Downtown work gets go-ahead as tax rebate program spiked
The last phase of downtown reconstruction has received the green light at the same time Belleville city council has decided to end tax rebates for some building owners.
City council approved the only tender received for the final phase of the work, set to begin this summer and carry over through next year, at its meeting Monday night at City Hall.
Len Corcoran Excavating Ltd. was approved to do to the work at a cost to the city of about $12 million, comfortably under the $13.1 million the city had estimated for the work.
It didn’t stop some contention about the project though.
As they have several times, Coun. Mitch Panciuk and Mayor Taso Christopher squared off, with Panciuk saying the price tag is way over budget and Christopher arguing Panciuk doesn’t understand how the process works.
Panciuk said at a total of almost $35 million, the project is 66 per cent higher than taxpayers were told it would be when the Build Belleville project was introduced in 2011.
He said he started asking questions about the project when he got on council and was never given options or alternatives other than moving forward.
“I don’t want to sound like a broken record,” he said. “But at $14 million over, that is 66.6 per cent over budget. I can’t support that.
“It is inexcusable for this to be two-thirds over budget. And claims that other projects are under budget, it doesn’t make up the difference for this.”
Christopher said Panciuk is confusing estimates put forward by staff with budgets set by council. He said council had the option at any time to defeat the project, but didn’t.
Christopher noted that one of the challenges facing Belleville, and one reason so few companies bid on the downtown project, is because of the massive amount of work being done in Toronto these days
“The companies doing those jobs – triple figure million dollar jobs – can’t find people to work there,” he said. “I have had them say to me, ‘If we had the manpower and time we would be interested in what you are doing.’
“The reality is there is a big animal to the west of us called the City of Toronto and it is eating up everyone who can do these jobs.”
When Build Belleville was announced in 2011, staff estimated the entire project would cost $21 million. In 2014, when the project was first put out to tender, council received only two bids – one for $25 million and one for $34 million.
In an effort to attract more bidders and a lower price tag, council broke the project into three phases. The first was completed in 2015 at about $9 million and the second last year at about $12 million.
The third phase will being with repairs along Bridge Street starting in July. Next spring the remaining work, south on Front and including Market Street and Macannany Street, will begin with an expected completion in late 2018.
Panciuk, Coun. Kelly McCaw and Coun. Paul Carr voted against the contract.
While council was approving spending more money downtown, it also moved to collect some money from downtown building owners who have been getting a break on their taxes while their buildings have remained empty.
Council voted to start the process to end its Vacancy Unit Rebate Program, which provides rebates on the property taxes on vacant commercial and industrial space.
A program provides a rebate of 30 per cent for vacant commercial space and 35 per cent for vacant industrial space. Over the last three years that has amounted to more than $300,00 each year.
Coun. Egerton Boyce noted that that money is paid for on the back of residential property owners and leaves property owners less incentive to do the work necessary to attract tenants.
City Treasurer Brian Cousins noted the program has been mandated by the province since 1998 under the Municipal Act. However, under changes by the province, the city can repeal the program, keep it going, or phase it out over time, however council sees fit.
Coun. Paul Carr suggested council repeal the program as soon as possible as a signal that that way of doing business – letting problems fester and grow – has come to an end.
“I think it has to be all or nothing,” he said. “We certain have an ongoing issue with vacancies, particularly in the downtown. Fix it, lease it or sell it – that’s the message we have to send.
“The city has certainly invested. We have said we are open for business. The BDIA has said it is ready to move forward and make progress. This is another step in that progress.”
Council voted overwhelmingly in favour of asking staff to start the process of repealing the program. As part of the legislation outlining that, a public meeting will be held to get public feedback.
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