Mayor Doug Struthers sat down with the Times recently to review how he sees Merrickville-Wolford in the current economic climate. In a climate of uncertainty with the current provincial government, the Mayor remains optimistic about council’s ability to adapt, and is focused on fiscal responsibility while ensuring quality of life for all residents of Merrickville-Wolford.
Earlier this year, the municipality received almost $32,000 in grant funding as part of the Ontario Government’s Municipal Modernization Fund (MMF). The province stated at the time that the MMF was “a one time payment in the 2018/2019 fiscal year to support small and rural municipality’s efforts to become more efficient and reduce expenditure growth in the longer term.”
The grant was integral in council passing a zero per cent tax increase for this fiscal year. Staff were able to find projects in the current budget for which the funding could be used, taking the burden off the taxpayers. This includes an update of their Asset Management Plan, a large project, which entails taking into consideration all the infrastructure and other assets in the municipality, and figuring out needs for future upkeep and maintenance. “It’s a powerful tool to be able to paint a picture of the need to upkeep our assets,” Mayor Struthers says.
He believes council is very focused on remaining fiscally responsible by identifying what projects are critical, need to get done, and beneficial to do. One of these projects that the Mayor sees as critical is analyzing ways the municipality can mitigate the infiltration of water into the sewer system. Having water seep into the system that doesn’t need to be treated directly affects capacity and the ability for expansion, which is needed to lower the high cost of water in the municipality. “Treating water that doesn’t need to be treated is spending money that doesn’t need to be spent,” says Mayor Struthers.
Another project the Mayor sees as critical is the renovation of the Eastons Corners skating rink. He sees having recreation facilities available as integral to the quality of life of residents. “It’s of value to the health and well-being of the community, and is an example of the kind of infrastructure that is appropriate to maintain,” he says. Repairs to the bell tower in Eastons Corners and the library building in Merrickville are also in the budget as capital projects for 2019.
The Mayor is also forward thinking in terms of drawing new industries to the area. The municipality has already been made aware of two applications for growing cannabis in the rural area. He sees the cannabis industry as being no different from any other type of agriculture, which has been an industry in the municipality for decades.
“It’s a significant opportunity for a successful business in the rural area,” he says. “The more money that is generated and spent in a defined area speaks to the strength and depth of that local economy.”
Mayor Struthers says that, according to their auditor, the municipality has good control over revenue and expenses. That being said, he is wary about how potential cuts to the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF) could affect the municipality down the road. The province has already signaled that they are reviewing that funding stream, and he is concerned that, should the funding formula change, the Municipality would have to go without dollars they depend on to be sustainable.
“Northern and rural municipalities ought not to be treated the same as larger municipalities, as they don’t have the critical mass,” he says. “The province has the responsibility to make sure there is stability in rural Ontario.”
While Mayor Struthers understands that the province is trying to tackle significant debt, he doesn’t feel that shifting that burden onto municipalities is the answer. “To shift expenses onto rural municipalities is shifting the burden of provincial debt onto property taxpayers,” he says.
For now, the Mayor is keeping a close eye on what is going on at the provincial level. He will be attending the Association of the Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference from August 18-20, and should have another report for the public once it is over.