Wellesley council’s refusal to reopen the budget has angered residents already upset over the large tax increase in store for this year.
“I have been receiving a lot of emails, phone calls and in person questions regarding the tax increase. The (Wellesley Township Concerned Citizens) Facebook group has (about) 400 members. The last three council meetings have been standing room only. It’s obvious that it is not a small minority of taxpayers that are upset with the 14 per cent increase,” said Coun. Claude Hergott, who last week put forward a motion to reopen the 2023 budget.
“I thought there were some reductions that could have been made to bring the number down. I was disappointed the motion was defeated, especially after the delegations made their presentations pointing out that families are making difficult budget decisions at home already, and the 14 per cent tax increase is not helping,” he added of his bid to have another discussion.
The motion was voted down by Mayor Joe Nowak, Coun. Derek Brick and Coun. Shelley Wagner. Ward 2 Coun. Lori Sebben was absent from the meeting.
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“It is my understanding that, should a motion to reconsider a budget document go forward, the only items that can be reviewed are those that have not already been acted upon. For example, items like wages, purchases, tenders etc. could not be reviewed. This would allow only a limited scope for the review and, with the significant input already done by council pre-budget, the opportunity for significant or substantive change was minimal,” said Nowak of his decision.
Brick said he felt voting against the motion was the best move.
“This budget was difficult and reopening the budget presents a variety of difficulties. I believe we followed the proper lines of communication for this budget and we can strengthen those for the next budget,” he said. “Many people reached out to me both looking to have the budget re-opened and to move along as voted on. In the end there are two sides of the debate that I needed to account for in my vote.
“This budget was difficult given the current world trends for the many people concerned. There were also many people who were understanding on the need to move forward. I feel as though our budget allows us to maintain our service levels in the township. Next year we are going to have a great new recreation facility that I hope people are able to get out and use to its full extent and we will realize its true value,” he said.
Prior to the vote at last week’s meeting, councillors heard from two residents, Joyce Barker and John Rose.
Rose’s presentation focused on the 2023 budget, noting that the budgets set for many of the departments outpaced inflation and population growth including the administration, IT, building, fire, recreation, public works, and finance departments.
Rose said he started paying closer attention to local politics this year when a previous Wellesley Township council meeting came up as a YouTube recommendation on his account. He said he watched councillors vote unanimously to pass the 14 percent tax increase.
“I was just shocked,” he said. “Every family is having kitchen-table discussions about how we can live better within our means, in order to both pay down debt and to get value and to be able to live accordingly. And I just was saying to council (in my presentation) that I felt that it (the council) was tone deaf. And I felt that the optics at this point in time, there are a number of things, that in a business circumstance and I think makes rational sense, that I would say ‘hey, we may have to defer this a year or two.’”
Nowak said staff and council worked hard on the budget. “I think that budget is as responsible as we could have possibly made it.
“I appreciate the fact that John took the time to look into this, there’s no question there, but he wasn’t there. He wasn’t there for the discussions that we had with staff. And I think had he been, or had anybody been there, I think they would have maybe seen the struggle that we were having. The inflationary spiral that we were looking at was significant.”
Nowak named some of the issues staff and council wrestled with. He said cost of materials and construction continue to increase significantly and yet they kept the budget to a 4.4 per cent increase as opposed to the 6.9 per cent inflationary increase township calculated at the end of October.
“Dust suppressant, for one thing – that line increased by 22 per cent. The actual cost of the material rose, when the numbers came in, it rose by 34 per cent. It was 34 per cent higher, so to stay within the budget, we had to reduce the service level. And we reduced that service level by 10 per cent. So those are some of the types of decisions that we were making,” he said. “And it’s line by line. Salt prices went up by nine per cent. Vehicle fuel, 13.7 per cent and we use a fair bit of fuel in public works.”
Nowak also mentioned some infrastructure projects they decided to alter or defer such as the Queen’s Bush Road reconstruction project between Nafziger and Greenwood Hill roads, which he says has roughly doubled in cost since it was added to the capital plan two or three years ago. This project will be done in two years rather than one. He also said work on Park Street in St. Clements has also been deferred for another year.
The budget deliberation meetings were held December 7 and December 12 during regular workday hours.
“I hope that the thoughts or the feelings out there from the residents, I hope they’re not (thinking) that the council and myself are really happy and ecstatic about this budget, because we’re not. It was a tough budget, and nobody wants to put out a budget like this in these times, and feel good about it. But it was something that had to be done,” Nowak said.
“Roads maintenance, we can’t get behind. If you start deferring too much of this stuff, the costs escalate. What I defer this year, it’ll probably be 25, 30 percent more expensive next year, so we’ve got to move forward, and we’ve got to bite the bullet.”
Going forward, Nowak says his goals for the township are to finish the recreation centre, and to look into a combination of affordable and seniors’ housing projects.
In his presentation, Rose questioned a few specific items in the budget.
“I just think council and staff, frankly, should have (asked themselves) ‘Is this the best we can do? Fourteen per cent is the best we can do?’ And clearly by the answer after the vote on [February 21], they’re saying, ‘Yeah, that’s the best we can do.’ And when I look through the budget, line item by line item, I’m sorry but I respectfully disagree.”
One of the specific items he questioned included the increase in the administration budget, which is up between 45 and 55 per cent between 2021 actual spending and the 2023 budget, depending on whether the township’s asset management plan and increases to reserve fund contributions are included.
Nowak said that the increased administration costs are due largely to hiring an executive assistant for the CAO in 2022, retirement commitments, and the asset management plan which would require an outside consultant.
“They’re not wants, these are needs,” he said.
Chief administrative officer Rik Louwagie provided a report to The Observer which he submitted to council in December 2021 asking for four new hires and other staffing needs for the township for a total additional annual expense of $279,942.51, including a new executive assistant for himself, with a yearly salary of $69,204.26 and $23,529.45 in benefits. Those costs required an increase in taxes.
“Township staff and council have managed to provide reasonable service levels to the residents of the township with no additional staff positions being added over the last several years. Budget constraints have made it difficult to add staff positions and remain at what would be perceived as a reasonable tax rate percentage increase. Workloads have increased over the years with added services and responsibilities, some of which have been downloaded from other levels of government. Reporting requirements continue to increase as well which requires additional staff time,” said the report.
In response to questions, Louwagie pointed to recent releases from the township.
Rose said a third-party review of staff spending is needed, similar to his experience with private-sector businesses.
“I think [we need] an independent review of the operations and performance of the township – engaged by and answering to council, not to staff. We need an independent audit, not a financial audit, but an independent audit, of the performance. It may end up saying that perhaps people are doing two jobs, and we need two people. And perhaps that is the truth. But I think we do need some sort of overview.
“But I also believe that having staff reports, or staff engaging with consultants to provide reports that end up satisfying staff’s desire to have additional help or employees or wage increases, it’s kind of like leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse, frankly.”
Rose said that the Wellesley Township Concerned Citizens group will be following up with the council and township to schedule a town hall meeting to talk about the budget and for residents to have their questions answered.
This article has been corrected from a previous version to reflect that the number of new hires requested by Rik Louwagie in 2021 was four, not 11.