Sunday, April 21, 2024

Advice to Council – Show Rural Residents Some Respect

By Stephen Vance, Editor

Should Meaford’s council take the lacklustre attendance at the recent public engagement sessions for the 2015 municipal budget as a sign that ratepayers are happy with the budget and the 1.3 percent property tax increase that comes with it, or should they take it as a warning that the public has become frustrated, apathetic, and as a result have disconnected from the process?

More Meaford residents attended the public planning meeting earlier this month regarding the proposed redevelopment of some downtown buildings than all of the budget meetings combined. It would be reasonable to believe that with a relatively low rate increase, the masses we’ve seen at budget meetings in previous years decided to stay home.

It may be true that many in the community either don’t care, or are happy with the municipality and its long road to financial recovery, and when compared to the previous five years, the proposed rate increase on the municipal portion of your property tax bill is much easier on the cheque book.

That said, here’s why I don’t believe that people are happy, and council should pay attention. We are a little more than three months since the municipal election. During the election campaign there was much discussion among residents about outrageous tax levels, the need for zero increases, and a view that a top-heavy bloated municipal staff could be significantly trimmed. Just three months ago, my in-box, and I suspect the in-boxes of candidates, was filled with angry email and letters to the editor and the themes were always the same – taxes, staff, and roads.

So how is it that just a few months later the public budget meetings – the first for this newly elected council – failed to attract residents? Perhaps for some in our municipality, particularly in the rural areas, the election was just a speed bump, an opportunity to see if in fact council could be reshaped to better represent rural residents. When the votes were tallied however, Meaford again elected an urban-centric council, so perhaps the lack of attendance at the public budget meetings wasn’t a sign that everyone is happy, but rather that those who are unhappy are working on alternate plans.

There are some in Sydenham who would still like to undo the forced amalgamation of more than a decade ago, and if you’ve driven their roads, that alone makes such a desire understandable. The separatist movement is apparently alive and well in our western region, and members of council had best be paying attention.

Taxes are just part of the very complex problem, and while previous councils have been ineffective in addressing the concerns of rural residents, this council might have no choice but to address them – and quickly.

Council and municipal staff have managed to produce a budget with a small rate increase, and a little extra directed toward roads. In most other municipalities it would be a fantastic budget that would please nearly everyone, but most other municipalities don’t have Meaford’s history, and most haven’t experienced a five-year run of double digit rate increases as Meaford has.

History must be respected. History must be learned from.

It doesn’t matter that most of those on council and on the municipal staff roster weren’t on the scene during amalgamation. It doesn’t matter that staff and council today are doing the best they can to turn things around.

Without a proper acknowledgement that our rural residents have been dealt a crappy deck of cards, and a genuine pledge to do something about it – forming a rural issues committee for example – we are likely to endure another four years of friction and conflict.

Rural residents in Meaford have been steamrolled into a new municipality and then they’ve been fleeced for more and more money with no additional services, and then the urbanites stand around wondering why they are so upset when things currently seem to be going so well.

My advice to council – take rural residents seriously, treat them with respect, sit down with representatives of the rural communities and find a way to fix as many issues as possible. We’ll all be sorry if a solution can’t be found.

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