Woodstock raises taxes despite increased revenue

by | Dec 16, 2023

Mayor blames increased staff and new structure driving up town’s operation costs

Woodstock property owners, especially those in Ward 4 encompassing the former town limits, will face higher tax bills in 2024 with jumps in both assessments and tax rates.

Woodstock council approved the $16.6 million budget to be sent to the provincial government for approval at the regular council session on Dec. 12.

An increase of close to nine per cent in property assessment will add more than $1 million in tax revenue, bringing the 2024 total to $14.16 million. The town will also receive $740.628 through the Community Funding and Equalization Grant and more than $1.74 million from other sources to secure the $16.6 million in total revenue.

Despite the significant increase in revenue, Mayor Trina Jones said the extra money basically covers substantial jumps in operating costs, including several new positions in several departments.

“It’s largely all operational,” she said.

The 2024 budget will see Ward 4 tax rates jump from $1.45 to $1.50 per $100 assessment. Meanwhile, Jones explained, the tax rate for the other wards would remain net-neutral, with all homeowners paying $1.12 per $100 of assessment.

The tax rate for Wards 1, 2, 3 and 5 includes approximately 70 cents per $100 from the town and 41 cents from the province, which continues to maintain roads and other services in the former local service districts.

Council also approved the $2.62 million utility budget, with Ward 4 residents paying the multi-tiered flat rates for water and sewer services council approved last July.

Jones noted this marks the current council’s first budget approval, adding 2024 as a year of study and review to find cost savings in the future. She said Woodstock’s finance committee, which includes herself, Coun. Mike Martin, Finance Director Jennifer Crabbe and other staff, worked diligently to establish a workable budget and urged council to pass it.

“Overall, I would say it was a lot of work from where we stood from years 2023 and 2024, but the finance committee was certainly happy with what was presented, and we agree it should be passed tonight,” Jones told council.

She said the 2024 budget reflects a focus on organizational structure, in which the finance committee worked with directors on workplace assessment to determine the need for more bodies and structural changes.

Crabbe and Jones explained the town would not share a detailed budget publicly until approved by the province.

Breaking from past town policy, Jones declined to provide the River Valley Sun with a detailed copy of the proposed budget with line-item expenditures before provincial approval. She provided a breakdown of revenue sources and departmental expenses.

Crabbe said the town would submit its proposed budget to the province on Dec. 13, adding she expected a quick response and approval.

Jones said the town would post the detailed budget on its website once it receives provincial approval.

The mayor explained that the study of structural and workforce needs identified a “shortfall” in protected services, which covers policing, fire service, and town services such as bylaw enforcement, inspection, and animal control.

Protective services’ budget of more than $6.4 million represents almost 39 per cent of Woodstock’s budgeted expenses, including nearly $5.3 million for police, more than $1 million for fire and over $113,000 for other protective services.

“Protective services are a huge chuck of our budget,” said Jones.

Woodstock policing costs are divided between the Woodstock Police Force, covering Ward 4 and the $1.6 million the RCMP charges to serve all other wards.

Jones explained the police budget includes money to add three new positions with the Woodstock Police Force. She said the town force would add two community engagement officers to enhance its more proactive approach to policing.

Jones explained the third new WPF member would join the Street Crime Unit created earlier this year and will focus on intimate partner violence. She explained crime data shows a concerning increase in domestic and sexual violence, with police responding to an average of almost one call per day.

The budget’s second most significant departmental expense, at more than $3.5 million, covers recreation and cultural services, including the AYR Motor Centre and the L.P. Fisher Public Library. While the AYR Motor Centre brings in significant revenue, making up much of the close to $1 million in sales for service, the town pays heavily to deliver recreational services to residents.

Like many departments, the budget includes funding for new recreational staff. The town website currently lists a job opportunity for a recreation coordinator.

The budget projects transportation services, made up primarily of public works, will cost the town over $2.1 million in 2024. Jones said that includes an allocation for additional seasonal workers.

The nearly $1.66 million for general government includes allocations to cover the newly revamped administrative positions, including a new CAO, HR director and other added positions.

Jones said the general government includes $115,000 in community grant funds, including potential support for community halls in the former local service districts.

The mayor explained that the $1.2 million budget for Environmental Health Services covers solid waste collection and transfer fees.

She said that includes a share of the $82,000 the Western Valley Regional Service Commission will face this year.

Jones said Woodstock CAO Allan Walker will work with the RCS and vendors in 2024 to find savings in solid waste management.

The budget also allocated $686,000 for development services and over $1 million for fiscal service, including debt and capital expenditures.

While operating costs will limit capital investments in the coming year, Jones explained the budget will set aside funds for a new police car and fingerprint scanning equipment for the police and street improvements.

She said the town would also use capital reserves, the Canada Community Building Fund and other grant programs for street and infrastructure improvements and equipment.

Jones said the utility budget also set aside a small amount of capital and will use reserve funds and grant programs to improve its aging water and sewer system. It will also focus on protecting the town’s water sources.

Like the general fund budget, the utility budget includes allocations for restructuring and new hiring, including the new utilities director. Jones explained utilities will add three seasonal workers, including two summer students to map out the water and sewer system over the next three summers.

The utility budget revenue will come from the new flat-rate tier system approved by council last summer.

Tier 1 sets a rate of $550 annually for residents who previously paid an annual average of $450 or less.

The Tier 2 rate is $750 annually, affecting those previously paying between $451 and $600.

Tier 3’s rate of $825 annually will include those previously averaging $601 to $750.

Tier 4 will see residents who previously paid $751 and higher now paying $925 annually.

Jones said town costs increased significantly as it adjusted to its first year of municipal reform. She predicts council to find savings over the coming year.

“From the finance side, 2024 is a year to dig and review and ensure all the practices we’re doing are to the best benefit of the taxpayers and employees,” she said. “So we’re reviewing everything. We all know there’s money to be had there.”

Jones also expressed hope the province’s long-planned fiscal reform improves the revenue stream for municipalities and doesn’t download additional expenses on their backs.

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