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Tweaks made, Woolwich approves 2015 budget

At times visibly frustrated by the process, council this week approved Woolwich’s 2015 budget, which maintains an operating budget tax increase of zero and a 1.6 per cent levy for infrastructure projects.

Overall, spending for the township’s operations rises to $14.7 million, up 6.3 per cent over the $13.8 million budgeted in 2014, well beyond the inflationary two per cent tax hike originally sought in staff’s first draft of the budget.

Having opted for a target of zero, councillors expecting a two per cent cut in spending found instead staff offering up a combination of minor cuts, spending deferrals, and optimism that some revenues would be higher than originally forecasted. Taken together with the poaching of assessment growth money, the measures provide room for the freeze on tax hikes council demanded.

The convoluted shuffling wasn’t lost on some councillors, who expressed frustration that the budget process fails to properly service the public.

“I was expecting to see some real cutting, and I’m not really seeing that here,” said Coun. Patrick Merlihan, who argued surplus money should be used for infrastructure projects, not simply funnelled into the operating budget. “That’s not a cut in my books.”

That sentiment was echoed by Coun. Larry Shantz, who was also expecting a two per cent cut in spending – “I don’t see that here.”

Instead, the revised budget presented by staff sees a one per cent cut, though not really cutbacks, and a one per cent reworking of revenue forecasts, what he called “found money.”

Shantz reacted with scepticism, pointing to the disingenuous nature of the figures.

“I was surprised to see that we just found money,” added Coun. Scott Hahn.

A discussion about sending the budget back for real cuts to spending ultimately led nowhere, however. Staff immediately countered with suggestions cuts would have to come from frontline services, including capital spending and maintenance projects.

Asked if the cost-saving measures considered by managers had included a look at high staffing numbers and costs, chief administrative officer David Brenneman said the idea was dismissed pending another push for a service level review and subsequent organizational evaluation.

That idea was rejected by Merlihan, however, who stressed that staffing costs amount to half the operating budget, yet councillors were not provided with any information, even details they’d requested.

“It is a large area of the budget that this council hasn’t had an opportunity to look at,” he said. “We’re blind during this budget process.”

Raising Coun. Murray Martin’s earlier suggestion about a hiring freeze as part of the budget trade-off, Merlihan found only some waffling on both sides of the table. Mayor Sandy Shantz was quick to dismiss any talk of more cuts or discussion of staffing costs.

Merlihan noted that the budget process has to change. When looking to set a budget that serves the public, “that discussion needs to take place at some point,” he said of staff costs.

The township can’t count on “magic money” being found every year, he added.

“Magic money is fantastic, but they’re not cuts. I am disappointed with how this all broke down, with magic money coming to save the day.

“This process has to change next year.”

Coun. Shantz also voiced his frustrations with the process, arguing that councillors need more information to do their job of keeping an eye on the ever-increasing spending in the budget. He also called on staff to do a better job of justifying increases.

In future discussions, he said, council needs better numbers showing the upward trend in spending, which increases far more each year than inflation and the inflationary tax increases recommended by staff as a starting point.

All of the manoeuvring, including loading up surplus dollars into the mix, allowed for the repaving of Benjamin Road to remain in the works for 2015. Staff had suggested doing the project over two years in order to avoid having to borrow to pay for the project, but the “magic money” came into play there, too.

Director of engineering and planning Dan Kennaley noted that the tender for repairing the Floradale Road bridge came in $175,000 less than budgeted, so that money could be applied to Benjamin Road. That work is expected to cost $725,000 (plus $117,000 for wider cycling lanes), with staff recommending the full amount be borrowed. Councillors kyboshed that idea early on in the debate.

At least some of the money to be raised by this year’s 1.6 per cent tax surcharge for infrastructure will be channelled towards the project.

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