by Shaun McLaughlin
Here are some of the common complaints taken from brochures and statements at candidate meetings.
Most of the challengers and a few of the incumbents state, with accuracy, that communications between our municipal government and residents could be better. Two years ago, the current council researched ideas to push out more information to more people. Due to costs, this council chose to make one small change—we gave the deputy clerk communication duties.
To meet current expectations, the town would need a full-time communication manager and one support staff. They would need office space and a budget. The cost would be close to $200,000 annually—more if they mailed information quarterly, as some people suggested. Even at bulk mail rates, the postage alone is over $5700 to get every home and business.
Since most of the challengers are also complaining about the cost of government, it remains to be seen if they would actually pay the bill for enhanced communications.
Most of the contenders promise they will listen to all residents, implying that the current council does not. On any major issue, camps will form for or against. That is a reality. Whom will the new councillors listen to? Four of the candidates who demand more listening also support motorized vehicles on the OVRT in Almonte. They are clearly not listening to a big percentage of Almonte residents.
Natural Heritage System
At least six challengers have complained about the addition of natural heritage system (NHS) protection to the community official plan (COP). I always stated that we don’t need an NHS because we have high standards of stewardship in our community. The province insists on the NHS. We added the minimum allowed to our new COP, though some of the six believe we added more than the minimum.
Financial Management and Taxation
Nine challengers have complained about high taxes, high debt, reserve mismanagement, and financial bungling. At least two are calling for audits to find mistakes. They all have it wrong. Municipal corporate finance is more complicated than running a small business or filling out someone’s tax return. (I addressed finances in a previous article based on info from town staff.)
Many political rookies think that there is fat in the system or someone is just not adding things up correctly. Remember former Ottawa mayor Larry O’Brien? He said he’d find enough fat in the system to negate the need for tax increases. His one term as mayor saw huge tax hikes—there was no fat or bungling.
The truth is that you can reduce taxes only by cutting programs and services. Even there, you are limited due to the many downloaded provincial obligations.
Rural Residential Development
Several new candidates and some incumbents want the COP amended to allow an increase in residential severances in the rural wards. Most also want an end to the ban on rural subdivisions. They all also say we should listen to residents.
Four years ago, Council debated these very issues and polled residents. A slim majority supported the current rural severance policy and a strong majority opposed rural subdivisions.
The push to open up the countryside to housing comes from a small group of landowners, developers and real estate agents. Some candidates think we should listen to that minority and not the rural majority who prefer the current slow development and protection of rural character.
The COP does allow for more development around Pakenham village and the Ramsay hamlets. That growth suits our rural wards better but no developer has come forward with proposals. It makes sense to tweak the rules to encourage that form of development.
Four challengers are pressing for more affordable housing. They are correct in stating that our COP mandates more than we have. Everyone agrees we should lower-cost housing. But there are only two ways to make developers build cheaper housing: either use tax dollars to subsidize dwellings or force developers to take less profit. It would be interesting to watch a future council stickhandle that conundrum.
Council did change the COP to allow more rental units in houses. That creates an opportunity for more rental accommodation, without forcing developers to do the heavy lifting. I believe the people building our subdivisions face enough expensive regulatory hurdles.
Heritage Conservation District
Several candidates want an end to the heritage conservation district or an opt-out provision for landowners. Council held six public meetings on that issue. If the next council wants to nix it, I hope they ask the public first.
Several candidates have a pet peeve about bike lanes in Almonte. The County is adding bike lanes to its roads every time it upgrades an old one. For safety and convenience, Almonte should have connecting routes to those county roads.
Several of the newbies insist we spend more money on infrastructure. The same people complain about high taxes and debt. There’s a contradiction.
The town is already heavily into infrastructure upgrades. Eight years ago, Public Works said we had fifteen bridges that needed replacement or major overhauls within 15 years. We’ve fixed eight so far, at a cost of between $400,000 and $1.3 million each.
(Contrary to what some candidates may say, it is more expensive to replace old bridges with culverts. The town is replacing the bridge decks, not the abutments. That means we do not interfere with the riverbed. A culvert disturbs the river and that means hundreds of thousands of dollars for provincially mandated environmental studies and mitigation.)
Fixing the infrastructure gap is the reason we had six years of high tax increases. That is where much of our new debt came from. We have an asset management plan that lays out what needs to be fixed and by when. We have a long-range financial plan so we know where the money will come from. If the next council wants faster infrastructure renewal, it will mean higher taxes or more debt.
At least four contenders openly support motorized vehicles on the OVRT rail trail in Almonte. That puts them at odds with hundreds of Almonte residents, but it appeals to rural ATV owners. They are already choosing sides in a divisive issue. That’s politics.