Centre Wellington council narrowly passes budget with 1.3% property tax increase

ELORA – Centre Wellington councillors approved the 2021 budget, with a 1.33 per cent increase to taxpayers, by a one-vote margin at its committee of the whole meeting on Jan. 5.

The budget includes $41.2 million in operating costs, $15.2 million in capital projects and results in an increase of about $15 to a home assessed at $381,095.

Some of the capital projects for 2021 include:

  • tar and chip resurfacing on a 1,600m stretch of 3rd Line south of Wellington Road (WR) 19, at a cost of $110,000;
  • replacement of a 5th Line culvert (structure 4-WG), $1,350,000;
  • repaving 8th Line West from Middlebrook Road to WR18, $480,000;
  • paving of 1st Line from WR 19 to Sideroad 10, $320,000;
  • replacement of the watermain on Hill Street East (Fergus) from Gowrie St. to Cameron St., $490,000;
  • additional water capacity for Well F2, $408,000;
  • replacement of the ice pad and renovations at the Elora Community Centre, $1,300,000;
  • installation of a new outdoor basketball multi-use court at the Centre Wellington Community Sportsplex in Fergus, $80,000; and
  • servicing employment lands on Dickson Drive in Fergus, $1,340,000.

Forty-four per cent of the operating budget covers salaries and benefits. Township staff agreed to a 0% pay increase for 2021.

OLG funds are way down and would have posed a problem if not for $790,000 that was put into a COVID-19 reserve fund. That fund was established to offset costs related to the pandemic, including lost revenue, particularly in the parks and recreation department.

There was considerable discussion about the budget line for councillors to attend conferences.

The budget reduces the amount to $2,000 per person, but because most conferences have been cancelled or have moved online, McElwain wanted to further increase the reduction.

Finance manager Mark Bradey cautioned against a further reduction.

“If you reduce it too far, it’s difficult to get it into the base budget again,” he said.

“That could lead to a spike in the tax rate in the future.”

Any surplus on this budget line at the end of the year will go to reserves, he said.

Councillor Bob Foster wanted to know why revenue from the Centre Wellington Community Sportsplex in Fergus was down $1.1 million, but operating costs were only down $200,000.

Bradey explained that while township recreational facilities were closed, parks and recreation staff was redeployed to perform parks maintenance duties.

“Given the strangeness of COVID, you can’t just look at one facility,” Bradey said.

“You can’t look at the cost centres in isolation.”

Matt Tucker, manager of parks and facilities, said reduced capacity because of COVID has reduced revenue while special cleaning requirements have added to costs.

“Pool equipment costs the same,” he said, whether the pool is full or empty.

“The numbers tell a very different story,” countered Foster.

“Despite doing less than half of the business there are almost no reductions in operating costs… You have failed to control operating costs.”

“Do you mean all facilities are running and costing us money when they are not being used?” councillor Stephen Kitras asked.

“Yes,” said Mayor Kelly Linton. “We are running things that are costing us money.”

Even still, council voted unanimously not to increase fees and charges for parks and recreation programs.

Foster thought the budget should have come in with a 0% increase and the dedicated bridge levy should be cancelled.

Other municipalities have achieved zero, he said, “but here at home, it’s business as usual, as though the taxpayer is a bottomless pit… I give this budget a big no.”

Councillor Kirk McElwain said he hasn’t supported a budget since OLG funds went to projects other than bridges and he doesn’t support this one either.

Earlier in the meeting, Kitras has asked if the decision was “preordained” and he went on to criticize the process.

“We haven’t validated staffing; we didn’t discuss the asset management plan. I question your chairmanship,” Kitras said to Linton.

Councillor Neil Dunsmore voted in favour of the budget, saying he’s concerned about falling behind with the asset management plan.

“Fifteen dollars on a $381,000 home isn’t too bad of an increase,” he said. “I will vote in favour.”

Councillor Steven Van Leeuwen said initially, he thought so many pre-budget meetings might be too much, “but it was quite thoughtful and as we walked through the process it made it easy to reach decisions,” he said.

Linton praised staff “for meeting and exceeding council direction.”

He also spoke about the wisdom of the dedicated bridge levy, which was instituted in 2015

“Now, six years later, following the introduction of our 2% dedicated capital levy, we are on track to rebuild 21 bridges in eight years and we have over $2.8 million in a bridge rebuilding reserve fund,” Linton said.

“I want to take a minute to thank our former and current members of council who had the foresight to support this plan over the years.

“It is because of you that this ambitious effort to rebuild our bridges has been so successful.”

Voting in favour of the budget were Linton, Van Leeuwen, Dunsmore and councillor Ian MacRae. Voting against were Kitras, Foster and McElwain.

Council meets again Jan. 18, when the 2021 tax bylaw is expected to pass, formally ending the budget process.