By Shelly Wiebe
Langton Community Centre was packed on Thursday, Feb. 20 for the first in a series of public forums organized by Norfolk County following the recent 8.4% property tax increase and reduction of services.
Above: The Langton Community Centre was packed with concerned residents for the February 20 Community Budget Meeting. The standing room only crowd shared with Norfolk officials their concerns for this County’s future.
Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp welcomed the tense crowd with the hard-hitting truth before giving the floor to incoming CAO Jason Burgess.
“Norfolk County wasn’t just approaching the edge of a financial cliff, we had already gone off the end of it. If anybody thinks that as your brand new council we wanted to come in and give you an 8.4% tax increase and at the same time slash service, that’s certainly not something that we aspired to,” the mayor said.
With a presentation titled “Facts, Fiction and Moving Forward” Burgess spoke about the financial situation that the County was in saying that tough decisions should have been made five years ago.
“A big part of this is looking at moving forward in a positive direction and looking for different solutions because the way we were doing things in the past, we just can’t keep doing them,” said Burgess. “We didn’t get to this situation because of one decision that was made or one council or one staff member, we got here because of a whole bunch of small decisions that over time add up. Right now, we need to reverse the negative trend in our reserve, we need to put more in the bank to pay for some of the stuff that is going to be required in the future.”
The budget increase, mixed with the end of services and closure of facilities have prompted emotions to run high – particularly in the County’s west end. The large crowd shared concerns and fears around the future of Norfolk County, especially for facilities in the west end.
At left: Cathie Schonberger from The Concerned Residents of Norfolk West was one of the first at the microphone at Feb. 20 public meeting. “There is more to communities than dollars and cents!” Schonberger said. Former area councillor Betty Chanyi, at right, questioned why these real and serious concerns were never brought to light by previous auditors and questioned whether residents had been misled.
Marleen VanDeWiele, president of the Langton Skating Club spoke of her genuine concern around the future of the Langton Arena – celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. “We have been preparing and saving money in order to put out a great year in the 2021 season but at this time that season seems precarious. This arena is a service to this area of the county. Much like a library, people not only hope for and wish for but need.”
VanDeWiele stated the negative effect of privatizing or selling the Langton Arena to an outside user group could potentially end with its demise in a few short years.
“I’m not prepared to take your arena for $1 and run it. I have no clue how to run an arena and I have concerns about other groups doing it as well… who is responsible? What if it doesn’t go well? Will we end up closing it in a few years?” VanDeWiele told the mayor this was a big problem.
“Council doesn’t want to close any of these facilities,” Chopp answered. “We are trying different ways to keep them open and if finding a user group to take over operations while we continue to subsidize them is the answer to that, then that’s what we want to see happen. The idea would be that $150,000 from Norfolk County would help pay for operations while any revenue brought in makes up the difference. That’s how we are going to be able to sustain all of these facilities across the county,” said Mayor Chopp.
Decisions have yet to be made on the future of Norfolk’s arenas while the proposed new recreation “Hub” looms on everyone’s mind.
Burgess outlined that the “Hub” was targeted to replace aging facilities with the federal and provincial governments providing two-thirds of the funding. With “money to build something new that’s more efficient, then why not take a shot at it?” Burgess said.
The future remains uncertain with possible closure of more facilities. One thing that rang clear was there are more tough decisions to be made.
“Going forward, we have a more transparent base as to what really is the cost to operate this county. The end conclusion is we can’t keep racking up debt with no plan to pay for important things in the future. We had to change our way so we went through the budget process with that in mind. We are just starting on this process, and this is just a first step.”
The meeting was scheduled for two hours but well exceeded that time as councillors fielded questions from an ever increasing line at the microphone.
Councillors told the crowd in Langton that, going forward, budget consultations will be done with involvement from the communities a priority and more public meetings will be scheduled across the wards.