It has happened before. Big, course-shifting changes have altered the trajectory of Shire Hall in the recent past. It can happen again.
For a decade after amalgamation, the County’s finances were a mess. Budgeting was a fiction never reconciled with reality. At least not out in the open where one could see it. Department and line item increases proposed for one year were based on wished-for numbers the year before. Nowhere did taxpayers ever see what a department spent. Actually spent. Or where the unspent monies went. Fiction was built on fiction.
The County auditors presumably squared these figures when it produced annual statements. But it was impossible for the average resident, or council member, to compare the hard earth of the financial statements with creative writing of the budgets. We were required to rest a lot of faith in municipal officials to spend our tax dollars well. We had no way of knowing either way. We had no means to hold them accountable.
Priorities changed at the end of the last decade. Council decided it needed to get its financial house in order. Very quickly, the picture changed. Today, a few keystrokes deliver a wealth of information presented in clear and explorable manner.
This is information that empowers democracy— it puts tools in residents’ hands to hold our public institutions accountable. It was a massive undertaking that, to this day, goes largely unheralded. Yet, because of this work we emerged from the dark ages.
This happened over a few short years. It was the result of an immense amount of work, dedication and commitment for sure. But it happened.
It can happen again.
Until very recently, Shire Hall has looked at residential development and new homebuilding largely through a mostly skeptical and nervous lens. Fearing it would be left the cost to clean up a mess after a bankruptcy or a developer walking away, Shire Hall officials assumed a mostly zero-risk approach to these folks. To do business in the County, therefore, meant spending vast amounts of money to ensure Shire Hall and County taxpayers were protected and shielded from adverse events.
With this dim view of development, it was thus very easy to pass along a disproportionate share of the County’s expanding waterworks burden onto these folks. To do so, we had to resort to some creative interpretation of development rules to get the most exorbitant connection fees in the region. Better them than consumers. Or so we thought.
For years, developers have said it is too difficult and too expensive to build in the County. We didn’t think much of it because we weren’t particularly keen on seeing our towns and villages changed.
We didn’t foresee the County’s population shrinking, however. Or the prospect of losing schools or long term care beds.
In 1996, 25,046 people lived in Prince Edward County. In 1998, they collectively paid $10 million in taxes. In 2016, 24,735 lived here—308 fewer. Yet we paid $32 million in taxes last year. Fewer folks, three times the tax burden. These tectonic forces change communities—often in cruel and reckless ways.
We don’t have a lot of good options. Slashing and burning will only go so far. The province largely defines what the County spends on police, ambulance, social services, waterworks and roads. Queen’s Park simply won’t permit massive reductions of service—even if we thought that was a good idea.
Restricting who can own a home in the County and how they are permitted to use it, won’t solve the problem either. It won’t put more people in Prince Edward County homes.
No, we have to grow our way out of this problem. To do this, we need to kickstart the residential homebuilding market. The good news is that many, many people want to live here.
The challenge, however, is to reduce the hurdles we’ve erected to keep development away. This week a committee of council will receive a long list of recommendations— the product of months of intense work by County staff, developers and council under the Development Framework Forum. (See story here).
The easy part is for council to adopt these recommendations. The hard bit will be putting the resources— human and financial—in place to make it happen. But unless they do, we are stuck.
We know that Shire Hall can make the necessary adjustments in relatively short order—because we’ve seen it happen before. But it has to be made a priority. This requires leadership from the mayor and council.
We can’t afford to dither. In four years StatsCan will count again. We must make a calculated investment today to change the prospects for tomorrow.
Once again, I am bringing this message directly to Shire Hall, this time to the Committee of the Whole on Thursday, March 30. Join me in council chambers or watch online live at 1 p.m. or later from the County’s website pecounty.on.ca. Search for and follow the links to livestreaming.