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Woolwich needs to make smarter budget choices

There’s little to justify borrowing money to carry out maintenance work such as paving roads, especially when the municipality has been raising taxes dramatically, including an infrastructure levy for just that purpose, and spending the bulk of the revenue, including from investments and growth, on staffing that does little or nothing for the public.

That’s precisely what Woolwich has been doing for years, and this year’s budget discussions indicate citizens can expect nothing to change.

Council needs a refresher course on just whose interest it’s supposed to be looking out for. Hint: it’s the public’s. As such, council’s role is to push for lower amounts of spending than rolled out by staff, especially when the recommendation is for business as usual, with no spending cuts, only another in a long line of tax increases.

There was some discussion about limiting the impact on taxpayers, but that was glossed over quickly. As always, any talk of reducing spending leaps immediately to cuts to service levels, with the implication that citizens would receive less in the way of front-line services and programs if council went down that road. That terminology is disingenuous at best: officials know perfectly well that cuts that can be made without the public even noticing, including staff reductions at the administrative level and adjustments to wages and benefits.

Staffing costs make up half of the operating budget, so changes there could easily eliminate the need for tax increases. Some of the proposed five per cent hike in property taxes is earmarked for a special infrastructure fund, which is easily justified.

There’s no arguing that Woolwich, like every other municipality in the country, is way behind in setting aside money to replace aging roads, bridges, sewers and facilities. Woolwich faces an infrastructure deficit of more than $60 million over the next decade for road and bridge work alone.

For years we’ve coasted on the infrastructure built decades ago: we never saved for a rainy day, and now the skies have opened up.

A special levy makes sense under those circumstances: we have to start saving now to pay for some very expensive projects in the future. And with federal and provincial assistance less likely – both senior governments face massive deficits of their own – costs will fall on the local tax base. But beyond the special levy, municipal governments will have to cut back on the operating side – programs and soft services – in order to offset the sting of infrastructure renewal.

There’s no room for delay when it comes to failing bridges and water systems. If residents are not going to face even more exorbitant tax increases than have been the norm recently, then the dollars will have to be reallocated rather than simply going to the well for more, the usual fallback plan for all governments. In the case of borrowing $900,000 to pay for roads that will be candidates for more work before the debt is even repaid, Woolwich is better off cutting from its bloated operating budget to free up money for more important spending priorities.

But rational approaches are seldom embraced by politicians who want to promise more and spend more rather than oversee reductions: ribbon-cuttings trump budget cuts every time.

In Woolwich, there are expenditures – some of them substantial – that provide few if any direct benefits to the public. That’s the low-hanging fruit the township continues to ignore. Staff recommendations naturally avoid such common sense solutions, as padding the bureaucracy is their goal, not decreasing it. It falls to councillors, therefore, to do the sensible thing in the interest of the public purse. As noted, that’s their job. Nobody said it was going to be fun.

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