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Free youth transit and town lobbyist among new spending in budget proposal


A proposal to add about $1 million to the town’s budget to pay for eight months of free transit for young people and seniors will be up for debate at the Monday, Feb. 27 meeting of town council.

The initiative would offer free Oakville transit rides to anyone younger than 19 or older than 64.

Proposed to begin in May, the free rides would cost $1.09 million for the remainder of 2023. Ongoing full-year costs would be a third higher in 2024 and beyond.

Championed by Mayor Rob Burton against the recommendation of town transit staff, the idea narrowly survived budget committee deliberations – passing on a 3 to 2 vote.

Burton and councillors Tom Adams and Allan Elgar voted to add it to the budget, while councillors Sean O'Meara and Janet Haslett-Theall voted against it.

Burton argued the move would get more people on buses as a climate change mitigation measure.

But Haslett-Theall and O'Meara supported the request by Oakville Transit director Adrian Kawun to gather additional data before implementing any new programs.

"As a town, we have invested multiple millions of dollars in the future of transit and in electrification of transit, and I understand we’re frustrated that less people are getting on the bus," said Haslett-Theall.

"But we don’t need a right-now pilot, or a right-now give it free. What we need is a thoughtful, comprehensive plan from our transit director and his staff, with all the expertise he can garner, so that we make a decision that doesn’t have long-term levy impacts for our residents, that truly sets our transit system up for future success and enables us to make an informed decision."

A final ruling on the free bus proposal will come Monday when all 15 members of town council consider the budget committee’s recommended spending plan for 2023.

As it stands, the budget would hike the town’s share of property taxes by 6.1 per cent. When combined with regional and education taxes, overall residential property taxes would rise by 3.8 per cent.

Homeowners will pay an extra $27.82 per $100,000 in assessment this year, if it is approved.

New spending

The free transit initiative is the biggest project among about $2 million in new spending that the committee added to the budget on its final day of deliberations.

Its spending spree included more than a dozen items ranging from new winter park washrooms to free menstrual products to money for the Santa Claus parade.

It will delay the return of permit fees for patios, spend money to remind you not to dump your household garbage in park trash cans, and put an extra $500,000 toward active transportation and traffic calming initiatives.

The committee even agreed to spend $84,000 to install lights in Holton Heights park in response to an email request from a nearby resident.

Despite that, Haslett-Theall, who served as this year’s budget chair, said the 3.8 per cent tax increase offers "a little breathing room."

"I’m less about the number (tax increase) and more about the services that we’ve been able to maintain," she said.

"I think that it’s tremendously important that we be conservative this year. Bill 23 is an unknown; we’ve been told that repeatedly."

Lobbyist to work in the mayor’s office

The mayor has proposed a new "intergovernmental affairs" staff member to join the five employees currently working in the Office of the Mayor and Council.

Burton said the new staffer would assist with "federal and provincial advocacy efforts" and help the mayor grow his leadership roles within the Ontario Auto Mayors and Ontario Big City Mayors groups.

As with the other five staff members in the department, the new employee would report directly to the mayor through his chief of staff, Jorge Gomez.

"Basically, we need a senior person with an established network within Queen’s Park who can reduce the opportunities for council to be annoyed at being taken by surprise by initiatives from the province," said Burton.

Elgar questioned whether the duties of existing staff could be reorganized or whether the role might be funded regionally, in conjunction with the other Halton municipalities.

He noted that a previous attempt at hiring for such a role ended with the town having to pay to register the staff member as a lobbyist.

"I remember (former Oakville MPP) Kevin Flynn saying at the time, ‘Why didn’t you just come and talk to me?’" said Elgar.

But adding the new hire, at a cost of $73,000 for the remainder of 2023, earned the committee's support.

"There’s probably no single bigger issue that the town is facing – and the region is facing for that matter – than the issue of working with our other levels of government," said Adams.

"Making sure that work is being understood and pre-emptively dealing with issues before they land in our laps on a Friday afternoon at 4 o'clock, so to speak, I think is really important."