are facing.
On Feb. 9, Cobourg council unanimously supported a motion to approve the 2023 Capital Budget in the amount of $32,998,716 and the 2023 Operating Budget with the Municipal Levy of $28,154,601 which represents an 8.1% increase over the 2022 Operating Budget and a 6.6% net increase after allowing for New Assessment Growth of 1.5%.
The budget requires final approval Monday night at council’s next regular meeting.
Also requiring final approval Monday will be the new by-law changing the amount of remuneration council members receive as it is approved separate from the budget.
As previously reported by Today’s Northumberland, the current Council Remuneration By-law in place indicates an annual increase implemented on July 1, based on the previous 12-month increase in the Consumer Price Index. Councillors were already set to receive a combined total of $14,442 in the draft budget for the CPI increase this year, but a proposed by-law would increase that to more $34,000 ($21,315, including benefits, of new money on the tax levy for this year).
A last-minute presentation by resident Bryan Lambert the day before budget deliberations suggested hefty raises for the Mayor Lucas Cleveland, Deputy Mayor Nicole Beatty and Councillors Adam Bureau, Brian Darling, Aaron Burchat, Miriam Mutton and Randy Barber, totalling over $138,000.
The mayor put the motion on the floor during the first day of budget deliberations, but returned two days later with a revised motion to phase it in over two years so the full effect wouldn’t be felt on the budget until the third year of the term. That plan was supported by a slim 4-3 margin, with Bureau, Mutton and Barber voting in support and Beatty, Darling and Burchat in opposition.
See the full breakdown here: A Look at the Detailed Breakdown of Proposed Cobourg Council Remuneration Increase Over Three Years – Today’s Northumberland – Your Source For What’s Happening Locally and Beyond (todaysnorthumberland.ca)
Councillor Bureau was on hand at the beginning of Sunday’s protest, defending his support of the remuneration increase while also fielding questions on the state of Cobourg’s downtown, the number of cannabis stores in town and homelessness. Councillor Burchat wandered in soon after to listen as well.
Mayor Cleveland also arrived a short time later and stood beside Bureau, who was speaking, before he began addressing the residents on hand for the rally.
The first hot topic was homelessness. The mayor said they want to help and there’s hundreds of millions of dollars already being spent in Northumberland County on helping the less fortunate through various agencies including shelters, mental health clinics and warming rooms.
“I’m sorry to say it, all of these places that are available and ready for them, why then when I went to the bank this morning is there a gentleman sleeping in the bank?” a woman asked.
“Because he was not allowed to enter service because he either assaulted…”
The mayor was cut off, with the woman asking “why when you’re down would you kick a person even further?”
Cleveland said agencies need to have rules in place for safety.
“It’s not about kicking,” he said. “It’s about these agencies have to have rules and I guess this is the issue folks – these individuals who work at these agencies, they also deserve respect. They also deserve safety. They also deserve sets of rules. They are assaulted, verbally abused, dealing with needles, dealing with intoxications, dealing with the drug scene…
“Here’s the issue guys – Transition House can’t get staff. There’s no one who wants to work there anymore so it’s not necessarily just government not doing it, the people don’t want to do the jobs involved…”
A protester suggested the reason is because there aren’t enough supports in place for those working in those positions, with another person saying they need more money.
Someone else suggested more police presence on the streets.
“Folks, let’s talk about that. What are the police going to do?” the mayor asked. “The police are not allowed to persecute, that’s your Crown.”
As the discussion started shifting toward federal policies, the mayor reminded everyone they were there to protest the local municipal government “so let’s talk about what this government can do.” He was asked what Cobourg’s government can do for unhoused members of the community.
“Nothing because that’s a County issue folks,” Cleveland said.
A woman responded, “you’re saying you’re doing everything you can for homeless. I hear this from Adam and then I hear from you there’s nothing you can do.”
“No, there’s lots we can do folks,” the mayor said.
The woman asked what’s going to happen to the streets and downtown Cobourg. “What do you mean what’s going to happen?” the mayor said. “There has been homeless…”
“What’s happening is you have people here that are saying they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel safe to walk in their own downtown. Most importantly how are we going to help these poor people. They do drugs because of what they’re facing. Where’s the humanity in this?” she said.
The mayor asked if drinking and driving is a sociably acceptable norm. “So when someone drinks and drives, what do we do? We shame them, we teach them, we say that’s illegal and we put them in jail for failing to follow the laws. Do we build extra highways for them to drive on highways so they can drive drunk or do we put personal responsibility on people to make a choice to stop drinking and driving?” Cleveland said.
He added that people deserve compassion and empathy, but reminded everyone that Cobourg has a $30 million budget while being expected to fund police and fire services, social services, other agencies and more.
“I also have a problem,” one woman said.
“Of course you do,” the mayor responded.
She said only one resident came forward suggesting the council remuneration raise. The mayor interrupted to say there’s been 15 separate presentations.
“We only heard about one,” she said, referring to the presentation by Lambert, which has been the only one early in this new term of council.
After asking the mayor let her finish her question, the woman said “one person came before council and said council needs a raise. What about the thousands of people who signed petitions for other things and they’re never heard?”
“They all were heard m’am. That’s why we have an insane tax rate this year. We said yes to everything that the community asked for.”
Another woman told Cleveland he was elected in October knowing what the remuneration rate was.
“And in October I also went around and told everyone that this is exactly what I would do,” the mayor said.
Cleveland was asked why there won’t be lifeguards at the beach this summer.
“What do you mean why…because the decision was to take them off the beach,” he said, before being asked who made that decision.
“Council did…there’s several reasons,” Cleveland responded.
During the budget deliberations, it should be noted, there was no debate among councillors on the issue of no money being allotted in the budget for beach lifeguards.
Cleveland added there’s opportunities to ask questions like that one as the office at Victoria Hall is open every day, he said. “I answer about 180 e-mails every single day. These questions can all be accessed, it’s all public knowledge.”
A woman said she thought they were there, using the mayor’s own words, to “have an honest conversation.”
“You guys are here to protest and I just wanted to show up and be available,” Cleveland said.
“No you wanted to show up and be an a—hole,” said one man.
“How am I being an a—hole, sir?”
“You’re definitely not a very receptive mayor, that’s for sure,” the man responded.
Cleveland explained his position on supporting the remuneration increase.
“The thing is, maybe you guys aren’t aware, there’s a proven history that what happens in politics, specifically to keep women and minorities out of politics, they keep the lowest and the lower entry bar, which is municipal politics at a below living wage. Why do they do that? Because you can’t enter provincial and federal politics unless you’re from a well-to-do family or you’ve cut your teeth at the lower levels. So what do they do? They intentionally keep the salaries below average, why is that? So that only rich, older, retired civil servants can run for the positions. This is not because I’m trying to line my pockets – I have a career in the oil and gas industry if I want. All of our councillors are successful business people – if it was a money thing, no one would be a councillor for money. No one’s the mayor for money, folks.”
That drew the ire of the protesters, again questioning his support for a raise early in the new term.
“Because it’s the right thing to do!” he exclaimed.
One older gentleman said he’s still working to survive.
“Great! And I appreciate that sir,” the mayor responded.
The man said the mayor raised his property taxes.
“I didn’t raise your property taxes,” Cleveland said. “The council did a spectacular job, the council voted to listen to the public.”
“You’re blowing it,” the man said.
“What do you mean I’m blowing it?”
“You’re blowing it,” the man repeated.
“I don’t believe I am sir and that’s my choice and unfortunately, this is the situation,” Mayor Cleveland said. “Your council voted 30 times against me because they listened to you guys. The councillors listened, your taxes are where they’re at because the council listened to the hundreds of e-mails that were sent in to pay $250,000 to your pickleball courts. The council listened to your ask to keep the pool open despite it being a terrible decision.”
Pickleball and skateboard park projects were debentured and added to the town’s long-term debt and are not included on this year’s tax levy. The cost for a dedicated pickleball court is $250,000 with the town responsible for $125,000 while the other half must be raised through community fundraising. The project will only move ahead once the community fundraising portion has been achieved.
The crowd started getting worked up again, questioning the mayor about transit. He asked if they knew it cost $1.5 million each year to provide the service.
The conversation shifted back to council raise, as one man asked what the justification is for a 43 per cent increase.
“It’s not 43 per cent, folks, let’s be very clear,” the mayor said, and was then asked to break it down.
“This year it’s $20,000 onto the tax levy. We were going to see $14,000 between seven people. We added $20,000 onto that to make a total of 34, again between seven people. Each councillor will see a $3,000 raise, the deputy mayor will see a $3,100 raise, I see 1,700. That’s the entirety of the raise this year, folks. Let’s call it what it is.”
When added to the CPI increase initially in the budget councillors would have received July 1, the total amounts to over $34,000 as the mayor noted Sunday. In 2023, the mayor’s salary is $22,706 from Jan. 1 to June 30 and increases to $27,603 from July 1 to Dec. 31 for a total of $50,309, up from $45,412 in 2022; the deputy mayor’s salary increase is $15,541 from Jan. 1 to June 30 and increases to $20,771 from July 1 to Dec. 31 for a total of $36,312, up from $31,082; and the five councillors will receive $64,915 ($12,983 each) from Jan. 1 to June 30 and increases to $89,330 ($17,866 each) from July 1 to Dec. 31 for a total of $154,245 ($30,849 each), up from $129,815 ($25,963 each).
To reach the new remuneration amounts, another $73,198 will need to be added to the budget in 2024 and an additional $36,601 in 2025.
One woman reiterated her concern for the tax rate increase and is concerned that if her landlord gets a 6.9 per cent increase, they will want to sell the property. What does the community need to do, she asked.
“We have to start saying no to services, so what services don’t we want?” Mayor Cleveland said. “That’s what we have to decide. I don’t think the transit is a luxury, I called transit a luxury to start this conversation. As a community we can’t keep affording everything we want. Our councillors listened to everything you guys wanted and we have an eight per cent tax rate because of it. The hard decisions are to say no folks. The hard decisions are to actually step out and say no and we need to start paying people to step into this position to start saying no to things. It’s easy to say yes – I love saying yes – I use the outdoor pool every single day in the summer with my six-year-old son. Every single day and I voted to keep it closed, not because I wanted to keep it closed. Because that’s the right decision.”
“I didn’t want to give us a raise in the first…” the mayor continued before getting cut off.
One man said he didn’t agree. “You can tell them whatever you want – it’s not the right decision to close the swimming pool.”
The mayor said the outdoor pool doesn’t meet an EDI (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion) requirements in 2024-2005, which will mean millions of dollars in upgrades.
“Do you guys know the boiler’s out this year? That’s right, the boiler doesn’t work so now we’re fixing a boiler for a pool that’s going to be decommissioned for one year of service – that’s $12,000-$13,000 a week the taxpayers are spending to keep that pool open. Now the councillors did the right thing – they listened to the community. You guys all wanted it open so they opened it. Is that the right decision? I don’t think so. I don’t think we can afford a $13,000 a week pool, but our councillors listened to the public and then the public’s upset they have an eight per cent tax rate. Well, that’s interesting.”
Centennial Pool was originally removed from the draft budget by staff after being challenged by council to find cost savings. At the budget review meeting, council approved a motion to reinstate the operation of the pool for the 2023 season which runs from late June to Labour Day at a total cost of $124,600.
Included in that cost was $105,600 for pool lifeguards, $10,000 for property improvements, $4,000 for material repairs and $5,000 for the new boiler to help heat the pool, which has been in operation since 1967.
Mayor Cleveland said he welcomes these conversations, which is why he showed up to the protest, why councillors Bureau and Burchat are there, and why he welcomed organizer Ryan Crossen to his office earlier in the week
“These are the conversations as a community we need to start having. You can’t have great service and no tax. We’re in the situation we’re in now from years of doing that…”
“But no one expects no tax, let’s be real” one person interjected. “But we don’t expect an eight per cent increase.”
“We’re in an inflationary period. Last year inflation, seven per cent, what was your tax increase? Two. The year before, what was inflation? Five. What was your tax increase? Zero. So right off the bat I’m 13 per cent behind,” the mayor said.
“I think you can appreciate we all know how inflation feels,” the woman responded. “We’re all dealing with that as a community and I would expect you too.”
The mayor pointed out there’s a 3.8 per cent raise each year to every unionized position in town. Salaries have increased for town employees by over a million dollars the past few years, one man noted as the mayor agreed.
“That’s based on the demand from the public for the services that the public want provided, folks. We don’t go hire people on a whim. We do it based on the recommendations from our constituents,” Cleveland said.
Some protesters walked out at different points while the mayor was speaking.
“I’m happy to have all of you into the office at any time. We can go over all of the spending – I want to have these conversations. Our councillors have done this because they want to make these difficult decisions. We’re trying to listen to the public, but it’s not black and white. Everything is not done is some isolation. Our councillors are out there listening to what these guys want and then when they vote for what you guys want, then other parts of the public come up against it and say we didn’t ask for that. No, but a lot of the public did.”
Cleveland was asked if there’s still a chance of tax rate increase being lowered.
“Sure, we can reject the budget,” the mayor said.
More questions were raised on transit, including the potential to increase hours.
“Again, we can do a greater bus service…are we ready for the million-dollar increase on our taxes?” the mayor asked.
Councillor Adam Bureau was asked how he’s going to vote tomorrow on the council raise. The man said another councillor responded to him in an e-mail that council hasn’t voted on the raise yet.
Mayor Cleveland said council still needs to vote on the budget as a whole.
As noted above in the story, the Council Remuneration By-Law is separate from the budget.
According to information provided by Town of Cobourg staff, during each year’s budget deliberations council does not need to vote on the approved council remuneration as the by-law is independent of the budget. Staff use the approved by-law to indicate each year’s rate in the budget sheets.
Staff note, though, that at any time during the current four-year term, council can bring a motion to the floor to amend the existing by-law.
In accordance with the new proposed Remuneration By-law, to be voted on Monday night, council salaries would remain at the final proposed increase, which will be reached in July of 2024, until such time as a new Remuneration By-law is proposed and approved.
The man said no councillor campaigned on increasing remuneration. The mayor responded that he did.
“So you’re just going to argue everything that the people here are saying right?” the man said.
Cleveland said the high percentage increases reported are false before a resident chimed in that the numbers are correct by the end of the phased-in period. Council members reach the full amount July 1, 2024, but due to that being halfway through the year, the full burden on the tax levy won’t be felt until 2025, the third year of council’s term.
“By the time the next council comes in, that raise will be in effect,” Cleveland said. “This is the financially responsible way of ensuring what needs to happen happens. How many times in the last third year when council raise is supposed to happen, has it happened? Can anyone say in the last 10 years cause I can – once in 10 years is when they’ve actually voted a raise in. That’s why council raises are so low because it’s political suicide to vote in a raise in your third year – that’s why they don’t do it.”
Councillor Aaron Burchat previously said during budget deliberations that he and Councillor Brian Darling were part of a council that unanimously supported a remuneration increase during the third year of its term and were re-elected.
On Sunday, Mayor Cleveland reiterated his position that this council remuneration which opens the door to more candidates running in the election.
“The right thing to do is to ensure women and minorities and people who are not rich retired civil servants can run for the position and still afford a lifestyle in this community. Maybe one of the reasons that our bylaws and our past governance and everything that has led us up to now is the way it is, is because the only people who can afford to be a mayor or a councillor is a successful business person or rich person or retired civil servant. Maybe if we had some more well-rounded opinions moving into the future of women, young family members, people from single families or minorities on council, perhaps then we would actually have better decisions from a more multicultural well-rounded council.”
One person pointed out that all current councillors have one or two other jobs and still managed to run in the election.
“That’s right because the only people that can afford to run are business people, are wealthy people…” the mayor said.
A woman asked Cleveland if the large tax hike will lead to more homelessness and more of housing crisis in this community and if he believes so is he will to vote against it and go back to budget process.
“I don’t believe it’s this year to make that decision,” the mayor said. “We as a council haven’t had a chance to do our strategic plan. The honest truth is we should be at about a 15 to 20 per cent tax increase to catch up to where we’re behind. The fact is at eight per cent we’re still not even catching up to the last four years where we should be based on inflation.
“We need a bigger tax raise. The fact that the council is only keeping it to this is actually a testament to the council to saying no to things that we are now being lambasted on, like the lifeguards, like this, like that. At eight per cent, I think we should be around 15. Do I want to be? No, but would at least catch us up to where we should be. We don’t have enough reserves and we need to start thinking about the next 10 to 15 years of this town, not the next six months. I’ve always said folks that if I do the job I’m supposed to do in these four years I’ll be un-electable. That’s because these decisions are not easy ones.”
Mayor Cleveland reiterated the tax hike is because of councillors listening to the wants of the community.
“We didn’t get any e-mails saying keep our taxes low. We didn’t get any e-mails saying ‘hey we want less services.’ All we got were hundreds and hundreds of e-mails of ‘I want this, I want that, I want this, I want that, more of this, more of that, more of this, hire more of this, hire more of that’ so is it any surprise that we came in with a five per cent council budget and we left with an eight per cent? Well of course not. I’m actually proud of the council because I think they showed restraint compared to what they were being asked to add back on.”
Asked his thoughts following the protest about how it went, organizer Ryan Crossen said “it’s just raising awareness of the taxes and uniting taxpayers on a common ground, just to get more involvement and questioning the council members.”
After taking time to field the questions and comments, Mayor Cleveland did have to leave and the crowd quickly dispersed.
Councillor Bureau said it was important to attend the protest.
“I heard the protest was happening and I wanted to come out and listen to what they had to say because everybody has a voice and I’m glad that people did come together and wanted to share their opinions. I’m glad I was there to help answer some of their questions,” he said.