Woolwich residents will see no general tax increase this year, as council this week rolled back an expected two per cent tax hike, calling instead for expenditures to be reduced by that amount.
A special levy of 1.6 per cent to fund future infrastructure projects will stand, however.
Advocating for the public, councillors stuck to their goal despite resistance from staff, voting to can or put off a variety of spending requests.
Councillors also balked at adding any new debt, altering a capital works budget that included $725,000 (plus $117,000 for wider cycling lanes) for repaving a portion of Benjamin Road.
Tuesday night’s debate made for an unusually lively budget meeting that got testy at times, mostly from staff not accustomed to councillors challenging them to justify spending plans.
That was in full view as reservations about a number of studies, expressed at previous meetings, came to a head, notably over a proposed review of township services – a study of what could be added, reduced or done better, for instance.
Chief administrative officer David Brenneman made a pitch to spend $60,000 for the services review, but failed to convince anyone but Coun. Mark Bauman that it would serve any purpose.
He argued that growth – 28 per cent growth in the last decade, 18 per cent in the last five years alone – meant changing expectations about services, especially from those new to the township. While established residents want to stick with the status quo or see cuts, new residents want new and expanded services, he said.
Pressed for examples of new services that are being demanded, Brenneman pointed to greater bylaw enforcement, more tickets for parking issues in downtown Elmira and faster response to complaints about potholes and the like.
Coun. Patrick Merlihan countered that he hadn’t heard from anyone wanting new services, and certainly not the kind involving more enforcement.
“Going out and issuing more parking tickets is not the Elmira I want to live in,” he said.
Coun. Larry Shantz added that the only calls he’s getting from the public are questions about why the township has to keep increasing its spending. Nobody is asking for more, he said.
Noting that Brenneman spoke of the possibility a study would suggest dropping or reducing some services, Coun. Murray Martin asked if he could provide an example where that might happen.
“Not off the top of my head,” Brenneman admitted.
Continuing in that vein, Merlihan said he shares the public perception that the review would serve only to bolster future requests for more spending and an increase in staff levels.
“That’s what the report is going to lead to. It will be justification next for new staff,” he said.
Picking up that thread, Martin raised the issue of a review of the township’s payroll, suggesting a hiring freeze, which drew support from other councillors but was not immediately pursued. Expect the issue to be raised again, however.
“I think we need a review of staff levels,” said Martin.
Ironically, Brenneman had suggested an organization study for next year, following the services review. Councillors, however, already appear reluctant to take on more studies and consultants.
This year, there are three larger studies already underway: the Breslau secondary plan ($90,000), a fire master plan update ($20,000), and a water/sewer rate study ($20,000). Under provincial legislation, the township is obliged to carry out a study of its bridges this year, at a cost of $55,000.
This week, council approved a roads need study to update a 2009 inventory ($49,000) and a planning review of the stockyards area south of St. Jacobs ($97,800).
Council was not sold on the service delivery review ($60,000) or recreation master plan ($60,000),
While director of engineering and planning Dan Kennaley had a much easier time with his study proposals, council opted to put off a public works facilities review and its $50,000 price tag. That study would look at expanding or moving the existing works yard on Union Street in Elmira, perhaps closing the yard in Conestogo, and the possible construction of another yard in Breslau to service the growing population base in the south end of the township.