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Woolwich approves waiving late fees in response to pandemic

Measures such as waiving late-payment charges, adopted last week by Woolwich council, may be just the first steps as the township deals with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an online meeting March 26, councillors agreed to a series of steps that recognize some residents may be experiencing financial hardships during the crisis. Along with layoffs, many people have seen their paycheques dry up as non-essential businesses have been shuttered in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Woolwich moves, applicable for April and May, waive the penalties and interest on property taxes; waive late-payment charges on utility bills; suspend NSF (non-sufficient funds) fees charged by the township; and halt the transfer of water and wastewater accounts in arrears to property tax accounts.

Director of finance Richard Petherick estimated the move would cost the township about $75,000 in penalty and interest revenue. Woolwich typically charged 1.25 per cent per month on past-due accounts. The measures are being adopted region-wide.

“The local area municipal treasurers group has been collaborating on a common approach to providing additional support to residents and businesses through municipal measures. Locally, the region, the three cities and the four townships are all recommending the approval of a 60-day waiver or grace period. It is important to collaborate with our local partners to ensure we are consistent in our approach to providing additional relief and support where we can,” he said in a report to council.

Woolwich has  approximately 9,500 property tax accounts, and some 6,660 water and wastewater accounts billed bi-monthly

“Beyond this we are working on compiling the financial impact of lost recreation revenues for the township and we will be bringing a subsequent report back to council as to this impact,” Petherick said in an email of other costs related to the pandemic.

After the meeting, councillors indicated future actions may be necessary, adding they’ve not yet heard any direct feedback from constituents about a response to the COVID-19 situation.

“I have talked to a lot of people regarding COVID-19, but it’s been more about the virus spread, if they’re working from home, and how we can continue to support local businesses. I haven’t had anyone ask me about the tax and utilities deferral,” said Coun. Scott McMillan, noting the waivers approved last week were the first step.

“I think those measures were recommended by staff because they were quick, could get unanimous support across the region, and leave a lot of paths open moving forward. I think as we begin to get a better grasp on the scope of what we’re up against, and what holes need to be filled after the feds and province act, we’ll be able to better assess our next steps.”

Fellow Ward 1 councillor Patrick Merlihan said more measures are warranted.

“While it is still too early to predict the ramifications on our local economy, I feel that the financial measures to defer payments on taxes and water bills are only a starting point,” he said. “My expectation is that the municipality will respond with more impactful measures for residents financially impacted by COVID-19.

“Simply deferring late fees isn’t an adequate response to such an unprecedented global event — everybody must do their part and share the responsibility to help in recovery from overall wellness and financial concerns.”

“I think it was a prudent idea, but with things changing so quickly, we would have an opportunity to look at it again,” said Coun. Fred Redekop.

For Coun. Larry Shantz, there’s a need for the community to rally around those members most in need.

“I’ve made the suggestion about having local organizations collect donations that could in fact help out local people. I think there are some ongoing talks heading in that direction. I feel if people know they are helping someone in their own community they may be more inclined to donate,” he said in an email, indicating he’s keeping an eye on what other levels of government are doing, as well.

“I’m hoping the announcement today (Monday) from Prime Minister Trudeau about covering 75 per cent of the wages will help considerably. However, it doesn’t help retired individuals who have no pension and are living off investments.”

Woolwich councillors plan to hold another online meeting today (Thursday).

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