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Word on the Street: A Matter of Distraction

Steve Campbell

I know I’ve been gone a long time, but I’ve been busy. Every once in a while I run across things that make the previously empty parts of my brain start to ponder. It’s like when you start a weedeater, and realize that the gas is 10 years old, and it takes 150 pulls on the cord to get a splutter. That kind of thing.

I’m here with a shocking revelation. I agree with Dennis Fox’s letter: ‘We need help now’. Dennis and I aren’t usually smooch buddies, but he did get me thinking.
I, too, know a lot of people who are holding down more than two jobs to make ends meet in the County. There’s a number of factors here, and all of us explore them all the time.

First: The wages in the County are still way below the provincial average. Despite our successes – and perhaps because of them – we make way less money than the people who visit here and move here.
This has a tragic effect, as we always discuss: the days of regular restaurants are gone. Even our working people are hard pressed to find a reasonably-priced meal each day, since Penné de Milford and two glasses of wine tap out their day’s pay.
And housing prices, thanks to our glorious success, have gone beyond our reach as buyers, but hopefully benefit those who sell.

We only have two economies in the County: Agriculture and Tourism. The local economy does not sustain the level of income for most County businesses. A tip of the hat to those County people who shop locally, as I do, and earn pride instead of discounts.
This is not all bad, so relax a bit. The population of the County is stagnant, as Rick Conroy has pointed out. But, on the good side, technology has brought new, young entrepreneurs to PEC, who can still work their Toronto markets. And the influx of retirees does help spread the ridiculous costs of water, sewer and other services across a broader base.
Affordable housing is now under the magnifying glass for County Council, and that’s also a good thing. New housing projects are getting a much better reception from this Council than I’ve seen before. If handled right, this could also help the tax base. Quite simply, we don’t have the population to support the services we get. This is a layover from the Good Old Days, when the feds and province used to return some of our tax money to us.

For those who think that taxing tourists will generate revenue, which is Dennis’ other mantra, I suggest you look at the ripple effect of such a move.
Located beside the Infocentre in Bloomfield, I talk to dozens of people who came to the County every summer since they were kids, loved the Sandbanks, and have moved here. As I mentioned, young people are seeing the merit in living a quality lifestyle, while staying digitally-connected to their markets. They started as visitors and, to them, the County is still an idyllic place. To us, they’re messing with our idyllic place.
Still, to put a ‘price tag’ on visiting the County is counter-productive. Tourism slows? Maybe. Whew! Future investors in the County – homes and businesses? They may pass on doing a drive-through, and never see us.
So, since we’re so freaking popular, why don’t we have the money needed to help our local workers, repair our roads, supply police, fire and emergency services, garbage and recycling?
Here’s where we go in deep.

In the pre-Paul Martin and pre-Mike Harris days, we were all one big family. Something like Woodstock, when the money was flowing and everything was cool, and we sat around and listened to the sweet music of multi-level financial stability.
Then Martin balanced the budget, with cutbacks to Ontario. Mikey had the typical knee-jerk reaction and unloaded a whole pile of jobs onto the municipalities – based not so much on the ‘Common Sense Revolution’, but more on the basis of “I’m sorry, if I knew I had to pay the bill, I wouldn’t have ordered the lobster and liqueurs.”
Mikey also used his stunningly amazing Common Sense to force amalgamation, based on something everyone knows to be an undeniable truth: Becoming a giant, multi-faceted, out-of-control bilious monster was way better than ordinary citizens getting together for an hour, solving their problems, and going home.

So, what’s the solution?
This leads to an examination of Council itself. Unlike Dennis, I believe we have one of the best councils I’ve seen, and I’ve been following councils for a long time. Like Dennis, I’m frustrated by the way things are done.
I’ve been involved in our local elections, in one way or another (not by supporting a party) for many years. One thing always stands out to me. Candidates always want to help. They always have ideas to make things better. They always have plans to get County people the best they deserve.
Sadly, they get elected. And they immediately find that their lofty ideals are not on the agenda. It’s like buying a house for cheap, with plans to make it spectacular, and then finding that the murdered bodies have not been removed, and the roof leaks.
The day-to-day business appears as a sudden wall, blocking your dreams for Good Stuff Happening. First, you have to find a way to get rid of those murdered bodies and then … oh, wait … there’s a basement?
It’s something like love and marriage. You start out with the sweet jumping hearts of love, and you end up with, “What do you mean I don’t help around here? I just washed a dish and put my underwear in the proper hamper! Geez!” Domestic life, and the day-to-day upkeep is the killer.
And the big monster in the closet? The rules. As you know, I hate rules. Especially stupid rules. Like when you ask a question to a board of nicely-suited people and they throw out their brains and start scurrying through their papers, trying to find the thing that would not possibly answer the question: “65 metres.”
“Why?” It says here 65 metres. “Why?” Because that’s what it says here.

My love of politics, jigsaw puzzles and classic Jamaican rum led me to an inevitable conclusion. The problem isn’t really ours, though we meekly accept it.
I remember Monica Alyea running for mayor, and she made a horrible mistake. She told the truth.
And the truth is: We don’t have much control over HOW things are done. Sure, we blame council, but they are bound by the not-so-velvet handcuffs of The Municipal Act. Yay! The province mommy sending the County to their room. “And don’t come out until you do it MY way.”
This is too true. All of things that bug me about Council decisions are out of the hands of our representatives. Anyone who has engaged with Council is puzzled and frustrated with the response. Because you can’t do anything simply anymore. Thanks Province.

Nobody wants to read the Municipal Act, unless you’re an insomniac or a sociopath, but all of those things that bug you … they’re in there. Splitting property? In there. Liability insurance which blocks the County from using volunteers to help on projects? Yep. Zoning? Hell, ya.
What is the best we can do, considering we’re handcuffed and perhaps blindfolded?
It’s a matter of distraction. And priorities. The distraction is the day-to-day things I talked about, never able to get to what you wanted to do.
Priorities? Tough one. Because your priorities are different than mine. Hwy 49? Closson Road? Affordable housing? Helping Hospice? Stopping wind turbines? Saving our bay, lighthouses, cats?
There are so many things that need to be done. We need some kind of consensus, but we’ll never get one. We need focus.

Here’s my pitch. Only one thing counts in the County, and that’s helping our people to survive. We’re often overwhelmed, but there’s only one thing that counts: The people who live here, and have chosen to live here.
I can drive on Hwy. 49. I’ve got good tires, and a fairly sturdy bladder. Maybe some day, the road will be replaced, and it will be like driving on a cloud.
But who cares, if our homegrown people have no place to live?
My advice to Council?: Turn off your iPads and go back to the you that you were, before you took the hot seat and got distracted with fixing the plumbing.
Remember that guy? That’s the guy who looks to the future, and doesn’t get distracted cleaning the dog poo off the County’s shoes.

  • Steve Campbell is editor and publisher of County Magazine, and the author of several books, including The County Handbook: How to Survive in Prince Edward County.

Filed Under: News from Everywhere ElseSteve Campbell

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  1. Dave Macdonald says:

    So how about this? You’re playing a game where you say, “What’s the card I’m holding? No, that’s not it, no that’s not it either, no sorry, wrong again …”
    What is the magic riddle – the secret solution to property taxes, costs of services, lack of accommodation, deteriorating infrastructure, severe lack of $ in the County coffers, and maybe toss in something that might possibly help?
    I’ve worked in construction. It’s a lot easier to tear down a house than it is to build one, or renovate one.

  2. Dennis Fox says:

    I believe we are getting off topic here. Campbell was referring to the letter below (which appeared in our local press) – while I appreciate knowing that it got Steve thinking, he unfortunately missed most of what I wrote about. Just to help keep the conversation focused, I have included my original letter below. It had a slightly different title in some of the papers – hey, that’s freedom of the press! I hope you enjoy reading it, if you haven’t already.

    Help Is Needed Now!

    Recently, I spoke with two women – both divorced, one with two children and the other with none. What started as a conversation about the cost of renting in The County, soon led to a multitude of other related issues. First, from what I was told, the cost of renting a basic two-bedroom place is approximately $1400/month, plus utilities and cable – easily totaling over $1600 every month! Finding affordable accommodations is an obvious challenge, but even more disturbing was the number of jobs that these two people held down, just to make their rent and to eat.

    The woman with the two children worked in a local nursing home and she needs to hold down two other jobs as well – just to make ends meet! The other person told me she held down as many as 4 part time jobs at the same time, but due to her obvious physical limitations, she found it too difficult and now holds down only 3 jobs! Sadly, most of their waking hours are spent working to survive. I wonder how many more County people are in the same situation and what is being done to help them?

    It concerns me to know that our Chamber of Commerce does not support a minimum wage of $15/hr. – or to see young farmers receiving property tax breaks due to hardship, but no other young working people receive anything to help them afford accommodation! Why does the Chamber of Commerce receive around $50K in grants from the municipal taxpayers? Or how about our own municipality’s new “volunteer” Affordable Housing Committee, led by a previous councillor and current real estate agent asking for $130,000 to help pay for a “qualified” director?

    I would rather see my tax dollars going to those who really need help, but I fear our tax dollars often end up in the wrong pockets.

    Last year our council imposed an 8.5% tax increase and this year another 4.6% – do they have any idea of what people in this community have to do just to afford to live here? I really don’t believe they do. If they did, then why is this community still dealing with the same, never ending issues – lack of affordable housing, high water bills, high taxes, the lack of good paying jobs, our expensive over-sized council, or a tourist industry that contributes very little to Shire Hall and tends to employ low paying seasonal labour? We have people in our community that need real help, now! They don’t need empty words from a phony bureaucratic council committee, nor do they want to be visiting the Foodbank or to be devalued by the local business community – they want decent paying jobs and a future for their kids!

    While the supposed “movers and shakers” of Prince Edward County continue to believe that all is good – many of our youth will continue to leave to find a future elsewhere. For those who stay – well, they have possibly signed up for a life very similar to the two women I described early – hard working, underpaid and having little opportunity of affording their own home.

    It doesn’t seem to matter how big the tax increases are – none of what really matters seems to get fixed in PEC – ever!

    And some wonder why our population continues to decline?

    Dennis Fox

  3. Angela says:

    Prince Edward County as we knew it is gone forever. And it is never coming back. We are now the playground of wealthy city folks. This is our dismal future until they discover a new vacation destination and move on. We are also the retirement community of choice for retired city dwellers who have flocked here in droves to built their dream homes. Many local residents no longer can afford to live in their own homes. They cannot enjoy their own beaches and now with the proliferation of Air Bn’B’s cannot even enjoy their own neighbourhoods. They no longer have neighbours, they have tourists. More and more all of these newcomers to the county are shaping its future. Locals have been greatly affected by dramatic changes to their home community but seem powerless to fight them. There was a time when there could be no better place to live than in Prince Edward County. That day is over. It no longer belongs to the people who built it and made it what it was. They cannot afford to live here today. The county is a glorified guest house with a winery on every crossroad. Welcome to Tourist Town.

  4. Paul A says:

    Steve Campbell is absolutely right, and as a respected member of our County community (“a good old County boy”) he can see the wood from the trees. He tries, somewhat diplomatically, to not miff more than one tenth of our County people, or nine tenths of new tax-payers.
    Let’s think? In a time scale of barley days, ship building, rum-running, dairy farms, cheese, tomato (and other) canning, apples, whatever (I’ve probably forgotten a few), we were never a “Wall Street” community, but for goodness sake we were high above survival level — a good, decent, caring, viable, family-based, neighbourly community.
    What now? AirBnB’s, tourists six-packing at our County Sandbanks and ripping up our roads, potentially higher crime, cow-towing at tax-payer expense to global warming (as if our worldwide 0.0000001% influence could possibly be meaningful), stupidly low levels of young, intelligent employment because young people can’t afford to live here, older county families not able to afford property taxes on homes that have been theirs for generations, new homes in flood areas where only summer cottages existed, the list goes one…
    This is not a question of federal, provincial or municipal entitlement programmes, it’s a question of the common sense that we’ve had in the County for a couple of hundred years, the hard work that we’ve put into our community, our love and respect of our neighbours, friends and families.
    Steve Campbell says it better than I do.

  5. robert sandfield says:

    PEC has NEVER been that prosperous compared to similar counties around Ontario. As an agricultural county we needed mixed farming to do ok. Some dairy, some tomatoes/peas/sweetcorn, some pigs, some orchard, some tapping maple bushes, some cash crops. And it took a families contributions with semi unpaid kids to prosper. We just don’t have enough quality dirt. Tourism has always been a feast in the summer, famine in winter and spring and part of the fall. That is getting better, but getting better is still on the survival side of things for many. Wineries have brought tens of millions of investment. Some feast and famine there as it has hurt some people by inflating real estate, but some are feasting. Lake Ontario, give it a year or two and we will have an epic drought, has been happening forever…

  6. Chris Keen says:

    I agree with Steve’s contention that there are two contributors to the County’s economy, but I feel he is dead wrong that a four percent accommodation tax is going to make any difference to tourists’ visits and thus people deciding to move here. What will make a difference is when Sandbanks and the other beaches have been swallowed up by the continued flooding of Lake Ontario. Then we’ll just be a retirement community with no beaches. Best introduce the tax now!

  7. Eric Pierce says:

    Good perspective, as usual, Steve.

    No simple solutions.

  8. Dennis Fox says:

    I am happy to know that I got Steve Campbell thinking. However, I totally disagree with Steve’s position on tourism. He states that we have only two economies in The County – agriculture and tourism and he doesn’t believe that the local taxpayers should financially benefit from tourism? Sometime ago he wrote in his column that he knew for a fact that every taxpayer benefits from tourist dollars. I responded and ask him to prove it – he never did. Now that he is back writing, I want to ask Steve to forget leaning on amalgamation as an excuse to explain the weak County economy and to come forward into modern times and address the issues that I mentioned in my letter “We Need Help Now” – a letter that he said he agrees with.

  9. Chris Keen says:

    One quick question – how are we going to pay for this?

    My property tax bill arrived today. Even without the education “levy” I am now paying more than ten times the property tax I paid 26 years ago when I bought my house. Am I getting anything more for my tax dollar? Nope. Have we made any headway recently on the County’s problems even with endless tax increases. No again.

    We’ll actually need help from the province to help people “survive”. With it closing in on a debt of $330+ billion, that seems unlikely.

    The feds? Never happen.

    This issue is like climate change. Unless we make radical reforms to the way we do things, on every level, nothing will change. So far, collectively, we’ve shown no inclination to do so. And it gets harder to do as every day passes.

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