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Woolwich now eyeing 3.13% tax hike

Trimming a few dollars at the fringe of their 2017 budget, Woolwich councillors got this year’s proposed tax hike down to 3.13 per cent – a 1.63 per cent hit to the general levy and 1.5 per cent for a special infrastructure fund.

The tweaks made at a special council meeting Jan. 26 cut some $35,000 from the budget, dropping the tax hike from the previous target of 3.55 per cent. Some additional changes made Jan. 31 dropped the number to the new target.

Among the spending cuts was $10,000 in part-time wages at the WMC swimming pool (lower turnouts for Sunday public swims require fewer lifeguards), $10,000 for signage and $5,000 in reduced springtime turf maintenance.

Council also dropped $5,000 from a proposed sump pump program, agreeing after some debate that developing a policy means it might be next year before spending ramps up. The idea is to deal with problematic cases where homeowners’ sump pumps discharge water onto sidewalks or roadways, creating a hazard during the winter or adding to the inflow-and-infiltration problem of storm water getting into the sanitary sewer system.

Director of engineering and planning Dan Kennaley noted it would take some time to develop an inventory of trouble spots to determine the extent of the problem. Likewise, a policy is needed to decide who’ll pay for dealing with problematic sump pumps: the homeowner, the township or some combination thereof.

The last of three special budget meetings addressed the budget for recreation and facilities services, where spending increases exceed the proposed levy jump, largely due to rising utility costs. The Woolwich Memorial Centre, in particular, has been a sore spot given the inefficient design and equipment installed in the facility, which opened in 2009.

The building has also been plagued with equipment failures, including a problematic refrigeration plant. Recent emergency repairs have topped $100,000, for instance.

Department director Ann McArthur noted the township is stuck with bad decisions made when the WMC was built.

The ongoing woes there prompted Coun. Scott Hahn to suggest the township budget more money for equipment repairs and replacement.

Staffing also remains an issue at the WMC, which was overstaffed early on, and across the recreation department, councillors noted.

Coun. Patrick Merlihan pointed to marginal returns on staff costs for the fitness centre and concession stand. On the latter, the department has started to send staff home early when sales don’t warrant keeping it open.

Staff costs related to a host of new programs based out of the Breslau Community Centre also came under scrutiny, as there has been little public interest in the offerings.

“I’m struggling with having staff in that facility, and it’s hardly breaking even,” noted Coun. Mark Bauman.

Most contentious, and unresolved at meeting’s end, was a plan to spend $60,000 on a recreation master plan for the township.

Stating he’s “not a fan of master plans,” Merlihan argued the township’s experience with such consultants and their reports hasn’t been fruitful. Previous plans drafted for the last decade’s big expansion – including the WMC and community centres in Breslau and Maryhill – proved to be “useless” in determining budgets, timelines and public priorities, he said.

As with many calls for public consultation, those exercises ended up hearing from relatively few people, mostly from those with a direct interest, such as the minor sports groups. Hiring consultants, he said, provides the same low level of input the township finds with its own public meetings and information sessions.

“We can fail at public engagement just as well as the people who come up with master plans,” he said of wasting money on a consultant. “I have very little hope that spending $60,000 is going to get us anything … useful.”

Both he and Coun. Murray Martin noted the township recently spent large amounts of money on new facilities and are unlikely to do so again soon given its large infrastructure deficit.

“Really, what can we afford?” asked Martin.

Meeting Tuesday night, councillors voted to axe the plan from the budget.

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