Merrickville-Wolford council passed their 2021 budget at the last council meeting at a 0% tax increase.
The draft budget overview which was made available to the public over six days last week reported a 0.09% tax increase. This was due to council directing staff to include $3000 in the library budget for building maintenance and repairs. CAO Doug Robertson told council at their meeting of April 26 that staff had received some new information since their budget discussion about the municipality’s grant revenue for the year, and because of this, they were able use the grant funding to offset the $3000 and bring the budget back down to zero.
In order to ensure a 0% tax increase, staff had to be conservative with their spending this year. This included reducing a payment to their infrastructure reserve to roughly $17,000, rather than their usual $70,000-$170,0000.
Although there are quite a few roads that need maintenance throughout the municipality, they have chosen to focus on the ones that are overdue for attention and severely at risk of falling into disrepair. This includes Bates Road, Reid Street, Ireland Road, Weedmark Road and a portion of Snowdons Corners Road.
Deputy Mayor Michael Cameron is concerned that the municipality is not doing enough to address roads. The Village’s 2014 asset management plan outlined over 80 roads in the municipality, 18 of which needed attention. “Millions of dollars in road upgrades were identified in 2014,” Deputy Mayor Cameron says. “Here we are coming into 2021 and we haven’t moved forward on that, with the exception of a couple roads that have been tarred and chipped.”
The Deputy Mayor was the only member of council to vote against the 2021 budget. He believes that it is not reflective of the needs of residents and that council needs to have a more forward-thinking approach to managing the municipality. He says this is a historical issue and is exemplified by the fact that council just had to go back into their bylaw to address who was responsible for paying for the replacement of water meters in the Village at end of life. Although Deputy Mayor Cameron was pleased with council’s decision to use reserves to pay the $266,588 needed to replace all 400 meters over the next few years, he believes that the details should have been hammered out when they were installed in 2003. “There was no provision in the bylaw directing staff exactly how they would fund these end of life meters,” he says. “Here we are at a point again where it’s being discussed. It’s a reactive council, not a proactive council.”
He also has concerns about residents of Wolford being neglected, especially with the municipality’s apparent inability to plough a sidewalk in Jasper so residents can have a safe place to walk during the winter. “We should be delivering the same service to all ratepayers,” he says.
Finally, he doesn’t believe there was enough council discussion and public input in the budget process. Looking at surrounding municipalities, many used Zoom to hold their budget deliberations to encourage public input, and the Deputy Mayor doesn’t understand why they didn’t do the same. “The ratepayers are the reason why we have budgets, the ratepayers are the reason why we have roads and water and sewer and all this other stuff in the municipality,” he says. “These people are the shareholders, and cutting them out of the process, to me, is not respectful.”
Mayor Doug Struthers said at the meeting that he believes council and staff worked well to put together a good budget for 2021. Council held two recorded budget meetings and had almost three weeks to go over the budget and raise their concerns with staff. “Keeping the tax rate increase this year at zero just underscores the care and consideration that council and staff have given to the people who live in Merrickville-Wolford,” he said.