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Woolwich eyes 3.75% tax hike for 2019 budget

Woolwich residents can expect taxes to jump another 3.75 per cent this year under a budget plan now under deliberation at township council.

The proposed increase discussed as special budget meetings got underway last week amounts to about $32 a year on the township portion of the tax bill, based on an average home with an assessed value of $379,000.

Along with a two per cent increase in the base tax rate, the new target includes special levies of 1.5 per cent for infrastructure projects and 0.5 per cent for greening initiatives such a planting new trees.

The extra revenue will be joined by an increase in growth that’s expected to hit 2.3 per cent, essentially leading to an extra six per cent for township coffers. That’s offset, however, by a forecasted decrease in provincial grants and lower dividends from Waterloo North Hydro, warns director of finance Richard Petherick.

With all the numbers bandied about at the first of four scheduled public meetings to discuss the 2019 budget, there was little input from councillors about the tax increases or overall spending.

The upward trend was troubling to Coun. Patrick Merlihan, however, who suggested a report card to trace the decisions made by council and the results of ever-increasing budgets over at least the term of council. The goal would be to increase accountability by setting metrics to determine how the money was spent and to what value, he said.

“The decisions we make are why the operating budgets go up,” he said, noting spending has repercussions down the road, compounding the budget as seen over the last term of council. “Every decision we made four years ago was a million-dollar decision.”

Fellow councillors agreed with the idea, suggesting the metrics be meaningful, though not defining what would be measured.

Coun. Scott McMillan called it “an excellent idea,” noting the township has to be able to track and measure its “agreed-upon priorities.”

Using the last term of council as a measure, the township’s operating budget was $13.8 million in 2014. For 2019, the budgeted amount is $17.1 million, a 23 per cent increase over what the previous council inherited.

In 2014, the township portion of the property bill was $679 for the average homeowner. Four years later, it was $855, some 26 per cent more.

Such tracking over time is essential to avoid making decisions in isolation, Merlihan said.

Over a longer term, Woolwich’s operating budget was $8.9 million in 2008, with average household taxes of $481. A decade later, the new budget’s operating target is 92 per cent higher, while the forecasted $889 hit to homeowners represents an 85 per cent increase.

For the January 10 meeting, councillors approved in principle the budgets for the chief administrative officer’s department, the clerk’s division, finance and the fire department.

In reviewing the CAO’s budget, Merlihan suggested leaving the economic development position vacant during an upcoming maternity leave, noting the position is essentially one of relationships that couldn’t be developed in the short term of a temporary hire. He said the savings could be used to offset some of the spending increases.

The idea got little traction, however, though Mayor Sandy Shantz suggested perhaps shifting to a part-time position for the duration. But McMillan argued the decision should be left to staff, rather than council.

“I think we have to be able to trust our CAO to make a decision about staffing at this level. I don’t mean that in an insulting way at all, but if we can’t trust our CAO to make a decision about staffing at this level, then we’ve probably got bigger issues than who’s filling in the job,” he said. “I would be on board with whatever the plan of staff is.”

The larger budgets, particularly engineering and planning, recreation and capital projects are slated to be discussed at upcoming sessions tonight (Thursday) and January 24 in Woolwich council chambers.

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