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Worry about legal fees sees Woolwich defer planning budget

It was a case of once bitten, twice shy as Woolwich councillors turned down an engineering and planning budget with too little money set aside for legal expenses.

With legal costs having been well over budget last year, councillors are not prepared to take any chances this time around.

Driven largely by gravel pit battles at the Ontario Municipal Board, Woolwich spent more than $361,000 on legal fees in 2012, far more than the $25,000 in the engineering and planning services budget.

While the extra expenses were covered from supplementary revenue, including unexpected money from Waterloo North, last week’s budget discussion was an “I told you so” moment for Coun. Mark Bauman, who last year warned the money set aside for legal fees was inadequate.

In this year’s budget, that line item was bumped to $110,000, with staff admitting that number, too, is likely just a placeholder.

“That placeholder fell well short,” said Bauman of last year’s budget, noting the township had to rely on unanticipated revenue to cover the difference.

“Our windfall went to lawyers,” he lamented.

Bauman pushed for a doubling of the $110,000 – “the placeholder … is not a fair picture of where we’re going in the next year” – saying he couldn’t support the department budget in the form presented.

“I want to see a realistic number there.”

Director of engineering and planning Dan Kennaley argued the placeholder was adequate, adding there are issues with putting too much money aside and then not having to use it. Finding the money would mean taking it from elsewhere or increasing taxes, even if the anticipated legal challenges – more aggregate-related OMB hearings – don’t come to pass.

That failed to sway Bauman, however: “Next year I hope you can look across the table and say ‘I told you so,’” he said to Kennaley.

On the topic of finding more money for legal costs, Coun. Julie-Anne Herteis suggested the funds be found within the current budget, perhaps by freezing wages or lowering salaries and benefits. Having employees pay more for their benefits would save the township some money, for instance.

Mayor Todd Cowan immediately dismissed that idea, while chief administrative officer David Brenneman warned that wage freezes and salary adjustments could put Woolwich at a disadvantage in comparison to other municipalities. That, in turn, could lead to a higher turnover in staff and difficulty in hiring others.

Brenneman pointed to contingency reserves – rainy day funds – as the logical place to find money if expenses are higher than budgeted for.

Council remained unconvinced, with Herteis and Coun. Allan Poffenroth siding with Bauman’s call for a deferral pending the inclusion of a “more realistic” number in the budget.

Cowan, who didn’t vote as he was chairing the meeting, was dismissive of Bauman’s motion, saying councillors have had the budget numbers for weeks and could have brought up the issue earlier.

“We’re talking about the budget tonight,” Bauman reminded him.

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