By Stephen Vance, Editor
While residents of the former Sydenham Township are unlikely to find success in their expressed desire to separate from the Municipality of Meaford, they are doing the entire municipality a favour by highlighting not only their own frustrations, but those of many residents throughout the municipality.
Property tax rates have not just skyrocketed in Sydenham – all ratepayers in the Municipality of Meaford have experienced the same significant, and for many, unmanageable, property tax increases over the last several years.
The logic for the much debated ‘five-year plan’ was sound enough – Meaford was in a financial pickle in 2009. An accumulated deficit of more than $3 million had to be dealt with (municipalities are not allowed to carry deficits in Ontario), and the five-year plan developed by our former CAO and former Treasurer was one solution to the problem.
Everyone can understand that if our municipality is in the red, a way has to be found to be back in the black.
In the first four years of the plan, Council has seemed to be quite happy to accept any budget presented by staff so long as it could be implemented with a ‘blended tax increase’ not exceeding five percent as promised to voters by all of the elected candidates in 2010.
What irks many, and not just those in Sydenham, is that while it is all fine and good to develop a plan to eliminate a burdensome deficit, this has been done without a single meaningful dollar having been cut from the municipal operating budget.
In fact, it isn’t even that the municipality needed to make drastic cuts, but some cuts, if only for show, as a way of saying, “Hey, Meaford ratepayer, we’re doing our part as well,” would have been something. Instead, the municipal budgets have continued to grow.
And certainly, in this time of troubled finances, in this period of what should have been fiscal restraint, Meaford ratepayers have seen plenty of new names added to the municipal roster.
To give you a feel of what I am talking about, consider this.
When I started covering Meaford council in 2008, the municipality had no CAO, and while a treasurer was lacking, there was a volunteer treasurer who ultimately was hired on. The other senior positions in the municipality were a Clerk – which is a position required by the province, a Director of Operations (roads, parks, snow plowing and so on), a Director of Planning and Building, and a Fire Chief.
And that was it.
Over the following four years, while Meaford taxpayers were being asked to fork over hefty tax increases each year, something started happening at the municipal office – a bit of a hiring spree I suppose you could call it.
In addition to the positions that were filled in 2009, the Municipality of Meaford now employs an Economic Development Professional, a Director of Community Services, a Deputy Clerk, a Deputy Fire Chief, and a full-time Bylaw Enforcement Officer among others.
I’m not suggesting that the people hired aren’t good people. They are. They work hard and earn their pay cheques. I’m also not suggesting that Meaford should never have such positions on the municipal roster.
But surely somebody on council must have thought that maybe, just maybe, the optics would be bad when you’ve asked the people you represent to significantly increase their contribution to the municipal till to fix a financial shortfall, while in turn, you hire management or director level staff for positions that either didn’t exist or were vacant when the financial crisis reared its ugly head.
I suppose it could be compared to a family member coming to you to say that they were experiencing financial difficulties, and could you spot them a few thousand dollars to help them get back on track, only to see them with a shiny new car a while later when there was nothing particularly wrong with the car they already had.
The residents of Sydenham are frustrated, and part of their frustration is shared throughout the municipality, and if any good comes of the spotlight that those Sydenham residents are shining on council and municipal operations, it is that people are talking about it, and they are looking ahead to election day next October.