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Woolwich council shifts tax target to a 2% increase

Saying that Woolwich residents have had enough of unsustainable tax increases, Coun. Bonnie Bryant this week led a charge that would see the 2013 tax hike limited to 2 per cent, down from the 4.3 per cent proposed last month.

Instead of a 1.8 per cent general tax increase and a 2.5 per cent special levy for infrastructure, those numbers are now set at 1.5 and 0.5 respectively.

“They are finding it very difficult to keep up with tax increases. They’ve reached the breaking point,” said Bryant, relaying the comments she’s heard from the public.

Her proposal at Tuesday night’s council meeting was treated dismissively by Mayor Todd Cowan, but quickly found support from councillors Julie-Anne Herteis and Allan Poffenroth, allowing for Bryant’s motion to pass. Coun. Mark Bauman said he was “not prepared to give in on 2.5 per cent” as the amount for the special levy earmarked for repairs and upgrades to roads, bridges and water pipes.

Councillors were unanimous, however, in voting to freeze their own wages for 2013, with most arguing in favour of similar measures for township staff.

For chief administrative officer David Brenneman, the prospect of a wage freeze presents a dilemma heading into negotiations with unionized workers. In maintaining that position, he said, the township would almost certainly be taken to arbitration by the Canadian Union of Public Employees. That would likely result in a settlement akin to Wellesley Township’s recent three-year deal offering outside workers increases of 1.5, 1.5 and 1.75 per cent over the term of the agreement.

Picking up on Poffenroth’s suggestion of an overall increase of zero, Bauman suggested a wage cap similar to a sports team, whereby the size of the pie would be capped, with the individual slices divvied up to remain within the budget, perhaps through less overtime or reduced hours of work. That would also require a freeze on hiring.

Poffenroth also suggested the township look at eliminating “redundant” positions, those that provide no benefit to the public, as part of an effort to reduce overall spending.

The debate was music to the ears of Breslau resident Peter Durksen, who earlier had made a presentation to council calling for measures to reel-in out-of-control spending and tax increases.

Retired and living on a pension, he noted that over the last three years his income has increased an average of 1.48 per cent, less than the average inflation rate of 1.75 to 2 per cent and well below the average tax increase of 5.78 per cent.

“Thus my property taxes have increased almost four times as much as my income, and about three times as much as the rate of inflation,” he said.

Durksen added he’s not alone in his evaluation of the property tax situation, presenting a petition signed by 21 of his neighbours and calling on council to hold tax increases to the rate of inflation at most, to tell staff cost overruns are unacceptable, and to reduce the overall percentage of revenues spent on wages and benefits.

In making his case, Durksen said he’s aware that the Woolwich portion of tax bills amounts to 23 per cent, while 56 per cent goes to Waterloo Region and 21 per cent to the school boards. Other items such as rising assessment rates and arbitrated wage settlements are also outside of township control.

“Still, our concern is about the bottom line – the final tax bill.”

Attempting to counter Durksen’s points, Cowan dismissed the percentages, saying the average tax increase last year amounted to $40.

“I’m sure your pension went up more than $40.”

Cowan’s remark, however, failed to take into consideration the compounding effect of large year-over-year increases, with Durksen noting his taxes rose to $4,435 this year, from $3,747 in 2009. He also noted the dollar figures quoted by the township apply to a regional average ($254,000) that falls well below the assessed value of most homes in the township, meaning the actual increases are much larger.

 

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