Wellesley Township residents continue to push back against the 14 per cent tax increase approved last month by council.
Last week, Kelly Rakowski, a member of the Wellesley Township Concerned Citizens Facebook group, addressed councillors on behalf of many residents who say township staff and council have not been transparent about the increase in cost of the new recreation centre and the resulting increase to their taxes.
Before the council meeting, more than 50 people protested in front of council chambers to demonstrate their frustration before heading inside for the proceedings.
In June 2021, township staff originally released a ‘frequently asked questions’ document stating that the recreation complex project would cost $22 million, the township would take on a debenture of $3 million at a 2.75 interest rate, and residents’ taxes would increase by 4.3 per cent, or approximately $47 per year for a property with a value of $389,393, the current average property assessment in the township. Mayor Joe Nowak shared this information on the Facebook group, “What’s Up St. Clements.”
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Now, the project is projected to cost $27.2 million, the debenture is $8 million at a 3.4 per cent interest rate, and taxes have increased by 7.7 per cent to cover the debenture and staffing. This translates to $112.80 for a property of average assessment.
Rakowski argues citizens were not adequately consulted about the increases in cost and taxes.
“The lack of transparency was very clear when the 7.7 per cent increase in our taxes could be found nowhere in council minutes, agendas or any recording. That is non-existent. So that is part of the lack of transparency,” she said. “The other part of lack of transparency is the fact that the budget just gets approved with a ridiculous number without consultation within the community.”
Nowak said the process for the recreation centre costing and tax increase was completely public, referring to the ‘frequently asked questions’ page released last week by the township.
The FAQ says the cost of the project increased from $22 to $27.2 million because of the pandemic. The contract for the increased cost of the complex was discussed and eventually approved at a public meeting held at the Linwood recreation centre in December 2021.
Five days prior, township staff published a release on the website advertising this meeting, and encouraged the public to come. It said the sole purpose of the meeting was to “review the Wellesley Township Recreation Complex contract.” It did not explicitly state the possible increase to taxes. Proof of vaccination was required to attend, and the meeting was streamed on the township’s YouTube channel.
Multiple comments from residents in support of the project are recorded in the meeting’s minutes, with no presentations from any residents opposed.
Rakowski said the December meeting and its implications were not common knowledge, adding a survey with the updated numbers should have been sent out directly to residents.
“I myself was not aware of the meeting,” said Rakowski, noting others in the Wellesley Township Concerned Citizens group were likewise unaware of it. “So, I guess I would like to know why people were not more clued-in unless you were in favour of it.”
The debenture for $8 million and its impact on taxpayers was discussed and eventually approved at a council meeting in March 2022. The agenda for that meeting does not include mention that council was going to vote on the debenture that day, but was added in an addendum. A report included in the addendum, prepared the day before, included the anticipated increase in yearly tax paid by the average household of $112.80. This was based on the 2016 MPAC assessment of the average property value in the township.
“Every stage of this from 2019 on, every stage of the approval process for the recreation complex was considered in a public forum and with public reports. Public meetings, open council sessions,” said Nowak.
Nowak wrote about the original projected amount to taxpayers based on the average property assessment in the township of $47 per year on Facebook in June 2021. When asked why the township staff and council did not communicate about the changes to the cost and tax rate more aggressively, he responded:
“We put our agendas on our web page. I believe they can be accessed on social media. When the agendas are coming out, I sometimes put them online. We do, I think, what most communities do as far as getting the message out. We would hope that people would read the newspapers and I guess the website is the place where most of this information can be had. I don’t know how much more aggressive we can be. But I think that’s pretty standard procedure, in all communities.” He later added, “I believe we can always do better and will endeavour to do so.”
Nowak noted there were numerous options for people to voice their ‘want list’ as a new recreation complex was first being considered, adding that no one attended the 2023 budget meetings.
“The budget sessions were held, they were two full days. Line by line, each department defended their line items and we looked at them vigorously. To suggest that council just sort of rubber stamped this is absolutely wrong,” he said.
“As mayor I’ve gone through eight budgets, and in each case, we put out that those budget discussions are happening and they’re open sessions, people are allowed to come, and they’re allowed to make presentations. I can think of one person in eight years that actually made a presentation. So, transparent, I’ll stand by that. This council has been extremely transparent. They worked hard for those two days.”
Nowak acknowledges a 14 per cent tax increase is high. “Of course it is, I have to pay it too. I understand full well that it’s an increase,” he said.
Residents were also angry that attendees of last week’s council meeting were not allowed to speak after Rakowski’s delegation. According to the township website, anyone can ask to speak at a public meeting, and a member of council can put forth a motion to let them speak for five minutes.
In response, Nowak said, “It appeared to me at the time, what with some of the comments heard at the time, that it would be difficult to maintain a civil discussion. It is possible to allow for unregistered guests to address council but that is at the chair’s discretion. Were a member of council to make a motion, proper procedures would be followed. I also hoped at the time that my invitation to meet with them in another forum would be satisfactory. Our CAO did explain the differences between an open forum and a council meeting.”
Rakowski says the Wellesley Township Concerned Citizens group is reaching out to staff and council to schedule that meeting.
She noted members of the group realize the recreation centre is going to be built whether or not they agree, and are now taking a closer look at the budget for 2023 that was passed by council last month.
“The main focus now is budget. Budget and transparency, and understanding why, for a population of 11,500 people, our expenses are so high,” she said.
She says earlier this week the group dropped flyers at Canada Post destined for every household in the township, are putting up lawn signs and will be following up with council and staff to have that meeting.
“If there is nothing to hide, then they should not have an issue about wanting a civil discussion. It will be monitored. And through an open and honest dialogue, taxpayers can understand the decision making made by staff and approved by council.”
Nowak said that council is considering having more public forums in the township’s villages to facilitate more open, roundtable discussions going forward.