It may have been the most consequential 15 minutes that Norfolk council or any council in the local area has seen in recent memory.
Between 3 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. Tuesday, Norfolk council made a raft of decisions which – under normal conditions – would easily have been subjected to hours of debate over many weeks.
These decisions include:
- The pending closure of the Simcoe Seniors Centre on Pond Street in Simcoe. Plans are to relocate the 700-plus seniors at the Adult Community Building to the Simcoe Recreation Centre. Council intends to declare the 19th-century building surplus and find a buyer for it.
- Ask the former Lynnwood Arts Centre board of directors to resume management of the Norfolk Arts Centre on Lynnwood Avenue. Failing that, find some other agency to manage the National Heritage Site.
- Close the Teeterville Museum and Teeterville Women’s Institute buildings, declare them surplus, and sell them. The artifacts in Teeterville would be relocated to other museums in Norfolk.
- Close permanently the museum component of the Norfolk County Archives – Eva Brook Donly Museum and relocate the artifacts collected by the Norfolk Historical Society to museums in Delhi, Waterford and Port Dover.
- Transfer the summer ice from the Norfolk Recreation Centre to the Tricenturena in Waterford.
- Identify at least one arena in Norfolk for closure. A request-for-proposal will be called for individuals or groups that want to operate the arena at their own expense. If there are no takers by the fall, the plan is to declare the designated arena surplus and find a buyer
- Come up with an alternative management model for the Simcoe Farmers Market.
- Cut $210,000 from Norfolk’s tourism and economic development budget.
- Identify 140 acres of municipal land, declare it surplus to the county’s needs, and sell it. Cash to be earmarked for reserve funds and pressing infrastructure projects.
These decisions were made following an in-camera session lasting more than three hours on Day 1 of Norfolk’s 2020 consolidated budget deliberations.
Council is following through on weeks of warnings that Norfolk’s financial situation is dire and that this will be a budget session like no other in the municipality’s 20-year history.
Windham Coun. Chris Van Paassen, chair of Norfolk’s budget committee, said a $12-million hole in the 2020 draft budget has forced council’s hand.
Van Paassen took the occasion of his opening remarks Tuesday morning to put the situation in perspective. He began by noting that Norfolk’s reserves in 2008 totalled $52.4 million while the county’s debt that year totalled $44.7 million.
By 2018, Van Paassen said reserves had dwindled to $18.8 million (excluding the $70-million Legacy Fund) while debt had risen to $106.1 million. The latter includes $28 million in debentures Norfolk council recently approved for capital projects done over the past five years.
“That’s a loss of $95 million in 10 years,” Van Paassen said. “That is not sustainable.
The draft budget before council contains $12 million more in expenditures than revenue. Van Paassen said drastic measures would be required to address this shortfall in the absence of a steep tax increase.
“We could just eliminate the police force – that would solve it,” he said. “Or we could get rid of our entire fire department plus all of our paramedics. That would solve it.
“If those are too important, let’s look at soft services and just shut down all of our libraries, all of our museums, all the arenas, ball diamonds, soccer fields, parks – the whole (community services) department. That would solve it.
“That how big a hole there is in the budget we have inherited and that’s what we need to fix. So much for my rant. It’s time to get to work.”
Norfolk council hoped to transact the draft document over two days this week. However – given Tuesday’s proceedings – that could prove challenging. The better part of Day 1 was spent on keynote speeches and the consideration of staff suggestions for instant savings.
Major items transacted in open session included operating the municipal customer service centre in Langton on a reduced basis. Some of the services offered there will be transferred to Port Rowan and the county administration building in Delhi. Service will continue to be offered in Langton, but on a reduced schedule.
As well, council put off for a year a recommendation to end financial support of the Kinsmen Pool in Delhi. Port Dover Coun. Amy Martin says the operating cost is reasonable but there are some major capital repairs coming down the pipe that the county wants to avoid.
In a deputation at the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Karen-Melinda Howard, president of the Delhi Waterdragons swim team, said a decision to close the pool would “tear the county apart.”
From Sunday at noon till Tuesday at 9 a.m., an online petition opposed to the recommendation gathered 3,350 signatures. That petition has been turned over to county clerk Andy Grozelle for his consideration.
“The people in the community have already said they’re not going to drive to Simcoe to use a pool or an arena,” Howard said in an interview.
“They’ll drive to Otterville or to Tillsonburg. People in the west end already feel they’re getting nothing for the taxes they pay. They’re willing to stop paying those taxes to make that point.”
The draft budget, as presented, would raise property taxes on a typical home in Norfolk by 8.4 per cent. Day 2 of the budget is scheduled to being at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the council chamber at Governor Simcoe Square. The public is welcome to attend.