February 18, 2015

County tax share continues to grow

As published in The Erin Advocate

Steady increases in property values have been a bonus for Erin residents when they want to sell their homes, but when county tax taxes are calculated, there is an extra price to pay for living close to the Greater Toronto Area.

Wellington County recently approved a tax increase that averages 2.8%, meaning an extra $18 for every $100,000 of a home’s assessed value. If all property values were increasing at the same rate, we would all pay an extra 2.8% in county taxes, but that is not the case.

The County has never reported the tax impact split by municipality in the past, but I asked Treasurer Ken DeHart to crunch the numbers.

“An average residence in the Town of Erin will experience a 3.1% increase due to the change in property assessment being higher than the County average,” he said.

Tax bills will vary based on individual properties, but the average assessed value of an Erin home was up 3.8% last year, compared to an average of 3.4% countywide. By provincial law, assessment determines the share of property taxes – the County and the Town have no authority to change the system.

Paying .3% above the county average may not seem like much, but over the years the differences in assessment have become quite dramatic, and Erin is not the highest. The average single family detached (SFD) home in Erin has gone from $444,572 in 2013, to $463,933 in 2014 and $481,394 in 2015.

The average SFD home assessment for Wellington County in 2015 was $372,956. Here are the averages by municipality: 
Puslinch - $644,852; 
Erin - $481,394; 
Guelph-Eramosa - $450,361; 
Centre Wellington - $342,817; 
Mapleton - $308,628; 
Wellington North - $221,778 and 
Minto - $202,304.

It is important to remember that assessment growth does not directly result in tax increases. But with the county deciding it needs to collect $84.5 million in taxes this year (as part of a $185.8 million total budget), assessment determines the relative share for each taxpayer.

People are often shocked at how much money the county spends. In 2014 Wellington collected $12.5 million from Erin, 55.2% of total taxes. The Town of Erin collected $5.5 million (24.4%), while schools got $4.6 million (20.4%).

County roads and bridges make up the largest part of Wellington’s budget, but many expenses can be traced back to the downloading of the 1990s, when the provincial government forced counties to take over the cost of some major services. Those still account for more than $40 million on the annual tax levy.

The big-ticket items include:
• Rural OPP service ($17.3 million), 
 The Farm Tax Rebate ($10.6 million), 
 Social Housing ($4.3 million), 
 Land Ambulance ($4 million), 
 Former Provincial Highways ($3.7 million), 
 Social Services and Childcare ($1.8 million) and 
 Public Health ($2 million).

The relatively low amount of taxes paid on farmland, 25% of the regular rate, is a particular issue for municipal taxpayers. Farmland qualifies for the Farm Tax Rebate if it is actually farmed, generating at least $7,000 in gross income per year.

The rebate used to be paid by the province and shared through income taxes. When it was shifted to municipalities, provincial grants were supposed to cover the cost. Actual grants cover less than half, however, leaving county taxpayers to cover the balance. The net cost is $487 per household.

February 11, 2015

Food strategy discussion at Family Farm screening

As published in The Erin Advocate

The creative ways in which small family farms can prosper in an era of industrialized agriculture will be the topic of a film screening and panel discussion hosted by Transition Erin.

The showing of the CBC-sponsored documentary The Family Farm will take place at 7 pm this Friday, February 13, at the Legion Hall on Dundas Street East. Admission is free.

Created by Ari Cohen, the film explores the farm-to-table process through the lens of Canadian small farmers and identifies the systemic barriers they face in running a profitable farm.

“There’s got to be a better way of growing food, something that makes us feel responsible and proud of what we’re doing,” said one farmer in the documentary.

“We’re a dying breed,” said another. “The corporate farm is slowly taking us over and there doesn’t seem to be too much concern about it. It’s not only the production of food, but we are looking after the environment and the land. When it gets into corporate hands, things get lost.”

Discussion after the screening will centre on how a coordinated plan for a sustainable food system can be promoted in Erin and Guelph-Wellington.

“These are creative times for farmers, and I’m surprised at how many young people are involved,” said organizer Jay Mowat. “If you get out to the farmers’ markets, you’ll get to know the person who is selling you your food. Family farms can still be made profitable.”

The panelists will include Mark Skinner, Manager at Everdale Organic Farm, Matt Setzkorn, Executive Director at Ontario Farmland Trust and Pam Fanjoy, Owner of The Friendly Chef Adventures and the Mill Run Eatery in Erin.

The event is co-sponsored by the Guelph-Wellington Food Round Table (www.gwfrt.com), which seeks to build up production, distribution and consumption of local food. The group hopes to increase self-sufficiency, reduce impact on the environment and preserve rural communities. They support the Community Gardens Network and initiatives such as Taste Real and the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT).

The other sponsor is the Guelph chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (www.opirgguelph.org), part of an international network on social and environmental issues, founded by activist Ralph Nader.

It is difficult to adopt a conserving farm lifestyle in today’s society, and a variety of projects plus outside jobs are often needed to ensure year-round income.

In some ways, the challenges of farmers are similar to those of many other small businesses. But it other ways they are unique, because of the demanding way of life, the close connection with the power of nature and the proud tradition of public service.

Family farms remain an important part of Canada’s economic backbone, and they play a role in ensuring the survival and well-being of local communities and environments. It is a heritage worth preserving, both with government policy and our consumer dollars.

February 04, 2015

Pond drainage needed for Round Goby eradication

As published in The Erin Advocate

The Round Gobies of Hillsburgh have caused quite a stir among fisheries biologists and may soon find out just how unwelcome they in the Credit River watershed.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) considers the problem so severe that they have a plan to apply piscicide – a poison that would kill off every gill-breathing animal in six ponds and a short section of the West Credit River near Hillsburgh.

If the plan goes ahead this spring, they would draw down the water levels and use electrofishing to stun and capture quantities of desirable fish, which could be returned to the water once the poison is gone. Lower pond levels would allow the operation to be done with less of the chemical, called Rotenone.

Round Goby (neogobius melanstromus) arrived in the Great Lakes about 25 years ago, thanks to ships from the Black Sea. In 2013 some were dumped in Hillsburgh, probably from a bait bucket.

Since then they’ve been doing what comes naturally – feeding aggressively on diverse aquatic food supplies and spawning several times a year. Their ability to dominate the local environment qualifies them as an Invasive Species.

Since they became established in Lake Erie they have eliminated nearly all of the small bottom dwelling fish, such as darters and sculpins, which were once found there. They’ve also caused significant damage to the nests of Smallmouth Bass by consuming their eggs and young. They like to feed on zebra mussles, another invasive species.

They have advantages over some other fish, since they are able to survive in lower-quality water and have a sensory system that helps them gather food more aggressively.

At a public meeting last fall at the Hillsburgh Fire Hall, MNRF said if the Round Goby is not “controlled”, it is a major threat to native fish, including Brook Trout and other salmonids.

According to their presentation, “Downstream movement of goby to more suitable habitats could negatively impact the fish community of an additional 80+ km of the Credit River, which contains recreationally and economically important fisheries.”

MNRF had hoped to carry out the eradication last fall. It is now planned for the spring, but a final decision has not been made. They have promised to keep the community informed.

“MNRF will continue to work with landowners to secure permission to access properties for monitoring and treatment,” said Management Biologist Art Timmerman, in a letter sent to residents and Town Council.

Rotenone is the only registered piscicide in Canada, to be used as a “fisheries management tool”. It is a natural substance extracted from the roots of tropical plants, and only affects gill breathers.

MRNF says there will be no accumulation in the aquatic environment, no effect on birds or other wildlife and no threat to public health. They said this preferred option is “safe and effective, with immediate results at moderate cost.” Dead fish would have to be collected before the ponds are refilled.

Rotenone breaks down quickly in the water. All residue would be gone in one to four weeks, and oxidizing agents could be added to neutralize any downstream impact, MNRF says.

Round gobies have not been found upstream or downstream from Hillsburgh, probably because they prefer the relatively warm environment of the ponds, but once their population increases, they are likely to spread.

The ponds could be restored to their pre-treatment levels and restocked with native fish, depending on the preferences of the landowners.

The long-term future of the main Hillsburgh pond and the Station Street dam are currently being studied in an Environmental Assessment.