Councillors scrutinize approach to relief for new and young farmers

(Gazette file photo)




As councillors sat down last week to discuss the makeup and terms of reference for the new farming assistance ad hoc committee, several questioned whether the new committee was the right approach at all.

Ultimately, committee of the whole voted Thursday in support of a motion that would see members of the agricultural advisory committee form the core of the membership of the new committee. There could also be representation from the National Farmers Union. The terms of reference will still have to come before council for approval.

The farming assistance ad hoc committee was initiated following council’s decision earlier this year not to reduce the farm tax ratio to 20 per cent from 25 per cent. The committee’s stated purpose was to investigate ways to provide some relief to new and young farmers who might be suffering due to high farmland values.

Staff presented a report to councillors which suggested the 14-member farming assistance ad hoc committee be composed of the mayor and two councillors, as well as the county’s chief administrative officer, director of finance, and director of community development. In addition to members of the agricultural advisory committee, Ontario Federation of Agriculture, National Farmers Union, and Prince Edward Federation of Agriculture, it was proposed the municipality would advertise for four members of the public. A staff member from the clerk’s office would also co-ordinate and facilitate agendas and take minutes for the meetings.

As councillors got a look at that composition, several began to question whether the committee might prove as costly as the initial request by farmers.

Councillor David Harrison said he couldn’t understand the approach.

“I can’t get it through my head why we’re doing this when we have no money,” he said. “All this talk and fluff — it seems to me to be kind of putting on a face over turning down the farmers on their application for a little bit of tax relief — that is about all this amounts to.”

He said there are provincial and federal programs in place that would cover much of the scope of the ad hoc committee’s work.

“Basically, to form an ad hoc committee, we’re wasting time and we’re not wasting money because we haven’t got any,” he said.

Councillor Jamie Forrester shared similar concerns, saying the committee could cost the municipality a substantial amount itself. He noted that he supported farmers’ initial request for relief.

“What a make-work project here that we’ve created for ourselves,” he said. “We’re not sure yet, as we get into this, how much this is going to cost us — at the end of the day, this is going to end up costing us a lot and we will never really know the direct amount.”

He said the grant program could potentially result in hundreds of farmers seeking relief and questioned what amount councillors were willing to dedicate to it.

“At what point, with all this time that we’ve put into it is it, ‘we should have just given the reduction’?” he said.

Chief administrative officer James Hepburn said staff couldn’t say how much a potential grant program might cost. He said the intent is to lessen the tax burden on new and young farmers, but staff don’t track what percentage of farmland assessed value comes from that portion of the sector.

“It’s a little difficult for staff to sit here and tell you, of our taxes collected, how much is coming from new farmers and young farmers until we’ve had a chance to look at that further,” he said.

He said if the committee follows the scope of activities staff have laid out for the farming assistance ad hoc committee, a recommendation and potentially a dollar figure could come back to council for approval.

While there was concern about forming the new committee, councillors did support a motion to have the bulk of it made up of members of the agricultural advisory committee.

Councillor Janice Maynard was among those who spoke in support of that recommendation.

“That will allow a committee to get up and running sooner,” she said. “If we were to go out and advertise for members … you wouldn’t be able to do that until after the next council meeting, then you have to get it in the paper, then you need at least a 15-day reply period, it would have to come back to committee of the whole and council — I couldn’t see it getting off the ground for at least two months.”

Council also provided suggestions on the proposed terms of reference for the ad hoc committee. The comments and terms of reference are expected to be considered by the committee’s membership and brought back to council for approval.