Merrickville-Wolford council passed a resolution at a special meeting last week to decrease the tax rate for 2020 to help ease the burden on taxpayers during the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 23, council approved a bylaw to set the 2020 property tax rate at an increase of 3.13% over 2019. To address the COVID-19 crisis and its financial impact on residents, staff put together a report for council consideration that would see a number of projects deferred in order to provide some relief to taxpayers in 2020.
Some members of council felt an aggressive approach was needed in order to support residents who may have lost a significant amount of income due to the CO- VID-19 pandemic. “We need some way that we are going to translate to the public, so that they have piece of mind that we are not leaving anything off the table,” Deputy Mayor Michael Cameron said at the meeting. “There is going to be a significant loss per household.”
Others felt that, at this point, they needed to take a more conservative approach to maintain fiscal responsibility and the level of service their residents expect. “It doesn’t do anybody any good in the Municipality if we cut revenue to where we can’t afford to keep things running the way they should be running,” Councillor Timothy Molloy said.
After some discussion, council agreed to a more conservative approach that would give taxpayers some relief, but still ensure that the Municipality remains sustainable. Council passed a bylaw that approved a 0.44% increase over 2019, which is a 2.69% decrease from the original tax rate adopted on March 23. In order to do this, several projects were either amended or put on hold for this fiscal year, including the Read Street slurry seal, a zoning by-law review, and the development of a long-term financial plan for the Village.
Staff were also able to include savings found when acquiring a washing machine for the fire department and a new landfill compactor.
Staff also put forward a report at the special council meeting suggesting a 5% decrease in the water/wastewater rates for all ratepayers.
Councillor Bob Foster was the first to suggest that this might not be the way to go. He said that the focus should be on businesses in the Village which are being charged thousands of dollars for water they aren’t using.
“Charging them commercial water rates is adding injury to insult,” he said. While Councillor Foster did put forward the suggestion to allow businesses to pay the residential rate, and ensuring only one meter is used to monitor water use per business/household, he also mentioned that he would appreciate more information from staff before making a concrete decision. “I would like to see a breakdown of commercial revenue, residential revenue, and implication of switching all commercial to residential,” he said.
Mayor Doug Struthers noted that everyone has their fingers on the pulse of the issue of water/sewer billing at this time, and that whatever decision is made by council must be seen as equitable to all users. He also mentioned that it would be important to note the impact any change in billing would have on the wastewater treatment system. “Everything that we are doing at the moment is challenging,” he said.
After some discussion, council agreed that they would defer any decision regarding relief in water/wastewater rates until they can get more information from staff. Although council meetings are currently being held on an as-needed basis, Mayor Struthers said he would most likely call another meeting in the next two weeks. “We know what we need to do,” Mayor Struthers said at the end of the meeting. “How we do it, and how it will work, takes patience, time, and clarity. We are all working to get through this on one way, shape or form.”