Sarnia's tax base is expected to see an all-time low level of growth in 2015.
City officials are projecting only $120,320 of new tax revenue – or a 0.2% increase in real assessment growth – next year.
“This comes as a surprise to me because the real estate numbers and the building numbers have been good,” Coun. Anne Marie Gillis said during a special council meeting held Monday.
While new residential taxpayers have come on board, the city's finance director Brian McKay said the growth of new commercial and industrial taxpayers has been slow.
But the solution isn't just a large industrial plant coming to town, he noted.
“I don't believe that myself,” he said. “If you get [a large plant], that's wonderful. What you need is several smaller industrial businesses to see real assessment growth.”
The city typically likes to see more than a 1% increase to its tax base, McKay noted. But until the recent 2015 projections, the lowest increase had been 0.5%.
City officials are proposing a 5.97% tax hike – or $50 for every $100,000 of residential assessment – to maintain the current level of services and programs. While much of that increase is attributed to rising staff salaries, benefits and insurance premiums, McKay said city departments haven't even factored in inflation to the cost of their materials to keep their budgets low.
At the same time, city councillors heard Monday about the growing demand for road repairs, as well as the addition of new sidewalks and bike lanes.
In the last two years, public works staff have focused on arterial and collector roads rather than local roads due to budget limitations.
But they are proposing the city spend an additional $500,000 next year to handle the deteriorating condition of local roadways.
Stretches of Waterworks Road, Confederation Line, Vidal Street, Plank Road and Blackwell Side Road have all been flagged for work.
“They're all gateways to our community, they're used in different ways and they're in need of immediate work,” city construction manager Robert Williams said in his presentation to council Monday.
About 100 kilometres of city roads all together have been flagged as in need of immediate work, according to an updated 2015 roads study.
In the last decade, the city has completed 85 kilometres of road work to the tune of $12.4 million.
A total of $1 million – enough to repair roughly six kilometres of a two-lane road – has been budgeted for road work in 2015.
“We're never going to catch up at $1 million a year,” Coun. Bev MacDougall pointed out.
But councillors did hear some good news in terms of the long-awaited expansion of city bike lanes.
The province recently announced the Ontario Municipal Cycling Infrastructure Program. It will fund up to 50% of a project completed by March 31, 2017.
“The Ontario government is recognizing (cycling) is an important mode of transportation for a lot of people,” city development manager Mike Berkvens said Monday.
Earlier this year, city council approved a transportation master plan outlining ways to make Sarnia a more accessible city for walkers, cyclists and bus riders.
Consultants have estimated the city would need to spend $350,000 annually for 20 years and $160,000 annually for 10 years to improve the city's sidewalks and cycling routes respectively.
But neither of those funding commitments have been included in the 2015 draft budget.
City council will hear public input on the draft budget at its meeting next Monday. Budget deliberations have been set for Dec. 9.