Fergus elected a reform council in 1874, pledged to cut expenses

A common feature of government at all levels is the candidate who promises to cut waste and excessive expenditures, offering citizens the attractive prospect of lower taxes. This phenomenon has been especially common at the local level, and it dates back many decades.

In truth, cutting costs at the municipal level is not difficult. Councillors need to vote down all new projects and construction, and to defer maintenance and repairs on infrastructure. In the long term, though, such a policy is shortsighted. Deferring repairs only makes them more expensive. Invariably, such reformers fail to fulfill their promises, and they make government more difficult for their successors when the hens come home to roost.

At the end of 1873 the village of Fergus had an acrimonious nomination meeting, with a number of ratepayers upset about the 1873 mil rate, which had reached 19 mils. As a result, ratepayers elected  a group of men pledged to more economic government for the 1874 council. The entire 1873 council was voted out of office.

The new reeve, Matthew Anderson, had sat on council several years before, but the rest of the council, James Cattanach, Robert Steele, George Thorpe and Bernard McMahon, were newcomers. All were prominent in the town as storekeepers and businessmen. They immediately set to work pruning the Fergus budget.

Several of the new council believed that the previous regime was not only profligate, but had countenanced financial irregularities. They demanded new financial statements from the clerk, the treasurer, and the cemetery caretaker. Two councilors then wanted to fire the town constable, but that motion was voted down.

The axe-swinging continued at the second meeting of 1874. The treasurer’s statement showed a deficit of $295 for 1873. A fresh vote resulted in the constable being fired after all. A new bond for the treasurer was presented, signed by John Watt, John Beattie and Alexander Taylor.

A surprise for the council was that the Wellington, Grey and Bruce bonds purchased by Fergus had shown an unexpected increase in value, and a dividend of some $2,100. Fergus had purchased $10,000 of the railway bonds in 1868, and had financed them with $10,000 of its own bonds. Council decided to use the money to buy back the remainder of its own bonds that had been issued to support the railway. That reduced interest costs for the village, thereby helping to cut the tax rate.

Councillors ignored the voices of temperance advocates who wanted to reduce the number of taverns. They issued licences to 10 hotels, the maximum number allowed, and to six stores. The licences cost $40 each. That brought the revenue from the liquor outlets to $6,400. This was the largest source of income for the village by far.

At the next meeting council appointed Bill Graham as constable for an annual salary of $325. He had the usual duties of enforcing local bylaws and provincial laws. As well, council added a long list of additional duties. Graham had charge of the Fergus fire engine, ensuring that its boiler could be fired up quickly when necessary. He was caretaker of the fire hall and the drill shed, used for public functions. Graham had custody of the tools used for public works by Fergus, and had to use them himself, he was responsible for repairs to roads and sidewalks. He also had to supervise the monthly Fergus cattle fair, and was the caretaker of Belsyde Cemetery.

Under pressure from West Garafraxa council, reeve Anderson co-operated in calling tenders for better approaches to the Grand River bridge at the eastern boundary of Fergus.

In a rare moment of generosity, council granted a five-year tax holiday to George and Matthew Beatty, who were starting up a foundry operation. The proposal passed, despite the opposition of reeve Anderson.

At a later meeting Rev. George Smellie, with the support of four other local ministers, appeared before council with a petition asking for proper enforcement of liquor legislation. Virtually all the hotels, claimed Smellie, were openly serving drinks on Sunday, contrary to provincial law. Councillors expressed sympathy with Smellie’s arguments, but took no action to close the barrooms on the Sabbath. During the discussion it was clear that Constable Graham had instructions to stay away from the hotels on Sunday. Most people realized that there were too many of them, but council had no intention of putting its largest source of income in jeopardy by reducing the open hours of the barrooms. They took no action on the matter.

A letter from George Laidlaw, resident of the Credit Valley Railway, asked the town to provide a right-of-way through Fergus for his railway. Laidlaw already had a reputation as a sharp operator, and council decided to wait before making any commitment to further support a railway that might not be built. They had already supported the line with a purchase of debentures.

There was also a lack of enthusiasm for a request from a man named B.S. Blake of Toronto. In return for civic aid he promised to locate a factory in Fergus to make coffins. Unlike the Beatty Brothers, he was unsuccessful in prying open the civic purse. Luckier was the Fergus Manufacturing Company, which took over the factory formerly occupied by Wilson, Bowman & Company, makers of sewing machines. Council agreed to continue the tax concessions that had been granted to the old firm.

Later in the year Peter Noble, a resident of the west end of Fergus, requested that council make repairs to the Johnston Street bridge, which was decaying rapidly. Council, fearing a major expenditure on the bridge, voted instead to close it and fence the approaches at both ends.

Council was able to reduce the mil rate to 15 mils from 19 the previous year, and ended the year with a surplus of $575. Helping the tax reduction was the rental of the Drill Shed to Holland & Co. for use as a warehouse. That brought in more revenue than renting out the facility by the day, but it meant there was no longer a large public hall for public use.

Of the 15 mil tax rate, only two mils was for Fergus council. The remainder consisted of taxes for the school boards and the county of Wellington, all of whom had reduced their taxes from the previous year.

The year ended with another chapter in the seemingly endless battle between Fergus and the county over expenses associated with the expenses for bridges and major roads within Fergus. At great expense Fergus obtained an opinion from a Toronto legal firm that the county was entirely responsible for the maintenance of the David Street bridge. The result was a lawsuit that would not be heard until the Spring Assizes in 1876.

The village would lose that case, and in 1876 had to undertake expensive repairs and maintenance to the bridge, as well as paying significant legal fees. Council voted to appeal the decision rather than lose face. Those expenses, plus the costs of some other major civic projects that year, brought the end to the period of austerity by Fergus council, and taxes had to rise again.

By then the public had grown weary of attempts at cost cutting, which had resulted in a diminution of civic services.

It was a story to be played out again time after time in the future, not only in Fergus but also in the other municipalities in the county.


Stephen Thorning