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Woolwich councillors at odds over tax-rate

Split on a tentative 2018 tax-rate increase of 1.8 per cent, Woolwich councillors want more options before setting a target when budget deliberations get underway later this year.

They were agreed, however, on slapping an additional 1.5 per cent hike on next year’s property taxes to boost a special infrastructure reserve fund, in keeping with recent practice. Also on the table is a plan to dedicate half of next year’s assessment growth – additional money from new homes and other development – to that same reserve fund.

Tuesday night’s initial debate on a budget timeline proposed by staff centered on the proposed baseline tax increase of 1.8 per cent, in line with inflation figures expected for next year. That jump would bring in an additional $175,500 in revenue, while the infrastructure increase would net about $146,000, explained director of finance Richard Petherick.

Coun. Larry Shantz balked at the combined 3.3 per cent increase. His reservations were shared by Coun. Patrick Merlihan, who proposed scaling back the general tax increase to start with. He challenged staff to justify increases rather than simply going with an inflationary increase right off the bat.

“Is this a fruitless conversation?” asked Merlihan.  “Why go through the budget process if it’s 1.8?”

Both Mayor Sandy Shantz and Coun. Mark Bauman appeared inclined to go with staff’s recommendation as a starting point.

Deadlocked, councillors opted to leave the target out of the mix until later in the process, with Bauman suggesting staff put together a list outlining discretionary spending versus costs the township has no choice about, including a long list of regulatory requirements. Knowing where cuts are possible would make it easier to decide on a target less than inflation, he said.

One new cost that can’t be escaped involves the province’s plan to raise the minimum wage to $14 an hour as January 1 and then to $15 on Jan. 1, 2019, said Petherick, noting the increases would be felt in the recreation department among part-time workers.

He estimated the changes would cost the township an additional $110,000 to $140,000 next year, plus another $15,000 in 2019. As well, it would have to look at potential bumps to those already making a bit more than $14 an hour in light of the minimum wage increases.

Further complicating the issue is what, if any impact there would be on call-in and standby fees paid to volunteer firefighters, he added, noting municipalities are taking a “wait-and-see approach” pending information from Queen’s Park.

Bauman noted the projected impacts on the minimum wage would take up most of the proposed 1.8 per cent tax increase itself, prompting a discussion about areas where cuts might be needed.

Director of recreation and facilities Ann McArthur noted her department will be reviewing its fees and charges with an eye on increases to cover the extra costs due to the minimum wage hike. Councillors appeared open to that, suggesting users, not general ratepayers, should be responsible for a chunk of the increased costs.

Coun. Shantz suggested that approach perhaps extend to the new splash pad in Elmira, pointing to the projected $30,000 a year in operating costs.

“Each of those $30,000 adds up in a hurry.”

While the budget process is underway at the staff level, more detailed documents won’t be ready for council and the public until December, with special public meetings slated for January.

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