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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Belt-tightening discussion delays Woolwich budget

Closer to finalizing its 2019 budget, Woolwich council is still looking to reduce expenses as the tax hit currently stands at 3.53 per cent.

While a January 31 special budget meeting was expected to be the last, councillors plan another round of deliberations next week.

Led by Coun. Patrick Merlihan’s in-depth review of the budget that he said showed up to $157,000 in savings, councillors agreed there were likely savings to be found in the $17.1-million operating budget. Meanwhile, much of the focus in last week’s session was on the $15.7-million capital budget.

Much of that budget is taken up with road and bridge projects. For instance, the township is allocating $2.3 million and $1.9 million for the reconstruction of William Street and Listowel Road in Elmira, respectively. Bridge work, including environmental assessments involving the old street structures on Glasgow Street and Middlebrook Road, is slated to cost $1.7 million, while paving projects will take up $1.6 million.

Though tackling issues such as repairing ($200,000) or replacing ($850,000) the Maryhill fire station and upgrading Floradale Road during the Listowel Road reconstruction project, councillors were generally satisfied with the capital budget. Much of the discussion revolved around finding more savings on the operating sides, with Merlihan suggesting there was too much padding for contingencies in some of the line items.

“A thousand dollars here, a thousand there, it all adds up,” he said.

He noted that a review of past budgets showed that a number of lines weren’t being fully spent year after year, yet the requested amount increased. That was particularly the case with the engineering department.

Fellow Ward 1 councillor Scott McMillan agreed that some of the department’s budget was “soft,” adding the contingencies issue needs to be addressed.

But Dan Kennaley, director of engineering and planning, countered that some of the differences between what’s budgeted and what’s spent are due to simply to a lack of time and staff resources to get the work completed.

“We should find ways to spend that budget, because it’s work that needs to be done,” he said.

Acknowledging that, Coun. Larry Shantz suggested council should look at monies that aren’t being used year over year – “we should tighten that up.”

Merlihan pointed out that township spends considerably more on staffing today, though doesn’t have more boots on the ground to show for all the hiring and payroll increases.

“Why are we ramping up the budget if we don’t have the people to do the work?” he said, suggesting council should go through the budget more thoroughly.

“If there isn’t any appetite for tightening belts, I’m a little saddened by that.”

His stance met with some resistance, with Coun. Murray Martin saying he wanted to avoid any cuts to programs and, particularly, infrastructure spending.

But Merlihan countered that any search for savings should not come at the expense of residents, but rather from internal reductions that don’t have an impact on the public. In that vein, he recommended the township not fill a pending vacancy when the economic development officer goes on maternity leave in the next month or two.

Questioned by Martin, he added the need for the position itself should be reviewed.

“This isn’t a service for the residents,” said Merlihan, noting both the internal position and the $50,000 a year on membership in the Waterloo Economic Development Corporation do not pay for themselves.

The Woolwich position currently accounts for some $115,000 in spending.

Mayor Sandy Shantz cautioned against removing that amount from the budget this year only to have to reinstate it in 2020, but later suggested if the position was to remain vacant that the money be earmarked for the operating contingency reserve fund.

Those savings would come on top of some $150,000 Merlihan said he’d like to see reviewed with the support of other councillors.

“I’d like us to do a really deep dive,” he said of looking at the budget, despite some resistance. “I’m struggling a little bit with the push-back at this point.

“I’m not going to accept that none of this is valid,” he said of his proposed savings. “You can’t dismiss all of them. I won’t accept that.”

One place the township is likely to find savings is in another round of upgrades at the Woolwich Memorial Centre. Staff is currently looking at a partnership with Waterloo North Hydro in a $1.2-million project to replace the refrigeration plant at the arenas. The deal would be similar to a co-generation plan that will see the utility pay for the upfront work, with the township paying the money back over 20 years via the energy cost savings.

Director of recreation and facilities Ann McArthur said the ice plant project would more than pay for itself.

“I think we’re going to save twice what we pay them,” she said of the reduced hydro and maintenance costs.

Steve Kannon
Steve Kannonhttps://www.observerxtra.com
A community newspaper journalist for more than two decades, Steve Kannon is the editor of the Observer.

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