The abrupt halt to the revitalization of downtown Stouffville is the talk of the town. And, it has raised a topic usually reserved for behind closed doors: Whitchurch-Stouffville is reaching beyond its means.
The issue bubbled to the surface at a recent council meeting, when politicians and municipal officials acknowledged the town doesn’t have the money to fulfil its wish list of municipal work that needs to be done.
“We have far more vision than resources … to do the projects we need to do,” remarked Ward 5 Coun. Iain Lovatt.
Simply put, the town does not have the funds to embark on all its desired projects and is faced with the choice of going into debt or significantly raising taxes if it wants everything done now. Either way, somebody is going to pay the price of progress or there will be no progress at all.
The debate was sparked after council accepted a staff recommendation to postpone the downtown revitalization for at least one year due to current financial restraints and the need to look at all aspects of the project. Some work has already been completed.
“You look at the dollars in the bank and it’s just not there,” said Ward 4 Coun. Rick Upton, pointing to rising costs on the Main St. project.
Original estimates put the price of revitalization at $10.6 million, but that number is expected to rise due to additional costs and inflation. Council also wants to look at burying utilities as well as creating a proper streetscape, all of which could add another $400,000 to the price tag.
Ward 6 Coun. Rob Hargrave said downtown discussions have been going on since 2006 and, with the passage of time, costs keep escalating. He said the town hasn’t been setting aside any funds for the project and now costs are getting out of hand.
“We couldn’t afford it back then and we can’t afford it now,” Hargrave said. He added the town can’t push the costs onto downtown merchants or taxpayers, as neither can afford it. He also questioned putting the town in debt to pay for the project, saying it would only delay the problem.
“We have to accept what we can financially afford,” Hargrave continued. “It will take four or five years to complete this; we have to be realistic … there will be cost overruns. This can be a financial time bomb if we do not do due diligence.”
The discussion raises the spectre of stopping, significantly delaying, or scaling back downtown revitalization and other projects unless a budgeting solution can be found.
Hargrave hinted at this prospect saying it’s clear the town is going to have to put some things on hold.
Similar concerns were also raised by municipal CAO Roman Martiuk who was blunt in his assessment: “We have many more projects than we have funding for.”
“No money has been set aside,” he added. “Reserves are dwindling, they are not healthy, and we are looking at potentially large additional expenditures.”
Martiuk explained how the upcoming budget process will outline options for council to consider, but stressed tough decisions will have to be made.
“There’s no point in coming up with $400,000 (to cover the utility costs) if there is no an appetite to pay the full $11 million (of the current total construction cost),” said Martiuk, adding, those who are advocating for the revitalization may have to step up with some funds as well.
Mayor Justin Altmann also sounded the alarm, telling council funds are going to be needed to upgrade aging infrastructure right across the municipality.
“Right now we don’t have the money to do that,” he said, adding that development charges are evaporating. “If we can’t fix old infrastructure and we can’t fix population growth, how can we accommodate new growth?”
The mayor said the Town must also weigh the potential cost benefits of projects like the revitalization when determining the need to proceed.
Altmann said the key is to find new approaches to raise revenues without scaring those revenue sources away. That is the challenge the town is now faced with.
In an interview with the Review, Martiuk said Whitchurch-Stouffville is experiencing what all high-growth municipalities go through when it comes to demand for capital projects.
“Typically you reach a wall where there are way more projects than there is funding,” he said.
He said through the budget process, the town can tackle the problem with a combination of borrowing, tax increases and looking at other sources of revenue, but ultimately, living within its means.
Martiuk believes the revitalization of downtown is a priority for council, but politicians have to realize that not all projects or all aspects of a project can be done.
“You can’t do everything and meet everyone in the community’s dream instantaneously,” he said, adding some work may be delayed rather than cancelled.
(Photo: Plans to revitalize downtown Stouffville could have repercussions – Photo by Zarmstrong at the English Language Wikipedia)