January 28, 2009

Reading skills essential for well-rounded citizens

As published in The Erin Advocate

Is it not wonderful that children these days are text messaging their friends and using the Internet to learn about the world? Will this modern digital literacy mould new generations of responsible cyber-citizens? If it comes at the expense of traditional reading skills, the answer is probably no.

The ability to do web research may be useful, but perhaps it is too easy. When what you think you need is served up to you, less thinking is needed. Reading a good novel, allowing yourself to be guided and entertained by a skilled author, is more likely to expand the mind.

With a little web surfing, I found this quote from Sunil Iyengar, a researcher at the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts: “We can no longer take the presence of books in the home for granted. Reading on one’s own – not in a required sense, but doing it because you want to read – that skill has to be cultivated at an early age.”

The NEA found that regular readers are more likely to vote, join community organizations, support the arts and be employed. Family Literacy Day (January 27 annually) reminds us that developing a love of reading, writing, and math at home is crucial for our economy and culture.

The Erin library is running a Family Literacy Bingo game. Children can fill in squares on a bingo card by completing literacy activities such as: writing a letter to the editor, making up a joke, Googling their name, designing a birthday card, following a recipe or reading a book. Pick up a card at the library and return it by January 31 to win a small prize.

The ability to read well, and enjoy it, does not always come easily, despite the efforts of teachers and parents. About half of Canadian adults have literacy skills that are poor, or barely adequate for their jobs.

The Wellington County Learning Centre offers help to children and adults who want to improve their reading and other basic skills. It is free and confidential. Some of the teaching is done at their facility in Arthur, but a network of about 80 volunteer tutors does much of the work at local centres such as the library, or students’ homes.

Consider becoming a tutor. I did it many years ago (not for WCLC) and it was a great experience for both the student and me. The WCLC provides training, and needs people who can commit three hours per week. Get more information on becoming a student or tutor by calling – 1-888-368-7889, emailing – literacy@thewclc.ca or visiting their website – www.thewclc.ca. They also refer people to similar agencies in Guelph and Acton when needed.

The WCLC website has a newsletter section with very specific advice for tutors and parents. There are techniques to improve spelling, pronunciation, story writing, comprehension, vocabulary and reading aloud with expression, plus information on different learning styles.

Funding from the Guelph-Wellington United Way supports a program for children, and teens up to 18 who are still in school, providing one-to-one teaching to upgrade basic skills. This benefits up to 60 students per year.

Adult programs for literacy, numeracy, resume development, basic computer use and workplace communication are funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

“We have funding for 68 adult students, but we serviced 148 last year, so we’re feeling the crunch,” said Executive Director Elizabeth Debergh.

“The main reasons people join are for independence and helping their children learn to read, for further education and for employment needs.”

Relatively new is a college preparation program at the Centre, in partnership with Conestoga College, allowing people to earn prerequisite college admission credits they did not get in high school. There is also a General Education Development program that is recognized by colleges, apprenticeship programs and employers as equivalent to an Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

For programs in Arthur, there is a transportation subsidy available. Publications on sale through the WCLC include a Skills Level Checklist, a Budget Workbook for money management and The Road Ahead, an easy to read driver’s handbook.

January 21, 2009

Make sure that your tax assessment is fair

As published by The Erin Advocate

A sharp rise in Erin property values from 2005 to 2008 has pushed up tax assessments by about 26 per cent, but that does not mean property taxes will increase by a similar amount.

Property owners in Erin received assessment notices late last year advising that the average assessment increase will be 6.53 percent for 2009 – the first of four major annual increases.

The Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) calculates the assessed value of almost 4.7 million properties in Ontario. With that volume, mistakes and inaccuracies do occur.

Is your assessment level fair? MPAC has a website that lets you check the accuracy of information upon which your assessment is based, and that it is consistent with similar properties in your area.

If your property was assessed at $300,000 on January 1, 2005, the average increase for Erin puts it at about $378,000 as of January 1, 2008. Under Ontario’s new assessment system, instead of increasing the assessment by the full amount right away, the 26 per cent increase will be phased in from 2009 to 2012.

Unfortunately, tax assessment will always be a bit confusing, since the fluctuating values of real estate are not directly linked to the rate of inflation or the costs of running a municipality.

To cut through the confusion, it is important to understand that your assessment is only one factor in calculating your actual tax bill. Once the Town and County determine how much money they need to raise from property owners, your assessment simply determines what your share of the total cost will be. People with more valuable properties must pay a proportionately larger share than those with less valuable properties.

Look at your assessment notice. It will state your 2009 assessment increase as a percent figure. If it is higher than the average of 6.53 percent, it means your property value increased more than most others in Erin, and so you will pay a slightly higher share of the total tax burden. If it is less than average, your share will be slightly lower.

Of course, everyone is likely to pay more overall, since the total costs of public services tend to rise. Tax increases are primarily driven by the budgets of the Town and County and the Province’s education tax rate.

When you get your tax bill, there is a simple formula: assessed value multiplied by the tax rate equals the amount you pay.

Sharon Marshall, Erin’s Finance Director, said that when assessment levels rise, the town may set its “tax rate” lower, so the end result is a reasonable tax increase. The budget process assesses how much extra revenue is needed just to maintain existing services; council then decides where to make improvements or cutbacks.

About 21.4 percent of your total tax dollar goes to the Town of Erin, 58.3 percent to Wellington County and 20.3 percent to the Ministry of Education. Assessment in Erin is rising faster than in most parts of Wellington, so our share of County expenses is increasing.

New assessment value in the system (from new homes, businesses and property improvements) does spread the tax burden more widely, but growth also results in extra costs for municipalities. Marshall said the Erin residential tax base has expanded by about one percent in 2008, and the commercial/industrial base by about two percent.

For details on how your property was evaluated, enter the User ID and password from your assessment notice on a section of the MPAC website, www.mpac.ca, called AboutMyProperty. You will see all the relevant details that are crucial to assessment, like sale price, location, lot size, frontage, total building area, living area, age of home and additions, finished basement area, garages, pools, fireplaces, number of bathrooms and bedrooms, and the type of heating. Make sure they are accurate.

Once you have your profile, you can get all the same information on up to 24 other properties in Erin – just enter the addresses. It is all public information, and it appears as a chart with your property details in the first column. Just read across to compare assessed values and features.

You may not care whether your neighbour has two and a half bathrooms, or maybe you do. The main thing is to decide whether you think your assessment is fair.

If you want MPAC to review and change your assessment (at no cost), you must submit a Request for Reconsideration by March 31. If you wait until you get your final tax bill in July, it will be too late to challenge the assessment.

If you disagree with the review, you can then file an appeal to the Assessment Review Board, where the onus is on MPAC to prove the accuracy of their assessment.

The key factor, according MPAC: “Ask yourself if you could have reasonably expected to sell your property for its assessed value on January 1, 2008.”

The fact that property values have dropped, and your house is now worth less than its assessed value, does not affect the fairness of the system, says MPAC. They point out that even if the date could be changed, it would affect everyone equally: “If all properties were reduced proportionally, the share of the tax burden allocated to each property would not change.”

January 14, 2009

Ads from yesteryear strike familiar chords

As published in The Erin Advocate

The ad seemed somehow familiar, promising to mail out a sample box that would make me a lot of money. “Live at home and work in spare time, or all the time. Capital not required. We will start you. Immense pay sure for those who start at once.”

Tempted though I was, it was too late to respond, since I was reading the front page of an 1885 Erin Advocate. The offer sounded just like various modern email spam messages, except that the price was 10 cents in postage stamps.

On the same page was another ad that reminded me of email scams: “Lecture to Young Men on the Loss of Manhood…the radical and permanent cure of Nervous Disability, Medical and Physical Incapacity, Impediments to Marriage, etc., resulting from excesses. Price, in a sealed envelope, only 6 cents, or two postage stamps.”

Looking down the page, there were ads for “medicines” like Burdock Blood Bitters, Hagyard’s Yellow Oil, Freeman’s Worm Powders and Dr. Chase’s Mandrake Dandelion Liver Cure. Catchy names, but what was inside? Fortunately, there have been major advances both in medicine and advertising standards. Perhaps certain types of ads are inevitable when a medium has few regulations.

According to a book called Friendly Persuasion – Canadian Advertising of Yesteryear, by Nick and Helma Mika, early ads were called “notices”, set in ordinary type to make them look like “news”.

“In those days, the very fact that the cures were advertised was sufficient for many to believe in their value; the printed word was the gospel for many persons, usually of limited education,” they said. The suspicious ads usually had American addresses.

Canada’s first newspaper ads appeared in 1752 in the Halifax Gazette, an official government publication. Those first ads were for legal services, private teachers and “Choice Butter, by the Firkin” (a firkin being a nine-gallon cask, one quarter of a barrel).

Like most local ads both now and then, they were for legitimate goods and services that people need. Claims of high quality were of course crucial to their success. The Erin drug store run in 1885 by R. & J. Wood, for example, sold eye glasses made in England that have “given in every instance unbounded satisfaction – they are the best in the world.”

Now that we live in an age of highly sophisticated advertising, it is fascinating to look back on older styles, in an era when people in small villages like Erin were relatively isolated.

Ads also reveal the nature of a village economy. In the 1877 historical atlas of Wellington, printed ads show Erin as a small-scale industrial centre. John S. Walker operated an iron foundry, making ploughs, harrows, cultivators and iron and brass castings to order, with repairs “at short notice”. At Main and Church, the Rott Brothers ran the Ontario Foundry & Carriage Works, making buggies, lumber wagons and sleighs.

William Cornock, who represented Erin Township on Wellington County council in 1868, owned a mill that paid cash for any type of grain from local farmers.

W.R. Chisholm was the proprietor of the Globe Hotel on Main Street, advertising stagecoach transportation to Guelph three times per week. That is better public transit than the town has today.

Everything from parlour stoves to Swiss watches could be bought on Main Street, long before Erin village was incorporated in 1879. Thomas Carberry, who sold groceries next to the Queen’s Hotel, made a little extra income as an issuer of marriage licenses.

It is just a small glimpse of a community that was growing very rapidly, with hard-working farmers, skilled trades people and ambitious merchants. By December of 1880, they finally had a weekly newspaper in which to advertise – the one you are reading now.

January 07, 2009

Historical atlases sketch progress of Erin pioneers

As published in The Erin Advocate

Back in high school, I cared little for history. We were told that those who forget their past are destined to repeat it. I did not believe the race could improve itself by studying the past. Technology may advance and wealth may grow, but human nature remains the same.

Over the years, however, I have developed a fascination for some of the details of history, perhaps because they give our current reality a little twist. How would we have managed in an environment so different from the present?

In the Erin library last week, I noticed on display the Historical Atlas of the County of Wellington, published in 1906, and a similar one from 1877. I was hooked for an hour.

In its brief historical sketch, the 1906 atlas reminds us that Wellington was once part of Quebec, in the 18th century. Under English rule in the early 19th century, immigrants from the British Isles began pushing out into areas like Erin.

The township was surveyed in 1819 and the first European settlers, George and Nathaniel Roszel, arrived in 1820. By 1924, there would be 29 households and a population of 116, according to census data.

William How and his brother arrived in 1821. He later told the Mercury newspaper that they had to cut 10 miles of road at their own expense and labour, to access their property at lots 22-23 in the 7th concession. His wife was six months in the woods without seeing another woman.

Henry Trout arrived in 1822 and Daniel McMillan in 1824, both of whom would build mills on the West Credit River. The first township meeting was held at the house of Abraham Buck in 1824, with Henry Trout, Sr. appointed Clerk.

By 1830, there were 75 households and 1,154 acres of land cultivated. The town of Guelph was the county capital, but there was no road to Guelph until 1844. And if you think modern rural roads are poor, consider that the road to Guelph was not graveled until 23 years later.

Smith’s History of Canada described the road as “villainous” in 1851: “After crossing the seventh line in Erin, the road, which is new, becomes very bad, consisting of almost impassible hills, and long pieces of corduroy crossing several cedar swamps varying in size and two or three extensive tamarack swamps.”

Corduroy is the ancient technique of laying logs together across a roadway to provide a stable, yet bumpy base for vehicles in mushy terrain.

The Smith’s account notes that some of the homesteads are “enlivened with flower gardens, which give them a cheerful and pleasant appearance, particularly in so rough a country.”

The 1877 atlas lists J.W. Burt and Charles McMillan as the Erin representatives on Wellington Council. By then there were 915 families in the township, with a population of 5,326 -– 24 percent born in the British Isles and almost all the rest in Canada. There was one American and 18 people from other nations. At that time, Erin land was assessed for taxes at $20 per acre.

The 1906 atlas notes that Hillsburgh (linked to Erin village by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1879) had three churches, two hotels, a flour mill and a tannery. “It is surrounded by a fine farming country and is an important shipping point. It has always been famous as a resort for trout fishermen, and near the place are the hatcheries of the Caledon Mountain Trout Club.”

Both books have fascinating maps, especially for anyone with ancestors in Wellington. Every farm is inscribed with the family name. I see that my own property was part of a larger tract owned by the Hannah family, and that the McLean farm just to the north at Ninth Line and 5 Sideroad was owned by a D. McLean in 1877.

The earlier book has no map of Erin Village, since it was not incorporated at the time, but there is a 1906 map at a scale of 1 inch = 10 chains. (A surveyor’s chain is 66 feet, and 10 square chains is one acre.)

Along with every housing lot (all within two blocks of Main Street), the map shows interesting details like the Erin Grist Mill raceway and a Village Park behind Main Street properties, between the Agricultural Society lands and Centre Street.
Woolen Mill Lane was called Factory Lane (off Mill Street) and Wheelock Street ran from Church to what is now Dundas, through the grounds of the current elementary school.