Thursday, June 13, 2024

An Infrastructure Focused Budget is Just What This Municipality Needs

Stephen Vance, Editor

Meaford Mayor Barb Clumpus referred to the budget approved by council to be presented at the December 5 statutory public meeting as “remarkable”, however, while it is a very good budget, “remarkable” is not the word I would use.

After all, space travel is pretty remarkable, the fact that we can send photos, videos, and text through the air for someone halfway around the world to receive is remarkable.

Preparing a budget that meets the needs of a municipality while keeping next year’s property tax increase as low as possible isn’t exactly remarkable, it’s appropriate. I’d even say it has been outstanding, but remarkable is a bit of a stretch.

Wordplay aside, there’s no doubt that municipal staff have done a fine job preparing next year’s budget, and they definitely deserve praise (and appreciation) for all that hard work. Council too deserves a pat on the back this time around. We might like to joke at the media table that councillors inevitably spend at times laughably lengthy periods of time discussing and debating tiny-value budget items while hundreds of thousands of dollars can be seemingly glossed over in seconds, but the reality is that this council has been very thorough, they have recognized the need to step up infrastructure spending for roads, bridges, and municipal facilities in order to begin chipping away at the mountain of infrastructure repair and replacement on the horizon, and every single member of council has been very engaged in the process throughout. That’s why we elect them, and while elected representatives are often treated like punching bags by the public (and the media), when they’ve done right by their constituents, they deserve recognition for it.

The budget process this year has been the best I’ve seen in the eight years that I have been covering Meaford council. The amount of information provided to the media and the public has been outstanding, and though not well-attended this year, the fact that three public engagement sessions were held (in the far reaches of our geographically large municipality) early in the process has ensured that if you wanted to be fully informed about the 2017 municipal budget, or if you wanted your thoughts and ideas to be considered by staff and council, there were certainly no barriers, and there was plenty of opportunity. For those unable to make it out to one of the public engagement sessions, municipal staff has dedicated an email address for ratepayers to submit their thoughts and concerns about the budget, and volumes of information have been posted on the municipal website.

At some point during one of the many budget meetings held over the past few months, Meaford’s treasurer told council that the budget prepared by staff will “get you everything you need, and nothing you want.” Given the times, that is exactly the kind of budget we need. There are no frills of any significance in the budget that will be presented to the public on December 5. There are no pet projects, there are no empire-building initiatives. This budget is infrastructure-focused, and it’s otherwise bare-boned. Municipal staff even managed to reduce the base budget by more than $200,000 (1.8 percent) when compared to last year, allowing for even more funds to be redirected to infrastructure needs.

In all the years I’ve covered Meaford’s council, by far the most common complaint I have heard, meeting after meeting, month after month, year after year, is “our roads need to be fixed!” Well, municipal staff and council have taken a major step in the right direction on that front. Finding more money for roads and bridges in particular has been the top priority for council and staff, and the budget they have come up with is evidence of that fact.

Is your crumbling road going to be fixed tomorrow? No. Like virtually every other municipality in the province, Meaford is facing tens of millions of dollars in required road-work, tens of millions more for bridge infrastructure repair and replacement, and millions more still for water and wastewater infrastructure needs, so the road crew might not be outside your house tomorrow, but they are on the way.

As I have written recently, I would just caution everyone to enjoy this year’s “small” 2.963 percent property tax increase. If we want to keep all of that wonderful infrastructure, it’s going to take more than three percent annual increases to do so in the years to come. If we were able to tackle our mind-bogglingly huge infrastructure deficit with just three percent increases in the coming years, now that would be remarkable – but it isn’t going to happen.

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