Smith listens to public’s concerns at town hall meeting
By Jenn Watt
Published March 12, 2019
Ward 4 Councillor John Smith’s first community town hall meeting ended up garnering plenty of attention on Thursday evening as dozens of people arrived at the West Guilford Community Centre to share their views and listen to what the new member of Dysart et al council had to say.
A sizeable contingent at the meeting seemed to be attending to voice their support for cultural institutions in the municipality.
During a budget meeting last month, Smith had questioned funding levels for several of them, including the Rails End Gallery, Haliburton Highlands Museum and A.J. LaRue Arena, and the practice of renting out properties such as the Canoe FM building. While Smith was outspoken about these items at the February budget meeting, his fellow councillors did not raise the same concerns, though there was conversation on how to find savings in various departments.
“Some of you have probably noticed that I ask a lot of questions and some would say you even stir things up a bit. To me, that’s a good thing to happen to an organization,” he said during a brief introduction to the evening.
He said if the community wanted to pursue big projects in the future, it would need to find ways to generate money.
“The only way we can ever move from where we are to having some of those things … [is] either through a fantastically large tax increase or potentially stopping some of the things we do today,” he said.
Before opening the meeting to the floor, he apologized ahead of time, pointing out that he was not speaking from a script and his comments would be spontaneous.
“And that might mean in the haste to respond to a comment tonight I may say something that on reflection an hour later, or two hours later, I’ll say I probably could have phrased that a little better,” he said.
The first question came from an audience member who asked how the municipality could increase taxes at a rate higher than inflation, since a large portion of the population is seniors living on a fixed income.
“The majority of people here [in the room] look like they’re post 60, so of the income they’re drawing in, does anybody in this room get a 5.72 per cent increase in their wages for 2019?” the audience member said, referencing the increase expected from Haliburton County. He asked how Dysart would deal with potential provincial cuts and whether reserves would need to be drained or properties sold.
Smith said the budget hadn’t yet been set and spent time discussing where funding came from. Asked why Dysart was likely to see an increase higher than that of Algonquin Highlands, which approved a 1.56 tax rate increase, Smith noted Dysart’s taxes are the lowest in the county.
“I understand, yes Algonquin Highlands has decided they’ll get by with one-and-change in terms of their percent increase, so certainly within the limits of inflation, but it’s also worth noting that today, Algonquin Highlands has a much higher tax rate than we do in Dysart,” he said.
The next person to speak started the conversation about the arts, which was repeated by others throughout the evening.
“Part of the reason why I built my house in this town was because we had arts going on in the community. If the arts weren’t here, I wouldn’t be here,” he said, to applause.
He said he’d skipped his choir practice to attend and give his opinion that more should be done for arts and culture.
“This place can be an awesome place for people to retire to. They don’t take away jobs, they provide jobs. They’re not coming looking to work, they’re coming looking to play. And play includes music and art and all kinds of cultural things,” he said.
Jim Blake, who was one of the audience members addressed by name, echoed those comments, saying he chose to locate in Haliburton because of the arts.
“It wasn’t the roads or the landfill or the police station that kept me here,” he said. “... I realized this little village had a year-round art gallery, it had a museum and a college and the best ski trails in the world. And that’s why I chose to live here.”
Blake argued that municipal taxes are actually low in comparison to other municipalities in the region.
“If my house was sitting in Bancroft I’d be paying two-and-a-half times as much taxes,” he said.
Smith said he wanted to see investments brought in outside of property taxes to pay for arts and culture.
“To challenge why we’re spending the money there that we do, doesn’t mean I’m against the arts, doesn’t mean I want to close the museum,” Smith said.
He listed the cost of the Rails End Gallery to Dysart et al. Someone from the back of the room called out to say that the gallery draws people to town, with events such as the arts and crafts festival.
“We can still do those things without being a continuing draw on taxes is all I’m saying,” Smith said.
While many in the room said that they could handle an increase in taxes to ensure arts and cultural institutions were funded, Smith pointed out that not everyone can afford more taxes. Corporate and private donations could be used to ease the burden on taxpayers, he said.
Some members of the audience pointed out that the community already gives significant sums to various charities and organizations and that donor fatigue is a real issue.
Others said without municipal funding, many of the programs would no longer be offered and that having free or inexpensive programming allows residents of all incomes to participate. They also provide tourism opportunities, which helps to support that sector of the economy.
Attendees didn’t only speak about arts and culture funding or taxes, however. One man said he wanted to talk about those who rent out their cottages to groups often uninterested in observing local norms.
While many renters are good, others will bring several families to stay in one cottage, “septic’s overloaded, they light fireworks at three o’clock in the morning, the OPP that we pay $2 million for aren’t coming. The babies are crying. The dogs are barking,” he said.
He asked for regulations to be imposed.
Another person asked about parking meters. She said in Huntsville they did away with their meters and saw an increase in business.
Smith told the audience that when he was campaigning for council over the summer, he knocked on about 1,700 doors and the most common issue he heard about was roads. Maintenance has fallen far behind where it should be, he said.
At the end of the meeting, Smith asked for a show of hands on who would be OK with a six per cent increase in their taxes (which is a possible outcome for Dysart et al) and said he could see about one-third of the room raise their hands. Asked who wanted the amount to be lower, another third raised their hands.
“I’m not philosophically a big believer in just saying it’s up to the government,” Smith said, adding the government sometimes spends money on things that some don’t consider important.
Blake suggested that if corporate donations were needed, perhaps Smith and other councillors could help do that. He said they could work on finding funding for places like the museum.
“I’d actually think you’d be better off to get somebody that was more passionate about the museum. If we were building a community centre that I thought, that’s something I’d get behind … I’m not that big a fan of the museum, frankly,” Smith said, then adding he shouldn’t have said that.
Dysart et al is having its next budget meeting on Thursday, March 14.