Guelph-Eramosa looking at 0.5% tax increase, but mayor wants to get to zero

BRUCEDALE – Guelph-Eramosa staff presented council with a draft 2021 budget that would mean a 0.54 per cent increase to the township portion of the property tax bill.

That translates to an extra $1.38 per $100,00 of assessment or an extra $6.90 a year on a $500,000 home.

The budget includes $17.8 million in total spending, with $7.4 million covered from property taxes. The rest would come from user fees, grants and development charges.

It includes $4 million in capital projects, anticipates about $148,000 in lost revenue – mostly from limited programming and facility closures due to COVID-19 – and uses the provincial safe restart grant of $297,000 to cover these losses plus other COVID-related costs.

Even though the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) postponed conducting property assessments in 2020, the budget forecasts $1.8% growth.

The draft budget includes no new debt but does include $708,697 in debt repayment.

Debt helped finance several past capital projects, such as work to the administrative office and work at the Alma Street pumping station in Rockwood.

The budget forecasts paying off the debt by 2025.

Department heads were frugal in drawing up proposed capital budgets.

Deputy fire chief Jim Petrik proposed only $19,000 in capital projects for Fire and Emergency Services: $10,500 for protective gear for three new recruits, $5,000 to replace pagers and batteries, and $3,500 for records management software.

This prompted councillor Corey Woods to ask if Petrik had considered hooking the Rockwood fire station to the fibre optic cables being installed through town.

“It would cost about $7,500 to hook up,” Petrik said. “It was my intention to put that forward next year.”

“It seems to me if it costs the same, we should do it now,” said councillor Bruce Dickieson, suggesting the cost is small but better internet at the fire hall would be enormously beneficial.

Mayor Chris White said it was his understanding the fibre optic system was to go live by summer 2021 and he asked Petrik to confirm his figures for the next meeting.

Director of finance Linda Cheyne said money from the modernization grant could be used if council decides to go ahead with the expenditure.

“If we can get you up and running, we might as well,” White said. “I appreciate that you were keeping the budget tight, though.”

Budgeted projects for public works total $2.5 million.

Two projects identified in the water/wastewater capital budget prompted discussion about the challenges of dealing with Metrolinx.

One project is connecting watermains on Catherine Street to the new development north of the Metrolinx tracks to Rockmosa Drive in Rockwood. That involves getting approvals from Metrolinx, which makes it complicated, said Harry Niemi, director of public works.

The project on Wellington Road 27 (Main Street North) at the railway crossing “was a bit of a surprise,” Niemi said.

Metrolinx is twinning existing tracks through the Guelph corridor and to do that obliges the township to extend the servicing tunnel that runs under the tracks on Wellington Road 27. The cost is expected to be $200,000 from water and wastewater reserves.

“Why are we on the hook for a Metrolinx project?” Woods wanted to know. Any other business would have to pay for the infrastructure it requires to operate, he said.

“This is to upgrade their service, not ours,” he added.

“That’s the nature of dealing with railways,” Niemi replied.

He said Transport Canada calls the shots when it comes to railways, so suddenly this is a job that must be done in 2021.

“It seems backwards,” Woods said. “We have a cost because they are widening the track.”

Robin Milne, director of parks and recreation, is projecting $180,000 in lost revenue in his department due to the closure and reduced capacity at sports and community facilities.

He said the budget was prepared assuming Guelph-Eramosa is still in the orange-restrict COVID-19 zone.

“If we go to red, that will cause closures and will impact the budget,” Milne said.

Among the 14 capital projects proposed for the department is extending wi-fi to the Rockmosa Community Centre and enabling high speed internet throughout the park.

Wellington County installed wi-fi at the library, “and the conduit is in place already,” Milne said. “We’re thinking this could be the first location for public access to wi-fi.”

The cost is $13,000, to be paid from the modernization fund.

While the budget proposes a 0.54% increase, Mayor Chris White made the argument to bring that increase to zero.

“It’s a great budget,” he said. “But we know these are difficult times for a lot of people. This is a small tax increase, but I would propose we make zero increase for council, zero increase to staff salaries and come in at zero.

“I don’t think zero is good normally, but we’re so close to it. There’s not a lot to adjust to get to zero.”

Dickieson said he thinks that is a bad idea.

While he is okay with no raises for council, “I don’t think it’s fair to staff,” he said. And he worried that not enough was being put into reserves.

“It should be higher than 0.54,” he said.

Councillor Mark Bouwmeester countered, “People are hurting. The very least we could do is 0%.”

Woods said he’s concerned that road and bridge projects may be cut to get to zero and he’s not in favour of that.

“The 0.54% is so small, it’s almost zero. Freeze council pay – I’m fine with that,” said Woods.

Councillor Louise Marshall said she’s in favour of a 0% increase.

“It’s all because of COVID-19. People have lost jobs,” she said.

Staff was directed to recalculate the budget factoring in a zero pay increase for council and a possible $7,500 to hook up the Rockwood fire station to the fibre optic system – and then see what it would take to get the increase to zero.

Council will discuss budget again at its regular council meeting on Dec. 7.

A public meeting will be held on Dec. 15 and council hopes to pass the final budget on Dec. 21.

“We’re not passing this today,” White said. “We can carry on this conversation.”