Former politicians weigh in on Norfolk budget controversy

Share Adjust Comment Print

First there was Brexit, then there was Wexit.

Could there soon be a Nexit?

Roger Vermeulen, former mayor of the Township of Delhi, wouldn’t be surprised if residents in the western part of Norfolk want to leave the county and join Oxford.

“By the time they’re through with us, the only thing left will be a mailbox … for our tax bill,” Vermeulen said. “People here are getting pretty angry and they’re tired of being ignored.

“Seems like everything is centred around Simcoe or Port Dover.”

Vermeulen is one of four former municipal politicians to weigh in on recent controversy surrounding Norfolk County council’s budget deliberations. The council voted to increase taxes by 8.4 per cent in 2020, adding an extra $235 in taxes to a home assessed at $240,000.

That tax increase, combined with plans to close and sell off municipal assets, has upset many residents.

Vermeulen has suggested a couple of solutions.

Bring in the province to run Norfolk County, or perhaps residents in the western part of the county could align themselves with another neighbouring municipality – namely Oxford County.

Both suggestions are included in a lengthy letter Vermeulen penned following council’s decisions.

“Residents here in the west end of Norfolk have as much or more in common with Oxford County than Norfolk,” Vermeulen said. “Maybe that’s something that could be explored.

“We could put it on a future ballot.”

Three former mayors — Charlie Luke, Rita Kalmbach and Dennis Travale — were also asked for their views on council’s recent decisions.

“I congratulate the council for taking a brave stance,” Travale said. “No one on council when I was mayor stood up and said ‘let’s close an arena in my ward.’”

Yet everyone on council when he was mayor from 2007 to 2014 knew that the county had too many inherited arenas, fire halls, museums, community buildings and libraries, Travale said.

“All council members were well aware of the costs and problems — then and into the future — but territorial protectionism, both by the councillors and the voters of the new ward system, had not changed and any proposed change was met with vigorous objection,” Travale said.

With respect to the county’s finances, Travale said the decisions made by council between 2006 to 2014 put Norfolk in the “best financial position” ever despite a worldwide economic downturn in 2008.

Luke, meanwhile, questions the decisions of the current council and believes they are dividing the community.

But the former mayor’s biggest concern is the idea that the county has major financial problems. He, like Travale, cited the $70-million legacy fund established with the proceeds from the sale of Norfolk Power as well as other reserve funds.

However, the county’s reserves were hit largely due to major projects over the last several years. As early as 2018, Luke was sounding the alarm over the county’s reserves during his annual state-of-the-county address.

However, he also pointed out that when he was mayor the county had an A-minus credit rating.

Besides, Luke said, if the financial situation is so dire, how is that the council can afford to spend more than $3 million for property to build a new almost $60-million hub to accommodate arenas, a swimming pool and other amenities including a seniors’ centre?

“The province and feds would probably kick-in two-thirds of the money for the hub, but that still leaves $20 million,” Luke said. “Where’s that money going to come from?”

He agreed with the suggestion that governing an area as big and diverse as Norfolk County is a major challenge. There are a lot of different communities with different needs, he said.

Luke thinks there are a couple of reasons for the problems facing Norfolk right now.

“There are six new councillors and there has been a lot of staff turnover,” Luke said.

Rita Kalmbach, the former mayor of the City of Nanticoke and the first mayor of Norfolk County, is a bit torn about council’s decision.

“One thing I’ll say right off the top is that they should stop playing the blame game, stop blaming previous councils,” Kalmbach said.

She questions some of the decisions, but more than that, wonders how a group of new councillors can make decisions so quickly.

“They’re either really, really smart or not,” Kalmbach said. “I was always a tax fighter, looking to keep taxes low.

“But some of their decisions like getting rid of community centres and closing museums. Those rip out the hearts of small communities.”

 

Comments