Members of the Lions Club of Wingham attended the March 6 North Huron council meeting to convey their club’s stern message to councillors in person, with a letter from the club president, Lion Murray Wales, outlining seven concerns with the budgeting process.
The Lions are the latest in a long line of community members who have expressed their deep concerns with the first proposed draft of the township’s 2023 budget. Lion Richard Hall and Lion David Shaw were accompanied by a large crowd of Lions and their supporters in the gallery at the March 6 meeting.
Hall presented the club’s seven concerns, also the content of the letter from their president, as follows:
“1. We find it very difficult to understand why a budget requiring a property tax increase of 21 per cent would even be proposed at any time, but especially now with higher interest rates, inflation, higher food costs, etcetera affecting every property owner in the township. Please reduce it to something reasonable, such as five to seven per cent.
“2. Recreation is not an ‘optional item’ in any community. It is a very important physical and mental benefit to all residents of this township. Our club has existed in Wingham for 85 years, and during that time, Lions members have contributed many thousands of dollars and volunteer hours to recreational facilities and activities here. Accordingly, we strongly suggest that you find items other than recreation to reduce or eliminate in your proposed budget to bring it down to a reasonable increase. We believe that recreational facilities should not be devalued or interrupted just because they don’t make money. That is not the intention. They are there to benefit taxpayers, as well as draw others into the community. Indeed, it would be surprising if recreational facilities do make money… but that is not the point. The point is that taxpayers should expect their taxes to support the recreational facilities of our community and their uninterrupted operation. For some, these facilities are essential to their health.
“3. Another item that we suggest you review is ‘the new council chamber.’ We do not believe, nor do we perceive the residents of our township believe, that spending $450,000 of our residential taxes to create a new council chamber is a good idea, no matter where it is, but especially when it is not in a building that we own. What is the matter with using our recently renovated, beautiful but underutilized theatre? Why can’t you use the existing council chambers on the main floor of the town hall – surely whoever or whatever you have allowed in there to displace you can be moved somewhere else close for much less than $450,000! What about a storefront down or across the street? What about a ‘portable’ out the back with a connecting covered walkway, if necessary? What about the old Post Office/Museum building?
“4. Of course, the obvious item to be deleted is the $1.3 million for the decommissioning of the Howson Dam, which would eliminate our beautiful pond. As we have indicated to this council several times during the recent past, our club strongly supports the rehabilitation of the dam so that we can again enjoy the pond for recreational and esthetic purposes. We understand that the last engineering report indicated that the dam can be revitalised. We also understand that the Citizens Committee has offered to fundraise all the monies required for such a project and our club would be willing to help in that regard. To do nothing with the dam this year would cost nothing, except perhaps a small penalty for not proceeding with the contract! There is no pressing reason to decommission it in 2023! Furthermore, we understand that the required government approvals have not yet been received! Given that the Howson Dam is a somewhat controversial issue with the taxpayers, postponing any action for a year would give you time to put the question of what to do with the dam to a referendum of eligible voters in Wingham and would cost much less than the proposed decommissioning.
“5. We question why another $150,000 is required for the work on the entrance to the town hall? Wasn’t that project, and the financing for it, in the 2022 budget such that the necessary funds to complete it have already been collected? And something else we don’t understand is wasn’t the building already fully accessible with the lift that exists on the south side?
“6. Please be advised that our club completely supports the Blyth Lions Club with respect to their presentation to you regarding the importance of the Blyth & District Community Centre to that community.
“7. We also note that there is no street reconstruction or repaving work proposed in Wingham in the budget and, for that matter, no street or road work proposed anywhere in the township. At least in Wingham, we suggest there certainly is the need for some such work and we hope some is planned soon. We all know that keeping our infrastructure in good condition is vitally important.”
When Hall was finished presenting, Shaw addressed council, reprimanding them for speaking too quietly, telling them that it is imperative for the audience to hear every word they say. Councillors were unaware they could not be heard “in the back” and adjusted their microphones accordingly with an apology.
Reeve Paul Heffer spoke to the presenters, thanking them for their comments, and said, “Staff will be bringing back a report to us for our budget real soon.”
That report is expected on March 13.
Heffer then opened up the floor for councillor comments. Coun. Mitch Wright spoke first, telling the delegation that it makes a difference to hear from community members on this matter.
“It makes a difference in the way I vote,” he said. “I think a lot of the things in your letter make sense. I think the job of a municipality is to provide the best services possible to its residents. I think that the municipality can lose sight of that; the municipality is actually supposed to work for its residents, as opposed to working to fulfill the legislation that a municipality also has to follow. It’s always a great reminder to hear from people like yourself. Thank you.”
Coun. Chris Palmer went more in-depth, speaking to several items on the presented list of concerns.
“I’d like to comment on a couple of your points,” said Palmer, “the main one being the first one, the budget.
“We’ve been hit with so many emails and letters and what have you, about this magic 20.6 or 7 per cent. You’ve got to remember that this is just the first go-around. Every municipality deals with it, every government deals with it (the) first time around. The media always blows it up and that’s unfortunate, they get people riled up,” he said.
“We all pay taxes here too,” said Palmer. “Do we want to pay it? No. So, we’re fighting hard, and staff is fighting hard because they’ve heard us. It’s unacceptable.”
He said that staff would be presenting a revised draft budget next week. After that, councillors would look at it again, and if there need to be more cuts, they will send staff back to work on it until they are presented with a reasonable budget.
“Always be aware and don’t be excited the first time around. It makes it hard on us too; we don’t mind hearing from you but, it just doesn’t have to happen yet. It’s the third go-around, then nail us if you don’t like it.”
Palmer spoke about the importance of the recreation centres to the communities they serve, talking about the amalgamation of the three communities that have made running the arenas more challenging. He reiterated the need to look at them in a “serious fashion.”
Addressing the new council chambers, Palmer agreed that this needs to be revisited, saying the cost went from $200,000 to $450,000. He said he would look for future reports to clarify why the cost doubled and look at alternatives. However, he would not oppose returning to their old council chambers “where it should be.”
Palmer addressed the pitch to reopen the Howson Dam discussion, saying, “It’s done. It’s already been passed, it’s in motion, and you don’t change things once they are going. That’s the way it is right now.”
It is Palmer’s understanding that the work being done on the accessibility ramp at the Town Hall was included in the 2022 budget. The current $150,000 on the 2023 budget is just a “contingency” amount to cover any increases that may occur due to inflation.
The next budget meeting will be held at the Wingham Town Hall Theatre on March 27 at 6 p.m.
By Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Mar 10, 2023