Woolwich & Wellesley Township's Local Community Newspaper | Elmira, Ontario, Canada
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Little scrutiny of budget as public again takes a back seat

Special budget meetings are a mainstay in Woolwich – the process is ongoing, with a final session set for tonight (Thursday). Also a mainstay? Much higher spending, tax increases and little scrutiny of the numbers rolled out by staff.

While there’s been some tweaking at the margins, there’s been no prioritizing of spending such that spending of little or no value is halted in favour of pressing needs and lower taxes. There has been some debate over debentures, as the township heads down a slippery slope of taking out a mortgage on the house to borrowing to pay for the groceries. Again, there are problems with setting priorities.

That’s nothing new, of course, as Woolwich residents have seen their taxes rise dramatically with little to show for it. The bulk of new taxes and revenue generated by growth have been directed to staffing that does little or nothing for the public.

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.

Any hint of a suggestion about limiting the impact on taxpayers is 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 frontline services and programs if council went down that road. That terminology is disingenuous at best: officials know perfectly well there are 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 $70 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.

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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