The usual thing to do at this time of year is to review the past twelve months and sum up what it was all about. But that will wait for next week’s issue, when we’ll take a look back at 2015. Right now, we’re in the middle of a crisis most residents of North Grenville may not even be aware of as yet. As of this week, the Municipality no longer has a Treasurer in place. Some time before the Christmas break, the position held by Sheila Kehoe was declared vacant, and all budget meetings have been cancelled “until further notice”. To date, not one word of explanation has been heard from the Municipality. In answer to a query from the Times, the CAO, Brian Carré, said: “Sheila is no longer with the Municipality”.
The suddenness with which this has happened, especially considering the timing, clearly implies a serious problem in the office of the Treasurer of North Grenville. This is the time of year when staff and council begin budget deliberations in earnest; holding a series of meetings to discuss next year’s budget, hearing from community groups and the public on what is needed by them in terms of funding next year. These have all, as I said, been cancelled.
Whatever happens next, it will take some time for the municipality to find another Treasurer, and, while there is an experienced staff in place in that Department, the delays this departure will inevitably cause in the process will have a detrimental effect on preparing a municipal budget for 2016.
There is, I imagine, no need to remind residents of what last year’s budget delivered: a 6.18% increase in residential taxes, and the revelation that our Reserve Funds were empty as a result of a failure by previous councils to raise taxes in a responsible manner over their terms in office. We were already expecting a minimum of 2% of an increase in this year’s taxes (and every year for the next decade) to restore those Reserve Funds. What was unknown at this point was how much more taxes would have to go up to cover normal operating increases in municipal spending.
Let me be clear: nothing has been said to explain Sheila Kehoe’s very sudden departure. It may be a personal issue, without any unpleasant implications. It is very unfair to Ms. Kehoe that the municipality has not even tried to explain the reasons for her departure, leaving everyone to speculate. That is neither fair nor profitable. The responsibility lies with the senior management to clarify the situation as quickly as possible. Given the various legal restrictions governing personnel matters, there may not be very much anyone can say publicly about what has happened, but something, at least, should be said.
There is lack of transparency in the municipal government that is at odds with promises made by all candidates at the last election. Decisions, for example, about the future of the College have been taken without effective consultation with members of the community who have expertise and experience, not to mention good ideas. Although it is good news that the French Catholic School Board has agreed to a short-term lease of buildings at the College, there is much to wonder at in that development also.
The Board had only recently set up a hoarding at the corner of CR 43 and Somerville, stating that their new school would be built there. Now, suddenly, they have agreed to establish it at the College, at least for a year or so. Was that a recent decision? Did the municipality only find the new tenant in the past few weeks? If so, it was fortunate for them that they did so, or there might not have been a happy announcement to make before Christmas. The Board’s move to the campus is great in the medium term, perhaps, but will their temporary location mean that more long-term, or suitable, tenants will not be able to move there? While negotiations have to be conducted with some discretion, it would be good to know what kind of response the municipality has received from prospective tenants. We have been given numbers and assurances, but no details.
Sadly, this is only too typical of the lack of communication and transparency that has characterized municipal affairs in North Grenville for at least a decade. The public has been kept out of any significant role in shaping and promoting policies which affect us all. I am personally tired of hearing staff members at high levels in the municipality treat the public, especially the voluntary sector, with enormous condescension and arrogance, dismissing them as somehow incapable of playing a responsible and meaningful role in their own community’s future.
It is time to bring back the committee system here. We should have proper Committees for Finance, Rural Affairs, Recreation & Culture, and whatever other area needs public input. When committees were abolished in favour of what is known as the Committee of the Whole, residents lost any opportunity to play a role in their own future development, or the direction their community was taking. That role was taken on almost entirely by council and staff, and the effect has not been all that impressive.
This is a new year we face. It demands a new approach, and the sudden loss of the Treasurer indicates, at the very least, that our financial situation, which we already knew to be unhealthy, may be worse than we suspected. It is high time that we, as taxpayers, the people who fund the salaries of municipal councillors and staff, are informed about what is being done, consulted on what we want to be done, and given a greater say in municipal affairs. To continue as we have been doing for more than ten years will only perpetuate the Bubble Effect which has afflicted successive councils and staff: the delusion that only they know what’s best for us, how best to spend our taxes, and where North Grenville should be heading. We live here; we pay their salaries. If they come out with even more bad financial news, even more tax rises, more unexpected developments we pay them to expect, then it is time for more than a change in personnel: it is time for a change in the whole system.