Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Could Meaford be Spending too Much on Infrastructure?

Stephen Vance, Editor

During council’s discussion while approving the municipal budgets for 2020, Councillor Steve Bartley raised an interesting question – is Meaford spending too much on infrastructure?

The 2020 tax supported capital works budget approved by council is more than $12 million, double that of most neighbouring municipalities.

Of that, more than $2 million is destined for roads infrastructure with another $2.9 million allocated toward bridges.

For many years Meaford councils have been rightly told by residents that the municipality hasn’t spent enough on core infrastructure, and as a result many roads have been worn down to poor condition, and we have bridges that risk permanent closure.

The current council and the council before it have placed a heavy emphasis on infrastructure needs, and as a result in recent years Meaford has spent more on infrastructure projects than ever before, but is it too much?

During this year’s budget talks, it was suggested a time or two that if Meaford spent less on its capital program, the required rate increase could have been significantly lower. While that may be true, as Councillor Harley Greenfield noted during Monday’s meeting, Meaford experienced a ‘capital funding drought’ several years back, when little to nothing in the way of capital projects was undertaken, and what might seem like significantly increased capital spending is in part a sign of the municipality playing catch-up.

Many residents might be surprised at the suggestion that Meaford is spending too much on roads and bridges given the sorry state of many of our roads and the frequent complaints from ratepayers who have all but begged for significant increases to municipal infrastructure funding. However, with Meaford’s spending doubling that of most of its neighbours in recent years, Bartley’s question is a fair one to ask.

The warnings have been clear in recent years – municipalities across the country have not spent enough in properly maintaining infrastructure for decades, and as a result there is a massive national infrastructure funding deficit.

To their credit, recent councils in Meaford have taken the infrastructure issue seriously, and aside from playing catch-up for failures of years past, recent councils have made a priority of funding as much in the way of capital projects as possible while attempting to keep annual rate increases as low as possible.

In spite of the significant increases to infrastructure funding in recent years, council is still saddled with the impression held by many residents that Meaford isn’t doing nearly enough to fund roads and bridges in particular.

When you see how much more Meaford is spending on capital projects than neighbouring communities it might be difficult to understand why so many Meaford residents still insist that Meaford isn’t doing enough to tackle the infrastructure needs of the municipality.

To be fair, skewing the numbers this year is the new library project, which is responsible for nearly $4 million of this year’s $12 million capital budget.

While many would suggest that a municipality can never spend too much on capital projects, the library project is held up by some as a capital project that we could do without. When it comes to infrastructure spending the emphasis is often on roads and bridges, but facilities are municipal infrastructure too. Like it or not, Meaford’s current library is aged, it’s crumbling, and it has no hope of being compliant with Ontario’s accessibility legislation which kicks in fully in less than five years, so while not supported by all, it is a necessary municipal infrastructure project, just as our aging arena will be in years to come.

The point raised by Councillor Bartley is an interesting one indeed. Is it possible that even with the steady stream of complaints that come before council about this road or that, about this bridge or that, that Meaford has reached a point where too much is being spent on capital projects?

Many in this municipality might rightly be shocked that Meaford could have reached a point where we are doing too much on the infrastructure front, and even I, as someone who has been beating the drums for years about the massive infrastructure funding deficit facing this and virtually all municipalities, feel that Bartley’s question is worthy of some healthy discussion around the council horseshoe.

The tightrope to be walked by municipal councillors can be interesting to watch. On the one hand, council regularly hears from residents who are frustrated about the sorry state of their roads, while on the other hand council also regularly hears that Meaford’s taxes are too high, and residents can’t absorb any more increases.

I would love to hear some thoughts from our readers – is Meaford spending too much on capital projects? Should we spend less? The library aside (I concede that the library is a contentious project for many), how much less should Meaford be spending?

Or, has Meaford been on the right track in recent years with significant emphasis on attempting to reel in the growing infrastructure funding deficit?

It is an interesting question, and one that quite frankly this municipality hasn’t had the luxury of exploring in years past.

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