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Woolwich eyes 2.1% tax increase as 2016 budget process gets rolling

A 2.1 per cent tax increase is the starting point as Woolwich council prepares for its 2016 budget deliberations. The township also expects to hit up taxpayers for another 1.5 per cent to fund infrastructure projects.

Together, that would add some $30 to the property tax bill of an average township home assessed at $331,500.

In 2015, Woolwich reduced spending and used a windfall to hold the general tax increase to zero, with a 1.6 per cent levy for infrastructure projects.

The 2.1 per cent target for next year represents the projected inflation rate.

Unlike the rapid growth of the past decade, Woolwich expects assessment growth to be at its lowest level in years at 1.25 per cent, bringing in an additional $111,400 in 2016. That compares to 2.5 per cent this year, creating revenues of $214,000.

In contrast to past years, however, budget talks may actually look at the township’s largest single expense: payroll costs.

Meeting September 15, councillors discussed a staffing level report that shows the number of full-time township of employees increased by 30 per cent over the last 10 years, to 65 from 50. The addition of five contract positions contributed to millions of dollars in new payroll costs, which eat up half of Woolwich’s operating budget of some $14 million.

The direction was welcomed by Coun. Patrick Merlihan, whose push for a staffing review was rebuffed during last year’s budget deliberations

“It’s half the budget and we weren’t talking about it,” he said, noting such costs are the only place to find money to fund other priorities such as the often-cited infrastructure deficit.

“If we’re serious about the infrastructure deficit … we have to look at the biggest budget item.”

Director of engineering and planning Dan Kennaley noted the township will need considerably more money – the equivalent of a 4.3 per cent tax increase annually for 15 years – to catch up on infrastructure work such as road paving and bridge repairs.

While that’s not feasible, he said, the township is hopeful additional funding will come from the federal and provincial governments to help tackle the deficit.

Looking down the road, Merlihan said council needs to set priorities for revenue from future assessment growth, which provides short-term cash infusions that could be set aside for the future expenses that come with each new home.

Staff costs are also a place to find savings that can translate into real dollars for more pressing needs.

For Coun. Larry Shantz, figures showing staffing expenses on a per capita basis are up 44 per cent over the last 10 years is something of a red flag. As a way of constraining ever-growing costs, he suggested cost of living adjustments be based on a dollar figure rather than a percentage increase. That would make a bigger difference to those at the lower end of the scale, while preventing a widening gap between the bottom and top, he said.

With salaries, there’s no need for a cost of living adjustment to apply across the board, perhaps only to those on the lower end of the pay scale rather than those at the higher end, chipped in Coun. Scott Hahn.

While staff are now preparing next year’s budget, the real council deliberations and public input will begin in mid-January.

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