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Councillors whittle down spending, tax increase to fall to 2.88%

Woolwich residents will see a 2.88 per cent tax hike this year – a general 1.33 per cent increase, and 1.5 for a special infrastructure levy – as councillors tweaked the numbers at the final budget session Jan. 28.

That would add $19.67 a year to the township portion of the tax levied on a home assessed at a value of $302,000, the region’s household average. Total operating expenses have been pegged at around $15 million, while the township plans for capital spending approaching $13 million.

Dropping some unneeded spending, particularly $68,000 for a communications staffer, allowed councillors to fit in some unbudgeted items and still reduce the overall tax hit from a forecasted 3.6 per cent. They found $15,000 for traffic-calming measures, for instance, and $20,000 each for a sump pump replacement program (working with homeowners in cases where sump pumps are discharging water onto roadways, creating erosion concerns, icing up sidewalks, and the like) and a new directional signage effort in the township. Having appointed a heritage committee, the work of many years, council was able to dig up the $4,000 needed to let the group get going.

While most of the budget items passed without scrutiny, some councillors worked to get the additional items in, subtracting others with the goal of focusing on the public rather than internal administration. As with previous special budget meetings, last week’s council session saw heightened sensitivity to more than $60 million in infrastructure needs, a long-term view.

Looking to control tax increases, Coun. Larry Shantz suggested putting the infrastructure levy on hold, but that found no support from his colleagues.

“We can never, never put enough money into infrastructure,” countered Coun. Murray Martin.

Councillors instead looked to drop the general tax rate, which had been set at 2.1 per cent based on a forecasted inflation rate.

“We have to be frugal,” Shantz argued. “I feel we need to spend money within our means.”

Others, including councillors Mark Bauman and Patrick Merlihan questioned staffing costs, particularly the need for a communications co-ordinator, a similar position having been eliminated last summer. Removing that item alone was enough to cover items that staff had left out of the budget.

At first reluctant to add staffing hours at the Breslau Community Centre – 25 hours a week at $18 per hour – councillors were convinced of the necessity given that the building is often unstaffed during the day. With an increase in expected revenues and other cuts, that expense was also squeezed in while reducing the target tax rate.

For Merlihan the discussion was a first step in the right direction. The budget process should focus more on the residents, he argued, noting that many people have seen their taxes double in the past decade without a commensurate increase in benefits.

The Ward 1 councillor also pressed for a “more fulsome discussion” about assessment growth and the resultant increases in revenue, arguing that existing residents should see an upside to the growth that comes with negatives and long-term liabilities for the township.

The township is aiming to finalize the 2016 budget on Feb. 9.

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