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Woolwich ponders better use of growth revenue

Expecting another building boom over the next few years, Woolwich will also see a large increase in revenue due to assessment growth. In the midst of budget deliberations and talk of a growing infrastructure deficit, councillors have to focus on where that extra money will go.

The township is expecting new assessment growth – primarily through residential development – of about two per cent this year. That amounts to about $180,000 in additional funds – as with tax increases, each percentage point in such growth represents approximately $89,000. That’s much lower than in previous boom years, where growth was double and triple that rate.

Money from the former financial windfalls was channelled into Woolwich’s building blitz of new facilities, including the Woolwich Memorial Centre. Much of it was rolled into annual budgets, supporting large increase in staff numbers, salaries and benefits.

With another slate of building on the horizon – two large subdivisions in Breslau, and big projects in Elmira, for instance – councillors have an eye on the township’s infrastructure needs, which amount to more than $60 million.

“We’re on the cusp of what could be unprecedented growth in Woolwich,” director of engineering and planning Dan Kennaley told councillors gathered at a special budget meeting on Jan. 21.

Referencing past building booms, he said the township saw a peak of some 200 new units per year. That number could be exceeded with the next growth spurt.

While the building section of his department is expected to see lower revenues this year, things should start to pick up in the following years, Kennaley said. Where 2016 will see it draw on a reserve fund designed to balance out the ups and downs in revenue, surpluses should be forthcoming.

That discussion turned to assessment growth and past practices of setting little aside during good times for future infrastructure needs.

Noting he has spent 15 years on council, Coun. Mark Bauman took some of the blame for past failures to address infrastructure needs.

“Our infrastructure is crumbling,” he pointed out. “At some point, we won’t be able to afford the roads we drive on.”

In that light, Coun. Larry Shantz’s suggestion the township look at skipping a special 1.5 per cent infrastructure levy found no takers among his colleagues.

“We’re really increasing 4.1 per cent this year,” he said of tax increases this year, factoring in assessment growth of two per cent and a proposed rate increase of 2.1 per cent. The special levy would be on top of that.

Shantz argued in favour of controlling tax increases – “I don’t want to go over the 2.1, for sure.”

Coun. Patrick Merlihan, however, suggested it would be premature to abandon the special levy given the infrastructure deficit.

“As much as I’d like to give everybody a tax holiday …”

In looking for ways to control the budget and have money for needed infrastructure, staffing  costs are the go-to place for finding real savings, he argued, as those amount to “year-over-year costs.” A change of course is necessary.

“I really want our budget to focus on being a real benefit to our residents as a priority. I’m not seeing that.”

Director of finance Richard Petherick noted that, with the special levy in place, the township can expect to put about $552,000 into its infrastructure reserve fund.

As well, he told council the township can expect another $38,000 in dividends from its stake in Waterloo North Hydro this year, the equivalent of 0.43 tax increase.

Councillors meet again Thursday night for the last of three special budget meetings, looking at more figures in Kennaley’s department budget and the capital spending plans for 2016.

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