Palmerston council counted every penny in 1930s

The depression years of the 1930s were challenging ones for Wellington’s municipal councils. A couple of towns and villages, particularly Fergus, largely escaped the downtown because the dominant employer in the town, Beatty Brothers, was able to maintain most of its payroll. Most towns, though, suffered from high unemployment and the resulting challenges to their economies.

A good example of the latter group was Palmerston. Like Fergus, that town had one dominant employer, in this case Canadian National Railways. Cutbacks to passenger service in 1931 and 1932 meant that dozens of men were laid off, and much reduced freight traffic idled additional men.

The majority of those railway workers, though unemployed, remained in town, hoping to be called for an occasional assignment. In winter, they looked forward to a blizzard. That meant that they would be called in for a few days, or even a week, to operate special plow trains, or to shovel snow in the yard. In January of 1936, for example, a gang of 25 men spent a week shoveling snow plugging the yards onto flatcars, then shoveling it off the cars out in the country.

That extra work put a little money into a few pockets and made a small dent in the local economy. Palmerston’s council also hired men to deal with snow on streets and sidewalks, and spread the work out as much as possible.

It was a difficult period for Palmerston’s council. Costs for public assistance escalated dramatically, and the financial crunch was made worse by a growing list of unpaid property taxes. Tax increases were out of the question. Consequently, council inspected every dime closely before spending it.

The situation was amply demonstrated at the council meeting of Feb. 10, 1936. The first matter dealt with that night was the town’s liability insurance. Agent G.Y. Donaldson, who had written the policy in 1935, quoted a premium of $150. Another Palmerston insurance agency, C. Ovens, gave a quote of $160.25. Council was anxious to alternate its policy between the local agents, but balked over the extra $10 asked by Ovens. After a long discussion councillors decided to defer a decision until a later meeting.

Another lengthy discussion resulted from some repair work to the arena. Council could not decide whether that should be paid from the general fund of the town or the arena budget. In the end they deferred that decision as well.

In 1936, Palmerston hired its employees on one-year contracts. They renewed the existing employees for a further year, at no increases in salary, after a motion by councillor Matthews that all positions be advertised was lost for want of a seconder.

Those officials included treasurer H.S. Cunningham at $200 per year, tax collector  G.Y. Donaldson at $150, constable Robert Wilson at $875, with a further $5 to act as weed inspector, garbage collector John Porter at $550, town clerk Seth Mathers at $350, cemetery caretaker Herb Corrigan $600, and fire chief George Rogers at $340.

There was some controversy over the work performed by assessor D.A. Cox during 1934. Councillor Matthews, the most cost-conscious man at the table, criticized Cox’s work in 1934, pointing out that the business assessment was far too low.

That led to a lengthy discussion, after which council renewed Cox’s appointment at $125 for 1936, and indicated that an assistant might be appointed at a later meeting.

At the next meeting, two weeks later, the insurance issue was again on the agenda. A third bid had by then been received from local agent W.H. Morgan. After arguing the matter for over an hour, council awarded the account to agent Ovens, even though his bid was the highest.

Council seemed to be in a generous mood that night. Members voted to give the newly organized Citizen’s Band a grant of $50 to be used toward the purchase of instruments. It was the second grant to the organization in eight months. Councillors agreed that the band would be an asset to the town on ceremonial occasions at no charge.

More controversial was an amount of 87 cents owed by council to the Public Utilities Commission.

The regular audit of the PUC books had failed to identify the discrepancy, a fact that infuriated councillors. One councillor stated that he had been accosted by several citizens outraged at the sloppy procedures.

Later in the meeting the auditor had his revenge. He had uncovered a number of expenditures made during 1935 without the approval of council. Slightly embarrassed, councillors quickly passed a motion giving blanket approval to all expenditures made the previous year.

Reeve Brown, fearing a repeat of that situation, advised council that he had, on his own initiative, engaged a snow plow to clear the side streets of the town. Most were impassible, with an accumulation of about two feet of snow. Council quickly approved the reeve’s action.

Another matter was before council for the third time. That was an account for about $22 from E.J. Locke, who supplied several families with groceries though they had not yet been approved for welfare. Council decided to hold the matter, and refer it the provincial welfare inspector when he visited the town some time in the future.

The next council meeting took place March 9. Arena manager D.O. Macdonald submitted his resignation effective the end of the month. Relations between the Macdonald and council had been testy at best for months, largely over maintenance and repair expenses.

Tax matters were again before councillors. There was a complaint that tax collector Donaldson had been in the habit of waiving penalties for payments of delinquent taxes. Provincial policy required that late tax payments were subject to a surcharge of 4% per annum. Council directed staff to collect the 4% on all late payments.

Another problem from the annual audit was cleaned up by council that night. There was a discrepancy of $200 in the cemetery perpetual care fund, and it had been carried forward on the books for years.

Mayor Watt told council that $3,200 of 1935 taxes remained unpaid. He believed that most of it could be collected, and recommended that council employ a special agent, as had been done a year earlier.

Councillor Matthews, always anxious to reduce expenses, stated that other municipalities had success in collecting back taxes by printing the names of delinquents in the newspaper, thereby shaming taxpayers into paying up. Council left the matter unresolved, but it did authorize the sale of about 25 pieces of property that had tax arrears dating back four or more years.

Councillors unanimously approved a major expenditure for 1936: $1,000 for the purchase of oil to be sprayed on the streets to reduce dust. The town had success using oil in 1935. Councillors believed road oil was more effective and economical than the old practice of spraying water on the streets.

The next meeting, on March 23, considered a bill from the Stratford General Hospital for the cost of an operation on a welfare recipient resident in Palmerston. Council showed some reluctance, but agreed to pay the account.

The Palmerston library board submitted plans for planting and beautifying the grounds around the building. Councillors authorized the expenditure of $100, but also noted that the board had not used all its share of tax revenues for several years. They voted to reduce the library rate on tax bills from 2 mils to 1.5 mils for 1936.

Council voted to discontinue relief payments on March 15. There was much discussion on the matter, some councillors arguing that the move would put great hardship onto some families. One councillor stated that most “reliefers” were “putting it over on the town,” and that some refused to do any work referred to them. Over the summer council intended to adopt new policies for those seeking welfare in the fall of 1936.

The balance of 1936 for Palmerston council followed the same course as the four meetings described here. There was no money for major capital projects, as council struggled to provide services with diminished resources. Most municipalities faced the same problems 75 years ago. It was a situation that no one wishes to see again.


Stephen Thorning