At the last Strategic Planning General Committee meeting, our Councillors spent a bit of time debating about spending what was listed as $50,000 (it was an old price) on a Heritage District study for the downtown.
It should be pointed out that the Heritage District study is a part of the Downtown Streetscape Master Plan and was intended to be done earlier in the process because a lot of decisions concerning the style of the downtown might depend upon the decision on whether the City intends to go ahead with a Heritage District. The reason for all the discussion was that, at a previous meeting, the Councillors had come to a split vote on what to do with the study: half wanted in done within four to five years and half wanted to drop it altogether and the consultant wanted a clear decision for mapping the Strategic Plan’s direction.
It was argued by some that Council shouldn’t be telling businesses what to do with their property, unlike the common taxpayer, who is told all the time.
In the end, they voted to use the four- to five-year period to put it off as long as possible without completely cancelling it, and then they could look at it again. Oh, and by the way, if a grant should come along in the meantime, they could always push it up. And this wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed this sort of planning by grant.
That brought two concerns to mind, leaving aside the question of why they would be so concerned about a $50,000 tab for a study on something that’s part of a master plan. They spend more than that on studies all the time.
The first is question is, if it’s important, why isn’t it important enough to pay for? And if it isn’t important enough, why leave it in at all?
The second question is this: are upper level grants the bargain that Councillors make them out to be? Is it really “free” money?
Of course not, but municipalities don’t have to pay for it, so there’s no political fall-out for them. From the perspective of the taxpayer, on the other hand, grants from other levels of government are just money out of different pockets. It’s not truly spread out more although the entities are larger and have more people putting in because, as you might expect, every municipality expects their fair share (or more than fair if they can get it). Not only that, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s because grants usually require matching funds from the municipality in amounts ranging from one-half to two-thirds, which means that the municipal tax roll will pay anyways.
In the meantime, the cost of a project goes up while you sit on it, often not saving the taxpayers anything.
But would you buy something you don’t need and you aren’t sure you even want because someone else will pay for part of it and you don’t want to miss out on a freebie? Or, more to the point, should you? No, and neither should City Council.
It’s time to go back to planning according to what needs to be done or, at least, what you want to be done. If a grant becomes available, that’s a bonus.