Thursday, February 29, 2024

The First Year of This Term of Council is in the Books

On Monday of this week, council’s final meeting of 2023 was held, wrapping up what has been a busy first year for this council.

I have often written that I do not envy our elected representatives on council. It’s a tough job that requires a very thick skin, many hours of work, and the pay, well, it isn’t all that great considering the responsibility and workload. So I am always thankful to see a healthy roster of candidates willing to take on the challenge of serving on our municipal council.

Our current council has now had a full year of experience, not that most of them needed additional experience, with just two fresh faces on council after last year’s election, and the remaining five being seasoned veterans in the council chamber.

Council’s first major task after being elected in October of last year, and installed on November 22, was to tackle their first municipal budgets. The draft budgets were presented to council in late January, and council started their budget process with the prospect of a rate increase of more than 7.1 percent.

After public engagement sessions and council budget deliberation sessions, on March 27 council approved the budgets, council chipped away at the budget, finding ways to save a little here and a little there, which resulted in a rate increase of 4.46 percent, significantly lower than the 7.1 percent council was facing when the draft budgets were presented.

When it comes to budget time, nobody is ever truly happy. Some would love to see a slash and burn approach, eliminating municipal services and cutting staff, while others want more services, and more frills. I imagine it is a truly frustrating time for members of council, as the pot of money is never large enough to address everyone’s wants and needs, and ratepayers are not eager to see rate increases any larger than they absolutely have to be.

With council now on break until the new year, they are no doubt bracing themselves for the 2024 budget deliberations they will be engaged in when they return. This will be a difficult budget to cobble together as costs have soared, as have some of the demands of residents. It isn’t just Meaford facing difficult budget deliberations for next year; the County and other area municipalities have also been signalling that the coming budget season won’t be much fun.

In February council caused a stir when they voted 5-2 in favour of offering conditional support for TC Energy’s proposed pumped storage facility on the grounds of our local military base. Though some have characterized the vote as one that offered the Municipality of Meaford as a ‘willing host’, the reality is that what council approved was support for the project subject to four important conditions, which included perhaps most importantly that the project finds the approval of “all relevant jurisdictions under all applicable environmental energy, and land use processes, including any applicable environmental and/or impact assessments, and all applicable regulatory approvals, authorizations, licenses, and permits.”

It isn’t just major, hot-topic issues that can add frustration to the life of a member of council. Early this year we were facing the prospect of having to close the Blue Dolphin public swimming pool for the season, largely due to a nationwide shortage of lifeguards. But in May council approved a partnership with Owen Sound’s YMCA which allowed the pool to remain open.

Finding creative solutions is essential for any municipal council and administration, and the solution for the public swimming pool with a partnership with the YMCA made sense, and by all reports has worked out very well.

Some issues take longer than expected, as has been the case with short-term rentals.

Though they had hoped to have established a licensing bylaw for short-term accommodations by the end of this year, that won’t happen now, but council is getting close. Having identified the issue as one of their top priorities for this term, council took an aggressive approach in order to speed up the process. In late May of this year council directed staff to explore the issue and to provide reports outlining options to consider.

While council has not met their self-imposed deadline of the end of the year, at council this week, after discussing the 24-page stage two report provided by staff, they gave direction to staff to establish the bylaw based on that report. I suspect we will see a draft bylaw presented early in the new year, with council finally approving the short-term accommodations licensing bylaw and enforcement program in the first quarter of 2024.

Development proposals have been front and centre during the first year of this term of council, and in the year to come there will be more development proposals to grapple with, more public meetings with frustrated residents adjusting to the reality that, after years of rumours but no action, this municipality is finally growing with several housing developments underway, and more to come.

Growth is never easy, and it is bound to cause frustrations for existing residents, but it is a reality that we must come to terms with and accept, while at the same time engaging in the process to ensure that the growth to come is managed by this and future councils as best it can be.

Clearly it has been a busy year for council, and the summary I have provided above just scratches the surface of the issues that our council has fielded and decisions they have made over the past year. The coming year will be no less busy, so I hope that all seven members of council get some time over this short holiday break to get some rest, and prepare themselves to return in January ready to tackle all of the issues thrown their way, beginning with what will be a difficult exercise in preparing the 2024 municipal budgets.

Happy holidays to our members of council. You take it on the chin often, sometimes warranted, other times not so much, but you put yourselves forward to serve this community by representing the rest of us, and while we might not always agree, your efforts, at least when it comes to this ole scribe, are appreciated.

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