Thursday, July 25, 2024

Need For Wastewater Treatment Plant Expansion Hangs Like a Dark Cloud Over Council

It will be expensive, and even if funding can be secured from upper levels of government, it will still require a significant amount of new debt to be taken on by this municipality. But in the near future, the Municipality of Meaford must address the need for the expansion of the municipal wastewater treatment plant.

The facility, located on Grant Avenue near Memorial Park, has a reported three-year average of operating at 75.8 percent capacity, and with the recent interest from numerous developers, that capacity is quickly dwindling, leaving council no choice but to work toward undertaking a major expansion. Meaford’s Treasurer told council this week that the expansion is likely to add $46 million in new long term debt over the next ten years, which would gobble up all of the municipality’s allowable debt repayment capacity.

The WWTP Expansion project is required to complete future development within urban Meaford. The existing WWTP has run between 70% and 80% capacity in recent years and does not have the required capacity to accommodate proposed development,” the municipality noted in September of last year as it kicked off the required municipal class environmental assessment process for the expansion.

In the long run, the bulk of the cost to expand the wastewater treatment plant will be paid not by current Meaford ratepayers, but rather by development charges collected from all the new developments we will be seeing in this municipality. However, the amount of debt that will be required initially (development charges will essentially pay off the bulk of that debt over time) could cripple this municipality when it comes to other infrastructure needs in the years to come.

Many readers will remember the horrible position this municipality was in back in 2010, with some $3 million in accumulated deficits that had to be dealt with by draining municipal reserve accounts to virtually nothing, combined with great concern among many residents about the growing long-term debt, which had topped $10 million. Our roads and bridges were in bad shape with little to nothing available to address rehabilitation needs, and ratepayers were rightly frustrated, particularly as they were being handed hefty rate increases required to dig us out of the hole that we were in.

As a result, in 2011 Meaford’s cash and investments were dangerously low, with the municipality having just $573,000 on hand, while at the end of 2023, this municipality is reported to have nearly $30 million in investments. Though the long term debt was once again approaching $10 million (after having been reduced to roughly $5 million by 2020), it is still less than it was in 2010 when the municipality had virtually nothing in the bank.

To right Meaford’s financial ship, a much loathed ‘five year plan’ was implemented in 2010, aimed at replenishing municipal reserves and putting the municipality on more solid financial footing. That five year plan brought with it double-digit municipal property tax increases (softened a little by the council of the day clinging to the optics of ‘blended rate’ increases that amounted to just five percent when the county and school board portions of the municipal tax bill were factored in.) Ultimately it was not five years, but four, due to managing to accomplish in the first four years what had been planned over five.

Despite all that hard work by successive councils and the sacrifices and increased taxation experienced by Meaford ratepayers, although this municipality is currently in fine financial shape, that is certain to change in the coming years due to pressing infrastructure rehabilitation needs for bridges, along with the tens of millions of dollars that will be required to expand the wastewater treatment plant.

Meaford is not alone. A scan of news websites from across the province provides story after story of municipalities struggling with funding for major and crucially important infrastructure needs. Upper levels of government, and in particular our provincial government, must find ways to pump significantly more funding into municipal infrastructure needs.

Municipalities, particularly smaller rural municipalities, simply do not have the funding sources available to tackle such enormous infrastructure projects. And unlike other levels of government they have limited revenue sources, primarily property taxes and user fees, while relying on grant opportunities to help fund major projects. But grant opportunities are not always plentiful, and with 444 municipalities vying for what little grant funding is offered, there are no guarantees that upper level grant funding will be available when needed.

This leaves municipalities in a precarious position, particularly when major and extremely expensive infrastructure needs become too critical to push off into the future in hopes of funding becoming available in the future.

The province needs to step up, and the federal government needs to offer more funding opportunities to municipalities for these crucial infrastructure projects that can cripple a municipality if not addressed, but can also cripple municipalities if they load up on debt in order to meet the needs of their communities.

To learn more about the pending wastewater treatment plant expansion needs, visit: www.meaford.ca/WWTPExpansion.

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