KENILWORTH – Mayor Andy Lennox’s prediction that a Wellington North budget wouldn’t be passed at council’s March 20 meeting was correct.
The mayor’s Tums antacid intake also increased on Monday as budget deliberations dragged into the nighttime hours.
Monday’s meeting marked the third time council has gone over the proposed 2023 budget, this time with revisions presented by former township finance director Farhad Hossain in response to council’s feedback from a March 6 meeting.
Staff removed two proposed pickup truck purchases, an upgrade to the Arthur wastewater treatment plant, and a proposed new staffing position in search of savings in this year’s budget.
The trucks amount to $100,000, the plant upgrade $12.45 million, and the staff position is $47,225.
With the revised budget option, the overall levy increase comes out to 7%.
With future growth factored in, it would be a 4.8% increase to existing taxpayers.
But that doesn’t begin to address one of this year’s most contentious budget items: a new outdoor pool proposed for Mount Forest.
Staff presented the idea to take eight years to raise a $2.8 million tax-funded contribution toward a pool, estimated to cost roughly $5.3 million in total.
To fund an eight-year plan, Wellington North taxpayers would chip in an extra $350,000 per year to a reserve — amounting to nearly 4% of this year’s levy.
Assuming residents pay an average $3,400 tax bill — based on a 2016 home value and factoring in county, education and conservation authority portions — bills would increase by $71 for the revised 2023 budget, and by $73 more once the pool is included for a total township tax bill portion of roughly $1,348.
That’s a year-over-year increase of 11.45% from the 2022 levy of $8 million to $9 million this year. The practical impact to existing taxpayer’s bills is an increase of 9%.
Mayor admonishes rhetoric, criticism
Kicking off the night’s discussion, Lennox said he brought antacids to remedy the indigestion surely to follow.
The mayor began by outlining his expectations of council, one he said wasn’t functioning as intended.
The mayor expressed disappointment in his fellow council members, specifically noting their rhetoric and nonconstructive criticism, which he said made for a mediocre discussion absent “any real debate” at the previous March meeting.
“I expect each of you to speak to the budget proposal in general, and specifically to the funding of the pool proposal,” he said.
Commenting on the overall budget, the mayor advocated for funding current service levels provided by township staff, and to keep infrastructure maintenance “front and centre.”
He also voiced support for additional staffing.
Councillor Sherry Burke said she would not support funding a proposed backhoe and snowplow purchase, nor did she want reserves used for reducing the taxpayer-funded portion of new staffing positions.
She later dropped both issues after not receiving support.
Councillors Burke and Steve McCabe tried to get Concession 4 North in Kenilworth added to the township’s paving list, suggesting other projects be deferred to pay for it, but ultimately weren’t successful when it came to a later 3-2 vote against the project’s addition.
Councillors Lisa Hern and Penny Renken generally voiced support for the proposed budget and praised staff.
Changes voted down
Burke returned to her suggestion, brought up earlier in the month, to remove a $50,000 design cost for a new fire hall.
But Hossain defended the expense, saying preliminary work would position the township for grant funding.
Ultimately, the hall design will go forward following a 4-1 vote against its removal, with Burke the dissenting vote.
Burke’s call to remove a backhoe and snow plow from this year’s budget also did not receive support in a 4-1 vote, with Burke again the sole dissenting vote.
In a 3-2 vote, Burke also did not receive enough support to remove staff-proposed reserve spending of $155,204 to tackle the $238,775 cost of hiring new staff positions.
Burke and Renken voted against using reserves.
“So, what that results in is no change from the staff proposal,” Lennox said of the revised budget presented.
Mount Forest pool
The biggest discussion point of the night centred around the Mount Forest pool.
Around an hour-and-a-half into the meeting, the mayor was again urging councillors to participate.
“We’ve been dithering on this project for months,” Lennox said.
Council previously approved $576,000 toward a new outdoor pool, of which $75,000 has been spent so far.
That leaves $501,000 which has been spoken for, should council and staff agree to actually spend the money on the next steps, including more detailed and complex designs to prepare for a tender.
Staff have requested $350,000 of new funding this year to go toward a $2.8 million portion funded from future tax bills, leaving $1.87 million outstanding.
Providing a dose of reality, Hossain reminded council that construction overruns are “business as usual.”
“All the more reason we need to get serious about what we’re prepared to commit on behalf of taxpayers,” the mayor remarked.
McCabe wanted the tax-funded portion to be reduced, and said he couldn’t back an eight-year plan.
“We’re talking a four per cent hit right now spreading it over eight years,” Lennox responded, insisting anything less would be “very burdensome.”
Burke suggested reserves be tapped to help pay for the pool, and said a $2.5-million fundraising ask is too much.
“If the community cannot raise $2.5 million, do they actually want the pool?” Hern questioned.
Despite struggling with the cost and the township’s inability to staff the Arthur pool, Hern said she would compromise.
Council mulled paring the design down further. Staff reminded council their chosen concept design was already pared down.
With the clock striking 10pm, weary councillors began rubbing their eyes and leaning on their arms.
Council passes pool resolutions
Two key resolutions were ultimately passed, moving the pool project forward.
The first, moved by Hern, was to support a funding option with a breakdown of $2.8 million in taxpayer contributions and $2.5 million to be fundraised by the community.
“I’ve vocalized this I don’t know how many times this evening,” Burke responded.
“I think the fundraising target is too high.”
Asked by township clerk Karren Wallace if she wanted to amend the motion, Burke, appearing dejected, responded with a sombre “no.”
Hern’s motion passed 4-1, with Burke opposed.
Lennox asked if anyone wanted to move a motion to go ahead with funding the $2.8 million taxpayer portion over eight years with $350,000 collected in 2023.
“We need a starting point, and I’m tired of talking about the pool and how we’re going to get there, so I’ll move the motion,” Burke said, adding she was advancing something she didn’t fully support.
The resolution passed, and with enough progress made, staff will return to the next meeting with a bylaw to pass the 2023 budget with a rate hike of 9%.