By Peter Richardson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Born in Italy, Shelburne councillor Walter Benotto was raised in Melancthon, on a dairy farm that at its height, included 1,000 acres and some 80 milking cows! Walter recalled that one summer, they took 17,000 bales of hay off for the cattle.
He moved off the farm in his early 20’s, after deciding that he did not really want to become a dairy farmer. It was also about this time that he met the woman who would become his wife. They are still married today, 42 years later and have two grown sons.
After graduation from high school, Walter worked at Domglas in Brampton and he would have stayed there too, but the company wanted him to become a long haul trucker.
The idea of being away from home for extended periods of time don’t sit well with Walter, so he quit and went to work for his dad, in construction. He worked all over southern Ontario, from Peterborough to all over the now, GTA and down to Cambridge. Meanwhile, his mother and aunt were still running the dairy farm. It was late 1970’s, when the family finally sold the dairy farm and concentrated on the construction business.
In 1986, things were to change for Walter, in dramatic fashion. He had a nasty work-related accident, on the weekend that his wife was due to deliver their first child! He fell some 18 feet off of a roof and suffered severe injuries. He dislocated his right hip, completely, broke a piece out of it, damaged his sciatic nerve and several discs in his spine. Unable to return to construction work, Walter retrained, at Sheridan College, after a lengthy fight with the WSIB to allow it, as an electronics technologist, fixing VCRs and related equipment. However, after some time, the repeated operations and the pain forced Walter to accept that he could not work any longer and he made a claim for long term disability from the Province.
Jumping ahead to the early 90’s, Walter became interested in municipal politics when he attended a council meeting to ask about raising development charges, so as to relieve the tax payer of some of the costs of things like water and sewer rates. He was told that if they raised the charges, the developers would simply not build in Shelburne, which Walter saw as shortsighted, since the developer simply passed the development charges on to the home buyers. So, in 1996, he ran for Council and lost. However, fate was on Walter’s side. Alex Sawyer, who was a councillor, decided to retire in 1999 and Walter being the next highest vote total, was chosen to replace him. He ran after that in the 2000 election and the rest is history. Walter has been a Councillor ever since.
Looking at the growth patterns in Town, Walter noted that growth at first came in spurts to Shelburne. When he was young, Shelburne was about 1,500 people, then in the 70’s there was a spurt and several more as time went on. Now, the growth is almost steady and the infrastructure has not kept pace. Without growth, the Town cannot thrive, however without the infrastructure it cannot grow. Looking south to Orangeville, one sees how as the population grew, industry and commerce began to arrive. Based upon population, Orangeville began to see the arrival of big box stores, like Walmart and industries too. There has to be the population to support the businesses and supply a ready workforce. Walter was quick to point out that Blue Mountain Plastics and KTH Manufacturing would not have come to Shelburne without the availability of a steady workforce.
Shelburne is a bedroom community and Walter acknowledges that. People are willing to commute to the GTA for work, but when they come home, they expect the same amenities as living in Toronto or Mississauga. To provide this, Shelburne needs growth and for the growth, infrastructure. Water and sewage treatment have been a thorn in the Town’s side for years and Council is hard pressed to see an end to it.
Nevertheless, change is coming and Walter sees Shelburne as still being in a good position to attract more commercial and industrial growth and to see the populace continue to grow.
Shelburne has a large senior population and Walter has always spoken for the seniors, insisting that developers need to look at senior’s needs when it comes to housing. Presently there are few options for those who want to downsize, but that may change with a newly proposed 93-unit apartment building designed for seniors. It will have balconies and a commercial/retail mall nearby. That is, if the Town can provide the, required, sewage capacity. Walter says that Council has plans for an upgrade to the existing treatment plant. While it’s not the cost of a new plant, even an upgrade will not be cheap. Council is looking at a $32 million dollar budget for the plant.
Walter has served on practically every board and committee in the Town. He has chaired the CDRC and is the current chair of the Fire Board, He has been on the Library Board and the EDC. The only board he has not served on is the Police Services Board, though he did serve on the committee to amalgamate the Orangeville and Shelburne police forces several years ago.
Walters take on the recently proposed closing of the Gravenhurst Fire College and the training of the firefighters in the individual halls is positive. He says the initial information from the Fire Marshalls Office was incomplete, however, subsequent updates show the new policy will be beneficial.
Of more concern to Walter is the new agreement being proposed by the County of Dufferin concerning the make up of the Fire Board. Shelburne has yet to sign the agreement, as they have a problem with the representation. Currently the Town pays 54 per cent of the costs, yet has the same representation as the other municipalities involved. At this time, Council is planning to look at the situation, before deciding whether or not to sign on to the new agreement. If they do not sign, the only other option would be to terminate the agreement and the Fire Service would be solely a Shelburne entity and free to negotiate agreements with other municipalities accordingly.
When asked his opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement and recent upswing of Black and People of Colour’s involvement in Shelburne, Walter feels it is a good thing.
Contrary to some popular conceptions, racism definitely exists in the community. He said he encountered it growing up, being call a wop or a displaced person and he said it hurt. He feels that there has not been enough outreach between the older community and the newer one and Shelburne has started a committee to facilitate that.
Walter noted that racism exists but people do not realize it. They do not see that some of the things they are doing or saying may hurt other people. Shelburne, until recently, has always been a white community, with no noticeable people of colour in it. That has changed and an effort must be made to recognize these people and cultures and accept them as the norm, not the abnormal.
So will Walter run for re-election? He is cautious in his answer. If he feels that things are in good hands and his voice is not needed, he may not. But if he perceives a need to continue on, he says he is proud to do so. For now, he just wants to get through this session of Council and then perhaps look towards his political future.
Peter Richardson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Orangeville Citizen