Given the chance to air their grievances about the township’s budget choices, more than a hundred Wellesley residents provided councillors with an earful last week.
The town hall meeting held April 26 at the Linwood Community Centre saw many of the public’s questions focus on the 14 per cent tax increase and council’s approval of a $27-million rec complex that led, in part, to the hike.
“We found ourselves in a very difficult position of voting on a substantial tax increase. Inflation was very high going into budget deliberations and council and staff both knew we had deferred increases in staffing and the rec. centre debenture that would be added on top of any inflationary increases we would approve,” said Mayor Joe Nowak in his opening remarks.
“Council is appreciative of the desire of residents to be more engaged in the council process and the decisions affecting our township,” he added.
While council read prepared answers to the questions submitted online ahead of the meeting, several residents also took the opportunity to voice their frustrations in person. Many of the questions focused on the transparency of the process leading to the approval of the new recreation facility. Originally estimated at $22 million, the project quickly blossomed to $27.5 million due to inflation.
“You shouldn’t have put us in this position. I’m concerned that this council and the council ahead of it went ahead and built a facility that you couldn’t afford,” said resident Denise Sutherland.
Another resident voiced concerns about the length of the debenture on the complex, stating that she will be more than 100 years old by the time the 20-year debenture is paid off.
Resident John Rose expressed concern that council approved the rec. centre without having operating cost projections beforehand. However, Nowak said it was impossible to provide fully accurate numbers “because of a number of variables in the operating and utilizing of the facilities.”
That did not sit well with Rose, who said his employment involves working on capital projects.
“I’ll tell you right now if I told my boss it was impossible to project anything, perhaps I could apply for a council position. Quite frankly it’s inexcusable for a $27-million project that there’s been no answer put to paper in terms of projections,” he said.
“How do you spend $27 million in a capital project with no projection of forward revenues or expenses? Do you feel that that is an appropriate, responsible use of taxpayers’ money?”
Operating costs will be discussed as part of the 2024 budget discussions, the township maintains.
Another resident, Terry Koudys, argued the township has not been forthcoming about which community groups were consulted prior to building the new complex.
“I was never asked ‘do I want a hockey arena?’ I’ve never stood in front of the council here… so these are the decisions that council is making, spending our money with really no input from the community. If I want to build a hockey rink, I’m going to go to a guy who plays hockey. Where are the people who you spoke to who don’t have a vested interest in it?”
There was also discussion on why the council decided to go ahead with the rec. centre instead of spending money to repair the aging Wellesley arena, however according to Nowak, it would have cost between $5-$8 million to bring that building up to standards, while only adding 10-15 years onto the building’s lifespan. That, combined with the $16.1 million grant from the province, added to the decision to build a new facility instead of repairing the existing building.
At the close of the meeting, Nowak asked the room at large if they should have rejected the grant, to which those gathered yelled “yes” in unison.
Following the meeting, Rose said attendance indicated that residents don’t want the township to operate in a vacuum.
“If there’s no other message to council, the message to council is you have to engage,” he said in an interview.
“I’m just moved, to be honest with you, that people came out the way they did and supported it and wanted to be heard.”
Koudys said he was disappointed with the canned responses from council. He added that residents are still going to hold the council to account going forward.
“We still want to hold them accountable and let them know that the decisions that they make have direct impact on us. Shame on us for not being more involved in the past, but many of the decisions that they made and the justification that they are using to make those decisions [are questionable].”