The Meaford and District Chamber of Commerce held the first of three All Candidates meetings that they have planned for this election season on Monday night.
Residents filled the Meaford & St. Vincent Community Centre for their chance to hear what the candidates for Mayor, Deputy Mayor and School Board had to say, and to ask any questions that might be on their minds.
As far as candidate debates go, Monday night was a pretty tame affair, free from any real battle lines being drawn. Mayoral candidate Jim McPherson perhaps came the closest to creating any buzz with his call for a “Fresh start,” and his assertion that the current leadership in Meaford has “Only been successful in increasing staff, taxes, and municipal debt.”
The candidates themselves can't really be blamed for the lack-luster affair. They didn't really face any tough questions and instead were lobbed a bunch of softballs.
The one key question asked by Chamber President Geoff Solomon didn't really garner the type of response you would expect from four candidates vying for the positions of Mayor and Deputy Mayor.
“Current tax rates are concerning citizens. The current five year plan provides for hefty tax increases over the next three years. If taxes were not raised as per the five-year plan, how could current services be maintained? What will need to change? What would your priorities be?” asked Solomon.
The candidates were given the question well in advance, they had time to ponder and prepare a dazzling response. Yet nobody really answered the question.
Mayoral candidate Francis Richardson provided a little history lesson and asserted that six years of zero tax increases have brought us to where we are now- having experienced more than $3 million in accumulated deficits. He then said that the only way to maintain services without the tax increases cited in the five-year plan would be to go into debt.
That isn't an answer to the question that was asked.
Richardson's opponent for the Mayor's chair came armed with a prepared answer, and though there were some interesting points in his response, McPherson too failed to answer the question that was asked.
“What is the five-year plan? The answer is there isn't one. The five-year plan doesn't exist. It's just a catch-phrase,” suggested McPherson.
Though he didn't answer the question of how services could be maintained if the tax increases proposed in the five-year plan were not followed through with, McPherson did become the first member of council that I can recall to publicly state that Meaford came very close to losing it's ability to govern itself.
“When the five-year plan was originally proposed I repeatedly asked the present Mayor 'Do you have Ministry approval?', he assured us we did. You see in municipal government you aren't allowed to carry deficits. You must pay your deficit in the very next year. Instead, while we were in deficit we increased our staff and our wages,” explained McPherson, “This year we suddenly had an emergency meeting called and we were told we did not have Ministry approval for the five-year plan and we were at risk of losing the ability to govern the municipality.”
Pretty powerful stuff, and definitely interesting to hear coming from a member of council, but still it did not answer the question.
The candidates for Deputy Mayor didn't fair much better with the question.
Gerald Shortt talked about the fact that we have a lot of seniors on fixed incomes in our municipality, and that the municipality used to run surpluses and now we run deficits. He suggested that Meaford has more employees than we can afford, and he expressed his view that the Georgian Beach lawsuit needs to be rescinded.
All fine stuff, but still none of it answered the question that had been asked.
Harley Greenfield answered the question by saying that Meaford needs to cut some staff- but not too many- and find a way to offer the same services with fewer employees. Greenfield didn't think that there was any potential for cutting costs in the roads department, and said that it wouldn't be easy to find savings.
Still no answer.
The question is a very good one, and I give the Chamber credit for asking it. Not only does it address a critical issue, but if an actual answer was provided it would give huge insight into the philosophy and governing style of a candidate, and it would also serve to inform the voters of Meaford of who has “the right stuff” to lead our municipality. Who is brave enough to take a stand and either win the day or fall on their sword by being true to their views?
Two candidates for Mayor, and two for Deputy Mayor, and nobody answered this very important question. Leading into this All Candidates meeting I was very hopeful that someone would provide an answer. I didn't care if I liked or agreed with the answer, but I was most certainly looking forward to hearing a candidate take a stand, and offer their view on it.
There are several ways to answer the question, so let's imagine for a moment that there were two extra candidates on the stage last night. We'll call them Candidate X and Candidate Y. Here is how they might have answered that question. Each of our imaginary candidates would have had polar opposite views, but each would have had the wherewithal to stand up and take a risk by providing their view.
Thank you for the question. I agree, current tax rates are a major concern of our citizens. We have experienced a few years of major tax increases in Meaford, and before the five-year plan is through we will experience a few more years of major tax increases. The fact is, our ratepayers can't afford this, and our municipality can't afford it unless we are willing to close our doors to potential new residents, and watch current residents flee to more affordable communities.
If taxes are not to be raised as outlined in the five-year plan, how could current services be maintained?
Well, quite simply, they can't. So the question becomes do we need to provide all of the services that we are providing, and of the services that we do provide, which are we willing to scale back on, or eliminate completely.
The operational review that was conducted by our own citizens found that we are appropriately staffed for the services that we provide, and if we are to realize any cost savings by cutting staff, then we first need to decide which services we no longer need.
I would suggest to you the voter, that there are huge savings to be found within our municipal operations, we just need to be brave enough, and honest enough to take a long hard look at what are truly essential services, and what are luxuries that we have become accustomed to.
I am willing to take that challenge on, and in doing so my priorities would be simple. Anything that impacts public health and safety must be preserved and funded as fully as we are currently funding those services. Any service that does not impact public health and safety, is a non-essential service and would under my leadership be subject to severe scaling back, and in some cases complete cuts. It wouldn't be easy, it wouldn't be nice, but the alternative is continued increases in our taxes which we simply cannot afford.
While I agree that current and future tax rates are concerning all of us, the fact is that we are merely paying for several years of zero increases in our residential taxes. Nobody complained in those years, and perhaps they should have. Certainly it would have been more prudent to have small increases each year, but we didn't, and now we must pay.
The five-year plan was developed by our senior management, and approved by council, and we must stay the course, and see it through. As much as residents are not happy about having to pay more, they would be far more unhappy if we were to cut services and staff.
The operational review that my opponent speaks of did indeed find that our municipality was not over-staffed, in fact, it also suggested that we were short staffed in some areas, and recommended the hiring of additional staff.
I am not willing to sacrifice the services that we already receive, and so in order to fund those services which make our community a wonderful place to live and work, I fully support the five-year plan, and we will all benefit in the end after our reserves which were used to pay off our accumulated deficit are replenished, and we can shift from hefty tax increases to simple annual cost of living increases.
Those are two very different answers. Each of those answers would make some people happy and would outrage others. But they are the answers that a candidate willing to take a stand and lead would give.
It is unfortunate that we didn't hear such answers at the All Candidates meeting.