I recently witnessed the auctioning off of the Post Office building in St. Marys for what I believe was a paltry sum of $257,000. One wonders if, in good economic times, that the bare land would not have sold for more.
The most fascinating thing in retrospect was that there were lots of curious onlookers witnessing history, but no one asking the question (including myself): “Why is the Town of St. Marys doing this?”
The original purchase of the Post Office was a bold initiative to keep economic activity in the downtown core. Buy the building for a dollar, and entice people downtown. Do we need the money so badly that we are selling off this important parcel in the downtown core at, arguably, a fire-sale price?
Have we given up on Canada Post maintaining a postal box outlet in our core? While, arguably, this strategy has become outdated, it will be harder for the Town of St. Marys to keep Canada Post in the core if the Town has no leverage. On a larger note, it also speaks to our strategic initiatives as a Town. Is our policy now to sell our assets and hope for the best? What initiatives are we taking to get people downtown and spur economic activity?
The sale of the Post Office and other “surplus” parcels around Town has a sense of desperation to it. I mean, what else is one to think? This Council seems to have no money to fix the high dive or invest in the Quarry. There is only $25,000 in the budget for economic development initiatives. It also seems as if we are falling behind in infrastructure repairs. Many of our roads and several of our bridges are in bad need of repair. Given the fact that Ontario currently carries almost twice the debt of California, waiting for government grants might not be the best strategy to depend on.
During the 2014 Town of St. Marys budget presentation this year, I was reminded of a quotation by the famous Canadian author Farley Mowat: “Never let the facts get in the way of the truth.” I think that I was able to find the truth on the second last page of the presentation. On a chart labelled “Debt Ceiling,” it outlined how projected Town debt is expected to double by 2017. It also shows that the authors of the budget predict that the Town of St Marys “will exceed our maximum allowable debt” by the year 2023.
Arguably, one could say that none of the projects have been approved by Council, and money has not been spent. However, one could also point out that the forecasts also do not include the provisions for higher interest rates, Upper Thames concerns for future repairs at our waterfalls, and many other unforeseen events.
Close analysis and forecasting of the future is, at the very least, scary. Given the projects listed in the Town’s future capital plans, a Town payroll nearing $7 million annually, and the Town’s own forecasts, I would be willing to estimate future tax increases could be in the range of 8- 10 per cent in order to catch up on infrastructure and maintain current service levels.
So if this Council can take $250,000 from “the taxpayer relief fund” (aka reserves) in order to keep taxes artificially low to maintain current service levels, why can’t they spend, say, $250,000 to try to create some activity in the core? Why not buy the Andrews Building and move the Tourism office there? Why not try to initiate some of the many suggestions in the various reports done over the years?
There are many examples in the past where the Town has taken a leadership role, such as at the Post Office building, the VIA station, and the Junction Station.
So, in summary, this Council:
• is liquidating assets and not redeploying the money for economic development;
• is taking money scheduled for reserves and using it to reduce the tax increase in an election year after three years of tax increases almost double the rate of inflation;
• is only allocating $25,000 in 2014 for economic development;
• has presented a 2014 budget document which predicts a doubling of Town debt in the next three years;
• has presented a budget which forecasts that the Town will exceed its maximum allowable debt by 2023;
• has not publicly stated how they will deal with these future debt issues.
If you are interested, you can check it all out on this link to the Town’s website: www.townofstmarys.com/uploadedFiles/Town_Hall/Financial_Services/2014%20Budget%20Presentation_Final__.pdf.
So, in October, when the Mayor and Councillors ask for your vote, ask them how they are going to spend the money from the Post Office and the various other land sales around Town. See if they are willing to stretch that Town dollar as opposed to waiting for an economic miracle. Leadership means more than liquidation and taxation.
Al Strathdee, St. Marys