Westmount Conservatory and its adjoined greenhouses’ current state of decay are “the canary in the coal mine” for the city’s infrastructure condition, according to councillor Patrick Martin. “And the bird is very sick indeed.”
“Their delicate construction reminds one of a Victorian birdcage. They require proper maintenance, failing which they fall apart,” Martin said during Tuesday’s council meeting’s opening. “Power outages, leaking sewers, cracked and crumbling streets and sidewalks, and greenhouses that are now deemed unsafe and off limits to residents, all testify to the poor state of our infrastructure, and to its chronic underfunding.”
Martin’s speech was a response to Westmount Mayor Peter Trent’s annual tax letter sent to the city’s residents last week. Trent had argued that Westmount’s current infrastructure problems are not caused by underfunding, but rather by a lack of proper execution of the city’s already approved projects. He wrote that Public Works and Hydro Westmount had underspent this year and had generated over $6 million in surplus, which was not spent to fix roads, buildings, and power installations due to many slows downs of the work on construction sites by Gaz Metro, Bell Telephone, or the CSST.
However, Martin, who is the city’s commissioner of Public Works and Utilities, opposed him. He said the city’s Public Works have been plagued year after year by hiring freezes, restricted maintenance budget and insufficient allowance for the city’s assets deterioration, adding that it was all derived from a careless attitude that has persisted for decades. It is this attitude that, according to him, hindered Westmount’s ability to accomplish new projects, maintain existing infrastructure, and supervise finished work’s quality.
Trent reacted bluntly to Martin’s speech, telling him “to read the second page of his letter,” which showed how the city’s roads and Hydro Westmount consistently spent less than budgeted. “If there were a problem of spending, at least, they would have spent the money we had already approved,” he said. “We approve a budget and then every department is supposed to use it. If they do not use the money, it goes in the surplus,” Trent said. He recognised, though, that the city could not deliver on its new projects.
“Of course, I read the second page of the mayor's letter,” Martin later said in an email. “I think the mayor is, or should be, embarrassed at the $30 million of surpluses accumulated over the last five years, and he would like to point fingers at others. If you budget properly, you do not have such large surpluses.
He talks about incomplete work by Public Works. In fact, in that five-year period, there is only one project that is still incomplete. It is the $500,000 project to repave Prince Albert Avenue, which was delayed by Bell Telephone and Gaz Metro.”
Martin said during the council meeting that delays in the completion of projects by a fiscal year’s end do not contribute to surplus over time. He added that the resulting unused money should just be added to the next year’s budget since it still will be necessary for those projects’ completion. He also said that a surplus accumulating and growing every year only indicates residents and businesses pay too many taxes.
Trent “is a politician and a master at clouding the issue of the surplus,” Martin openly said through email. “I am an engineer with 40-years experience in infrastructure projects, and I tell it like it is.
He does not always like that.”