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Puslinch councillors offer different opinions on recent municipal study

by Mike Robinson

ABERFOYLE - When it comes to number crunching, it seems more factors than numbers need to be taken into account.

On March 8, Puslinch councillors attempted to take on a municipal study by BMA Management Consulting Inc. commissioned by Wellington County.

The document looked at a number of socioeconomic indicators to describe and quantify a municipality’s wealth and economic conditions and provide insight into its ability to generate revenue relative to the municipality’s demand for public services.

One goal of the study is to help develop financial policies reflecting a tax base viewed by population, property value, employment or business activity. Results could show the need to shift public service priorities because of demographic changes in the municipality, or because of changes in economic conditions.

Puslinch Mayor Dennis Lever, who described the report as a ‘pretty big document,” said  Wellington County financed the project but all the municipalities in the county were involved.

“It is important to understand where we are and any trends,” said Lever, who noted at least one item was mentioned during the township’s public budget meeting: the income level of residents and taxpayers.

Councillor Susan Fielding said she found the document difficult to read and “not user friendly at all.” She suggested someone would need to have “a strong accounting background to make a lot out of it.”

She did glean from the document “that Puslinch is very affluent financially,” yet she did not find the document useful because she said it did not do a good job summarizing information or giving “an indication of what those numbers meant.”

Lever said he intends to bring to a future council session a summarized document “you may find it a little bit easier to deal with.”

On the other hand, councillor Matthew Bulmer said the document was “... at times, addictive.” Yet he too suggested some of the tables within the document were difficult to understand.

In looking at government costs per capita, Bulmer found it difficult without similar municipalities with which to compare Puslinch.

While Bulmer agreed there were other municipalities with similar population densities, the lack of other comparative factors did not lead to a fair comparison.

Bulmer said “we are far from the most expensive municipality, but it was one place where we were not middle of the pack.” He added Puslinch had almost twice the average assessment of other municipalities within the study.

Bulmer said there is a wide variety of economic development projects across the province. “One can only imagine the amount of money being spent in grants, loaning and staffing for all this economic development.”

Yet over the past few years, Bulmer has also had discussions with various economic development officers asking for case studies to illustrate return on investments “and what do we get in return for this?”

“I wasn’t able to find anything in this report either.”

Lever responded that he was surprised to discover Huron County’s economic development budget was $1-million, the same as Wellington County’s.

“I too have not seen numbers on return on investment comparable to another municipality,” Lever said.

Bulmer said that if this money was being given to a shelter or some other organization, council would want to see what the results were.

“It’s not that I’m opposed to economic development, you just don’t want to put the money behind the wrong horse,” he said.

He suggested looking at areas such as Guelph which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country to see what they are doing.

Lever said the drive behind Wellington County’s economic development committee is the strategic plan of 2011.

Bulmer said having performance indicators is important to know if economic measures are effective.

Councillor Ken Roth said, “I was a little surprised the incomes in the township were as high as they are - in comparison to the rest of Ontario.”

He was also surprised the tax ratio was as high as it was.

Roth said the township will face some challenges to keep its taxes reasonable.

Councillor Wayne Stokley disagreed with Bulmer’s comment the report was addictive.

“I actually felt my heart rate going down ... in reading the material,” he quipped.

He considered the report very broad-based and included a lot of information not really pertinent to Puslinch.

Stokley said if another version of the report is being brought forward “to more directly influence us as a township”.

Lever said the next document “is another piece of the pie.” He agreed the report before council that night was not definitive, noting, “You need to look at a few of these to get a real picture of what is happening.”

When asked his opinion, financial director Paul Creamer said he shared the opinion of council that the information “is just a bit too broad.”

He added, “and I find it only includes municipalities which pay to be in the report ... but sometimes the municipalities you want to compare to are not included.”

Lever agreed that while not all municipalities were included in the report, “only King Township and Oakville have higher household incomes ... and that really gives you a picture of where Puslinch stands.”

Another surprising discovery for Lever was that in looking at the average population size for municipalities - half of the municipalities in Ontario are smaller than Puslinch - “I did not expect that.”

Lever said councillors understand the township has a low population density and is a rural municipality - surrounded by urban areas.

“So when you look at our general assessment - it’s the fourth highest - for the type of housing we have.”

Being close to Highway 401, Puslinch has a large industrial component, so “We understand that economic development is important.”

He stated that simply looking at costs per capita for certain services can be deceiving - costs appear high, yet when looking at costs compared to assessment, it provides a different perspective.

“You need to look at both to see how the township really fits in.”

Lever wished the report had provided more trend data - to show where the township is going and where it has been. He added, “I don’t know if Wellington County has made the commitment to fund this for next year.”

Fielding contended on the comments of Puslinch having the third highest income - “It’s all very relative ... because it is an average - not a median ... this makes it sound like everyone in Puslinch has a lot of money.”

She added, “As a council, we have to be aware there are a lot of people who are retired ... or on fixed incomes. I don’t think as a group, everyone is affluent.”

Lever agreed completely.

“When  you are looking at averages and not medians, you have to be careful of that. But if someone is building a house in Puslinch today, it is not an inexpensive proposition.”

He said the cost for a one to two acre lot can be in excess of $300,000.

 

March 18, 2016

 
 

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