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Woolwich extends deferral of late fees for property taxes, water bills

Woolwich residents struggling to pay property taxes and water bills will avoid penalties on late payments through June, as township council this week extended a program in place until the end of the month.

The decision also waives non-sufficient fund (NSF) fees charged by the township through to the end of June, and suspends collection activities until August 31.

Woolwich is also looking at an application-based process to perhaps extend deferrals past June 30, a program being coordinated among other municipalities in Waterloo Region.

Director of finance Richard Petherick estimated extending the deferrals by another month would see the township forego another $35,000 in penalty and interest revenue, NSF fees and investment income.

Even with the deferrals, all property owners will be expected to have their taxes paid by the end of the year, however.

At Tuesday night’s video meeting, Coun. Murray Martin opposed the deferral plan, arguing that people who haven’t paid the first couple of installments will just fall farther behind for the rest of the year.

“If we allow people to delay their taxes, of course they’re not going to pay,” he said of a blanket deferral through June. “I’m not sure I like the direction we’re going.”

That prompted Coun. Patrick Merlihan to counter with a call to support residents dealing with the crisis.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented for any of us in our lifetime,” he said, arguing the township has to do something for residents and businesses that are suffering. “It’s something we must do at this time.”

While the details are still being worked out, a needs-tested program going beyond June is being discussed among municipal treasurers in the region, said Petherick.

Currently, the program’s criteria would see it applied to property owners who have experienced financial hardship directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic due to loss of employment; temporary suspension/reduction of pay; business revenue loss; or temporary business closure.

Businesses that had business-interruption insurance that covers property taxes or that had received federal or provincial funding for such payments wouldn’t be eligible, said Petherick.

The idea is to help those suffering hardships given the economic downturn, with the township taking a financial hit as a result.

“Depending on the number of applications … this could be onerous on us,” he said.

The third and fourth installments  property taxes are due in August and October. Under the application-based deferral, those dates could be extended to October and December, respectively.

“We may well take you up on that,” said Brian Smith of the Waterloo Rod and Gun Club of the application-based process.

He had joined the online discussion with a presentation requesting a deferral of property taxes, noting the facility has been closed since March 14, “with zero income coming in.”

“The current timeline for reopening the club for events is unknown, dependent upon government direction. Consequently all of our events through June 30 has either been cancelled or face cancellation. This means we have no expectation of being able to earn revenue until at least July,” Smith noted, adding the club had laid off all of its employees.

Even when the club is allowed to reopen, there will be costs to deal with COVID-19 measures, including dividers, personal protective equipment and rearranging the two event rooms to maintain physical distancing. The spacing issues, he said, would take rooms that would typically have a capacity of 200 people down to about 60.

“That’s a dramatic reduction in what we can make for an event,” said Smith.

“We’re doing our very best to manage, but it’s very difficult.”

Addressing correspondence from the Town of Midland, which is seeking federal funding to waive much of this year’s property taxes for its residents, Merlihan asked if the idea had been discussed in the region.

“I don’t think we’re going to be holding our breath that the feds are going to do that for municipalities,” said Petherick.

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