Erin voted twice in 1950 – and defeated waterworks proposal

This is the conclusion of a three-part account of the proposed Erin water system between 1947 and 1950.

At the beginning of 1950 it appeared that Erin council was proceeding cautiously and carefully with a waterworks project for the village. There had been no controversy at the nomination meeting in December. Water proponents, after more than two years of stalling and hand-wringing, were once more optimistic.

Consulting engineer W.M. Veitch presented his detailed study and cost estimates to council on May 1, 1950. The system would consist of a deep well, a reservoir, a watermain on Main Street only, lateral connections up to lot lines for 170 customers, and 15 hydrants. He estimated the total cost at $60,000, a 50% increase from the rough estimate Erin had obtained three years earlier.

Veitch suggested financing the project with a 20-year debenture at 3.5% interest. That would require annual payments of roughly $4,200.

Charges to customers would be based on the number of rooms and faucets in the house, but would average about $20 per year, plus an average of about $10 for the debenture. Business rates would be higher, and there was provision for installing meters at a later date.

Council met with Veitch several time during May to tweak the plan, but there were no changes, other than permitting homeowners on side streets to petition to be included in the system. The cost of the debenture payments would be met with a special tax rate based on the frontage of the property, with a maximum of 100 feet. Property owners would be able to choose between a one-time charge of $2 per foot, or 14 cents per foot per year over the term of the debenture. The cost of the hydrants would be met from general taxation.

The estimate, though considerably higher than in 1947, was still modest, and compared favourably with systems being installed elsewhere in the area. Council decided to call a special vote for June 14 to approve the debenture issue. If the voters granted approval, they intended to proceed at once with a tender call and have construction under way by mid summer.

In 1950, the village of Erin had slightly less than 300 ratepayers. That meant the campaign, though brief, was intense, involving much one-on-one argument and discussion. Editor H.W. Hull of the Erin Advocate had been something of a fence-sitter, at least in print, on the waterworks issue, but he now came out solidly in favour of the plan.

He pointed out that the public system in the long run was cheaper than drilling and maintaining private wells, that the public system eliminated the risk of water contamination, and that it was necessary in order to attract industry to the village. As well, a public waterworks would add to the value of every property in Erin, and the network of hydrants would lower fire insurance rates.

As voting day approached, the campaign became a nasty one, with water opponents spreading rumours that the costs would be higher than claimed, and that there were all sorts of problems with the plan. Most of the opponents were retired farmers who were having difficulties meeting the inflation of the period with their fixed incomes.

If Erin councillors were truly sincere about the waterworks, they committed something of a tactical error by setting the 1950 mil rate two days before the vote. The 1950 rate would be 60 mils, up from 42 in 1947, and that did not include any costs for the water system.

Tightwads who at first had favoured the water system now had second thoughts.

For all the fuss, the turnout for the plebiscite was only 65%, a very low figure for Erin in that period. Ratepayers supported the plan by a vote of 99 to 91. A slim majority of those voting had approved the plan, but the proponents who voted were only a third of the ratepayers qualified to vote.

Immediately there were rumours that the vote would be challenged because less than half the ratepayers voted in favour.

There were also some irregularities with the voters list. Only property owners could vote on a proposed debenture issue, and the voters list contained names that were not qualified, and some who should have been on it were missing.

Arguments continued through the summer of 1950. Erin council, recognizing that there had been some irregularities with the voters list, was reluctant to proceed to court. Their plans to call for tenders were shoved to the back burner. It soon became obvious that there would be no start to the project in 1950.

The Advocate loudly denounced the opponents of the water system, predicting that most of them would be dead before the debenture was paid off, and that they had no right to hold up the progress of the village. Editor Hull noted that a couple of opponents had contaminated wells, and were getting their water by the bucket from accommodating neighbours.

On Oct. 30 Erin council decided to end the controversy by holding a second plebiscite, to be held on the same day as the municipal election. This time, council was careful to compile a proper voters list, and to meet all other requirements to the letter. Even so, there were still some errors and omissions.

There was more bad news two weeks before the vote. Engineer Veitch recalculated the cost of the plan. Taking into account inflation and the desire of some residents on side streets to be included, the new estimate was $76,600. That was good news to the project’s opponents, and seemed to confirm some of the rumours.

The campaign was more heated than the one in June, though few people changed their opinions. The water issue was fully aired at the nomination meeting. One surprise was a short speech from Mayor Clayton Justice, during which he announced his intention to step down. D.S. Leitch became reeve for 1951 by acclamation. He had been a vocal opponent of the current council through 1950.

A few days before the vote, opponents circulated a brochure which claimed that all property in the village would be assessed a frontage tax of nine cents per foot, whether they had access to water or not, and that those living on corner lots would be assessed for both streets.

Council had scheduled a public meeting to explain the rates and frontage charges for Nov. 30, but inexplicably cancelled the meeting at the last minute. That allowed rumours to dominate the last few days of the campaign. 

When the ballots were tallied on election night, the waterworks proposal lost by two votes, 109 to 107. As well, there were 10 spoiled ballots, which, had they been counted, might have reversed the result.

Waterworks proponents considered challenging the result, but concluded that effort would be futile. The new council contained a majority of councillors opposed to the waterworks.

The issue was not mentioned during the term of the 1951 council, nor for many years after. When it did, the costs made those estimates of the late 1940s seem like a unbelievable bargain.

But that is another story for another time.


Stephen Thorning