When council rejected staff recommendations for the use of $642,000 in unexpected grant funding from the province in favour of using the money to fund two infrastructure projects I understood what council was trying to do, but I was disappointed that they had passed on an opportunity to use the money for some important stuff that people don't generally like to see their tax dollars going toward. That council has changed course I think will be very beneficial in the long run.
By rejecting the staff recommendations to use the funds for a number of initiatives including conducting an updated traffic count survey (extremely valuable when trying to plan for and prioritize road and bridge infrastructure projects), undertaking a new state of the infrastructure report for bridges, and the development of a new transportation master plan (also an important process to undertake in order to properly address infrastructure needs), and instead insisting that the funds be used toward the replacement of the currently closed bridges 21 and 22 on the Holland-Sydenham Townline, and to bump the quality of the pending road resurfacing for Concession A from tar and chip to asphalt, I think council was sending a message – or maybe two.
First I think council was attempting to send a message to ratepayers that they are changing strategy on bridge infrastructure, and though the previous bridge SOTI identified eight bridges for full closure in the years to come, this new council clearly has zero appetite for closing any bridges. By rejecting the staff recommendations for use of the grant funds, and instead directing the funds to those infrastructure projects it could very well have been a sign of good faith aimed at calming some rightfully frustrated residents.
More than sending a signal that this council wants to avoid bridge closures at all costs, I think the second message council was sending was that, in spite of what many think, and in spite of the assessment of councils that have come before them, this council wanted ratepayers to know that the tail doesn't wag the dog, and that this council won't be pushed around by staff.
Both of those messages are worthy of communicating, and you have to give council credit for taking control of this issue. But what council forgot is that the professionals that they have on staff, charged with providing council with the best options, sometimes have good ideas, particularly because they don't have to cloud their recommendations with political considerations as councillors must do.
After a couple of weeks to think about it many on council realized that this $642,000 of found money, money that nobody was expecting, would be well used to fund an exhaustive traffic count survey along with an updated bridge SOTI and the development of a transportation master plan if only because those are expensive projects to undertake, and ratepayers often are frustrated to see tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of their property tax dollars being spent on 'reports'. But these projects give staff and council much greater tools to use for planning infrastructure funding needs, and solid plans based on hard data will make life easier all around.
Given the circumstances of the day, I can understand council rejecting a proposal to use some of the funds for solar power installations, or to spend more than $100,000 to implement a new work order system (both worthy projects if there weren't more important considerations for council). But to reject conducting an updated and accurate traffic count survey, or to develop a new transportation master plan – these are crucial exercises, given that the greatest pressure on council and the greatest frustrations of ratepayers is the state of our roads and bridge infrastructure. So it just seems wise to me to spend surprise funds on these very projects. It is a one-time grant opportunity, and our greatest need is to address the infrastructure funding gap and to prioritize infrastructure projects, so why do all of that blind?
In changing course on Monday, council still ensured that the replacement and reopening of bridges 21 and 22 remains a priority, and once a boundary agreement is finalized with Chatsworth the two municipalities can figure out how to fund those bridges. But in the meantime, by conducting a municipal-wide traffic count survey and developing a new bridge SOTI along with a transportation master plan, Meaford will be in a much better position to intelligently address infrastructure funding needs with updated data, and a plan for the road ahead.