Positioning the township for growth trumps austerity, says Woolwich’s mayor. “If we want to be a township that’s moving forward, then let’s move forward,” said Todd Cowan, following an introductory budget meeting Tuesday night that includes no significant cuts, plans for a tax hike and perhaps a new tax levy to help fund infrastructure projects.
The mayor also skirted around wage freezes for government staff, as called for by Premier Dalton McGuinty, saying upcoming union negotiations will be handled by chief administrative officer David Brenneman – “we as council don’t want to micromanage that issue.”
Given new development, forecasted population growth and public demand for programs and facilities, now is not the time to make cuts that would reduce service levels, he argued.
New development in Elmira, St. Jacobs and Breslau will require more time from planning and engineering staff up front – the department is planning to hire another employee as well as draw on more outside consultants – and ultimately create a greater demand for services.
While there are no cuts and tax relief in the works, Cowan said the township is making better use of tax dollars than was the case previously.
“People weren’t feeling they were getting value for the dollar. I think they’re starting to get value now with things running more efficiently.”
On top of growth, the township also faces rising costs of its own, he added, noting new provincial regulations continually add to expenses without any corresponding money. Many of the costs come with no benefit to taxpayers, who foot the bill nonetheless.
The province is essentially downloading by another name, Brenneman told councillors meeting Jan. 10 to discuss department business plans, a prelude to 2012 budget deliberations. That includes such things as excessive water monitoring, fire department guidelines and paperwork and accessibility legislation
The same more-cost-for-no-benefit scenario applies to the fire department, where the township is “spending more and more money” with little in return, Cowan said Tuesday night.
For township fire chief Rick Pedersen, a long list of new regulations have created more paperwork and higher costs. Over the years, he explained, the department has taken on responsibility for mandatory emergency planning measures, for instance. Increased communication requirements and new standards for training – more of it, more often – have also driven up costs. New standards for fire trucks have meant higher prices when replacing vehicles, and on and on it goes.
With so many pressures, including mandatory costs, there’s no way to make real cuts to the budget without service reductions, said Cowan, noting residents are looking for more, not less.
In pre-budget consultations, he heard calls for a skateboard park in Elmira, upgrades to the township website to make it more user friendly, support for an accessible playground – the Kate’s Kause project – but not much call for cuts beyond reining in spending at the Woolwich Memorial Centre: “We have to keep on target with our costs.”
A business plan tabled this week by Karen Makela, the township’s new director of recreation and facilities, includes a reduction in staffing and work hours at the WMC. Overall, however, forecasts are for greater spending on wages and salaries across most departments. Cowan said he has no plans to push for cutbacks or freezes in the single-largest expense item in the operating budget.
“We feel we’re doing what we were elected to do: we’re delivering change and growth.”