Grant from province may allow no tax increase

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On Tuesday and Wednesday evening last week, municipal staff presented the 2019 draft budget at two public meetings, at Centennial Hall in Eastons Corners and the Merrickville Community Centre. Although the presentation of the draft budget was prepared by staff, Mayor Doug Struthers was on hand to welcome the public to the meetings and introduce CAO Doug Robertson and Treasurer Kirsten Rahm, who led most of the presentation.

All in all, the municipality had good news for residents. Council and staff have worked hard over the past few months, streamlining the budget with the goal of having a 0% tax increase on the municipal portion of the tax levy (which makes up 59% of the tax bill). The County portion makes up 28% of the bill, with education sitting at 13%. The County has also approved a 0% increase to their portion of the levy.

Staff pointed out a few anomalies in this year’s budget, which include the large infrastructure project going on in the Village and last year’s unusually high legal fees. They also recognized that March is later than is ideal for passing a budget, but said it is not uncommon in an election year, especially with a 100% turnover in council.

Although municipal staff and council were successful in creating a budget that allowed for a zero per cent tax increase, they were concerned, because this left their reserves in a depleted state, especially after paying for their share of the Drummond/Lewis Street rehabilitation project. Because of this, the proposed budget included a 1% tax increase to refill the reserves.

However, on Wednesday morning (after the first budget meeting in Wolford), Mayor Struthers received a letter and phone call from the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, with some, as he put it, “very exciting news.” The provincial government is giving the Municipality of Merrickville Wolford an unconditional $371,843 grant as part of their Municipal Modernization Fund. This fund is meant to help small and rural municipalities modernize service delivery and reduce future costs through investments in projects, service delivery reviews, development of shared service agreements and capital investments.

Council and staff are confident that there are some line items in the budget which will be covered by this funding. “Any excess funds will go into a special reserve to be held until further analysis on the best use for the funds under ministry guidelines,” Mayor Struthers said at the meeting in Merrickville.

Staff and council are confident that this funding will allow them to contribute to the reserve funds without having to implement the 1% tax increase as proposed in the draft budget. Mayor Struthers says that staff will be reporting to council on Monday about the further implications of the funding for the 2019 budget.

After Mayor Stuthers delivered this news, CAO Doug Robertson and Treasurer Kirsten Rahm took over the presentation, delivering a high-level view of the 2019 draft budget. Merrickville-Wolford’s total budget for 2019 is $5,358,905. Twenty-five per cent of the budget will be going towards administration costs, 3% to the library, 10% to emergency and protective services, 4% to building and planning, 4% to recreation, 13% to economic development and 41% to public works. Based on the original plan for a 1% tax increase, all services cost homeowners $815.44 per $100,000 of property assessment.

The water/wastewater budget was also presented, with the total costs for running the facility sitting at $2,458,417. Kirsten reminded residents that this was being paid for by user fees and other funds, not by the general tax levy. Resident, Joan Spencer, brought up the ever-present issue of the high cost of water/wastewater services in the municipality. “I would like to recommend a working group who have the time [to look into it],” she said at the meeting. “We can’t let it slip through the cracks again.”

CAO Doug Robertson addressed the issue by saying that he agrees that staff and council need to have a look at the current rate table and see if billing can be done differently. “We have it in the budget to do a full rate review,” he said. Doug also pointed out that municipal staff are looking into ways to encourage the rate-payers to watch their usage of the system, so they don’t overwhelm it. Connecting things like downspouts and sump pumps to the system can cause it to be overloaded and increase costs. Doug is also hopeful that they will see some residential and commercial development in the municipality in the near future that will tie into the system and decrease the burden on the small number of homes that currently supports its operation.

The 2018 legal fees were also addressed by the public, and Doug was able to assure the crowd that last year’s $176,000 bill for legal fees was an anomaly which is unlikely to occur again. The legal bills have made a dent in the municipality’s legal reserve fund, but Kirsten says it is not completely drained. There are currently no internal investigations that are ongoing in the municipality, and the cost of the second workplace investigation should come to council at the next meeting. “It is nowhere near the cost of the first investigation,” Doug says.

The municipality seems to be looking into the future and is going through the process of creating a longer-term financial plan. Doug says he is also aware that many municipalities are looking at the idea of developing multi-year budgets, which is something they are interested in implementing for the Village.

Staff will be taking all the public input from the two meetings, along with the news of the grant from the province, and creating a budget to be presented to council on Monday, March 25. If all goes well, the budget will be passed by council at that meeting. The 2019 draft budget, as well as the Powerpoint presentation from the public meetings, is available on the municipal website.

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