Residential ratepayers in Bridgewater are opening their wallets to the largest tax increase since 2012-13 and can expect to continue paying more for sewer services.
Weeks ago, civic politicians put homeowners on notice a 10-cent-per-$100 of assessment spike was on the horizon as the Main Street of the South Shore grappled with pandemic-related financial pressures, federally-mandated sewer spending and a major highway infrastructure project.
During a town council meeting April 12, the local government made good on the change.
"It's a shame that we've had to increase the tax rate but at the same time shame on us, shame on me," Andrew Tanner, the town's deputy mayor, said during the council meeting.
"We should have increased the tax rate minor increments over the last several years and that would have eased this, perhaps, pain a little bit for people."
In business year 2021-22, Bridgewater's residential tax rate rises to $1.75 per $100 of assessment from $1.65 per $100 of assessment. It means a home assessed at $250,000 would see its annual property tax rise by $250, to $4,375 from $4,125. The commercial rate, however, stays at $3.97 per $100 of assessment.
As the town works toward cost-recovery on wastewater expenses, the base residential sewer rate goes up 15 per cent for at least the ninth consecutive year. The 2021-22 rate spikes to $464.66 from $404.05, while commercial ratepayers in town are going to fork out $986.93 instead of last year's $858.20.
Town council unanimously passed a $22.5 million operating and $14.2 million capital budget April 12.
"The federal government has mandated that by 2039 all municipalities in Canada must cease any wastewater overflows," Mayor David Mitchell commented during the council meeting.
"While it's the right course of action, this alone will likely have a cost in excess of over $50 million over the next 18 years for our community."
Mitchell defended the tax increase, reiterating the town's residential rate ranks near the middle-of-the-pack in comparison with towns of a similar size in the province.
Councillor Stacey Colwell, who previously broached the idea of freezing the rate for a year to temporarily cushion any negative pandemic-related financial impacts on citizens, ultimately voted in favour of the budget due to its content related to the environment, economics and quality-of-life.
Meanwhile, Mitchell noted the millions being spent to modernize sewer collection and treatment, on the new Highway 103 interchange and other infrastructure work.
"What we are doing is we are investing in the future of Bridgewater in what is the largest one-year capital investment in our history," Mitchell noted.
Councillor Jennifer McDonald alluded to the spending-positives earlier in the discussion, saying "we know we are sowing the seeds for a lot of really exciting things to come and for many years."
Most of the $14 million in capital spending - 70 per cent - is covered by a combination of grants from other levels of government and borrowing. Bridgewater spent nearly $6 million on capital work last year with about 36 per cent of that total coming from borrowing.
The town spent over $806,000 in 2020-21 toward borrowing and the amount is expected to be in the $1 million range in 2021-22 and continue on an increased trajectory to as high as $3.6 million in 2029-30.
Bridgewater's ability to borrow can be hampered if its annual percentage of payments per year on debt servicing - principal and interest combined - creeps too high. Nova Scotia's Department of Municipal Affairs starts taking a closer look when the percentage gets to 15 per cent and gets more involved if borrowing goes higher.
In 2021-22, the town's debt service ratio is around six per cent but is expected to hit 15 per cent in 2027-28.
"It's a lot like fixing a house," Mitchell subsequently told LighthouseNOW in an email. "After years of neglect and changing expectations of what's acceptable, we need to make repairs specific to wastewater that will make our 'house' better as a community, but we have to borrow to make that happen – borrowing doesn't make it a bad investment."
"We'll have a stronger, better 'house' at the end of the day with the steps that council is taking now. If we want to see sustained growth, a clean river, more housing developments, and more commercial investments, then this is the path to ensure that happens and that our community doesn't stagnate."
To view the budget in its entirety, go to www.bridgewater.ca/budget21 on the internet.