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Area mayors discuss the challenges of running sustainable municipalities

Mike Schreiner, Green Party of Ontario leader, hosted the discussion with mayors Jim Harrison, Steve Ferguson and Mitch Panciuk

By Sharon Harrison
Three Bay of Quinte mayors came together to talk about the difficulties and challenges to create sustainable and viable communities, and how municipalities could be empowered. Hosted by the Bay of Quinte Green Party of Ontario, the discussion formed part of the organization’s monthly speaker series and was moderated by Mike Schreiner, Green Party of Ontario leader.

Prince Edward County mayor Steve Ferguson was joined by Belleville mayor Mitch Panciuk and Quinte West mayor Jim Harrison for the conversation. Harrison’s input was unfortunately limited due to his unstable broadband connection, the irony of which was not lost on his counterparts, and the host, and their efforts to bring reliable internet to rural communities. The virtual event saw more than 50 people log in.

“I think over the last 15 months during the pandemic, people have been reminded of just what a vital role municipal governments play and what an important leadership role mayors in particular play,” said Schreiner. He also acknowledged the vital role municipalities play in designing liveable communities.

“They are places where people are connected: connected to work, connected to the local businesses, connected to amenities and services they need,“ he said. “The decisions that municipalities make in partnership with the province have a huge determination and the quality of well-being of people’s day-to-day lives in our communities, and have a really important role in addressing the climate crisis, especially with transportation issues, our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the province.“

Schreiner began by asking Mayor Harrison about the biggest barriers and challenges municipalities are facing and what role the provincial government can play in overcoming and addressing those challenges in building a successful sustainable liveable municipality.

Harrison acknowledged the strong connection between the three area mayors and how much they work together, share ideas and communicate.

“We are empowering each other. We are empowering our city, our municipality and in particular, the residents as that’s the way we work,” adding it was important to “recognize each and every one of us.”

He acknowledged there were many challenges faced by the municipality.

“The most important one right now is a very small, minute gypsy moth. It is taking over,” he said, noting they are working on a plan to hopefully have something in place for next year because there is little to be done this year.

“We have lost a lot of good valuable trees, and the environmental impact is tremendous.”

Mayor Ferguson also talked about the relationship between the three municipalities and the relationships he has with Mayors Panciuk and Harrison.

Ferguson said, as an island municipality, Prince Edward County’s biggest challenge – although he acknowledged there were several – is affordable housing.

“The extremely high demand, combined with the very low supply of housing in Prince Edward County has pushed home sale prices into the stratosphere,” he said, noting housing prices have increased 41 per cent over the previous 10 months.

Affordable housing, he said, has a profound impact on everything, particularly businesses.

“Businesses must have workers and workers have to live some place and the exorbitant prices in the market right now just make that prohibitive, so our businesses suffer as a result of not being able to find employees.”

While he noted the situation existed before the current housing explosion, he said it had been exacerbated by it, as well as the growth of short-term accommodations, and the number of people working from home as a result of the pandemic.

To begin addressing the situation, Ferguson noted the formation of a not-for-profit,stand-alone housing corporation that is working to develop affordable housing in the municipality. As a stand-alone group, the corporation can access external funding through various sources.

“Because of Prince Edward’s popularity, the development community has expressed interest in creating housing and has dozens of new-builds slated over the next 10 years that we hope will come to fruition as soon as possible.”

Ferguson also noted the new Official Plan encourages the development of affordable housing.

“For instance, we have eliminated, in the new plan, country lot sub-divisions and reduced those severances from two per lot to one to help preserve the natural landscape, and also minimize conflicts with, and preserve agricultural lands.” Growth, he said, will be directed to the settlement areas within Picton and Wellington, for instance.

“There is a long road ahead of us and it is our biggest challenge and it hasn’t been made any easier as a result of the pandemic. It has certainly distracted from a lot of the plans we might normally have undertaken.”

“We want people who grew up here and work here to be able to live here, and we are working as hard as we can to make that a reality.”

Mayor Panciuk also noted the relationship between the communities mayors cannot be overstated.

“We have an excellent relationship where we talk and can be honest and frank with each other,” he said, adding they all benefit when they work together.

People, he said, often ask why municipalities always talk about money.

“The reason is we are set up to have too many responsibilities and not enough funding to fulfill them. I won’t say we were set up to fail, but we were set up to be squeezed.”

The rationale at the time was concern over allowing municipalities to grow into a third official level of government by limiting the things municipalities could do.

“Over the years, successive provincial governments continue to reduce their role, shifting them to municipalities without shifting funding.”

As an example, Panciuk noted long-term care and nursing homes were never designed to be a municipality responsibility.

“Social services, from employment assistance, to training, to welfare, to social housing, to homelessness, all are now part of the municipality that we are dealing with,” he said. “We have all of the obligations and responsibilities and none of the tools.”

He said the best example is with water and waste water.

“In the 1980s, the province of Ontario ran all those systems; they owned and operated all those systems and they turned them over to municipalities and made us operate them only using user fees, so the people that used those system were obligated to pay for them.”

He noted people on wells and septics are not contributing to those public water systems.

“Our biggest challenge is to find a way to do all the things that people expect us to do; our biggest challenge is on the funding side. We don’t just want more money to be able to spend more money. We want to be able to fulfill our responsibilities and obligations to our residents and do it properly.”

Schreiner noted how our financial sustainability is vitally important and noted a strong link between environmental sustainability and fiscal sustainability.

He asked Panciuk what a sustainable fiscal model would look like and what role the province could play in that.

Panciuk said municipalities operate under a property tax system using after-tax dollars based on the value of individual homes, noting it has nothing to do with whether people are employed or retired.

“We are not able to withstand the ups and downs of an economy that changes because we can’t run a deficit. We are able to borrow for capital projects, but not for operating expenses and that’s the fundamental thing that needs to be examined.”

He explained in Ontario there are two types of cities; the Municipal Act that governs all municipalities, and the City of Toronto Act which operates under different rules and different revenue tools.

“We have to look at the whole property tax system and ask if that is the way we really want to fund the services that we expect the municipalities to do,” he said, adding that he wasn’t confident that discussion would happen.

He would like to see the government deal with the shift from grants to what the province is giving municipalities in terms of low-interest loans.

“If they can give us stable funding, there can be an understanding to properly forecast our capital and some of our operating expenses moving forward. The reason why that’s so important is the municipal investment in building the economy takes the longest for us to see a return.”

Mayor Ferguson concurred, saying Prince Edward County is under significant pressure as a result of the responsibilities that have been passed down from upper levels of government.

“In Prince Edward County’s case, we don’t have the luxury that Mitch or Jim have in the development of large tracts of commercial areas,” Ferguson said, noting the County ias largely a tourist/agricultural economy.

“We don’t have latitude to be able to rely on corporations or large companies moving in and being taxed at a more attractive rate. In terms of our fiscal handling, we’re relying on that residential base and recognizing there is a limit to what people can and will pay.”

He noted in recent years a migration out of Prince Edward County because of taxes and general affordability.

“It has been and will remain very difficult. We are consistently approaching the province to take advantage of any grant funds that are available for infrastructure purposes or roads, but we have a limited tax base and we will not be able to sustain anything more the province or the feds would throw on our backs.”

Ferguson gave the example of County Road 49, a principle entry point from eastern Ontario into Prince Edward County, a road downloaded to the municipality by the provincial government.

“It requires a re-build and the cost of that is $21 million – way in excess of what we budget for road work in any given year; so our reliance is on any grants to fund capital projects like that, and we keep knocking on the door and will continue doing so, as we will not be able to afford to rehabilitate that road to that extent. At this point, we are stretched in terms of our ability to generate additional taxation revenue from elsewhere.”

Addressing fiscal sustainability, Harrison said Quinte West also never has enough money. “It’s not new and it’s been the same all the years I have been here. We never have enough money.”

He added that municipalities are the “most efficient accountable level of government that exists.

“We make our dollars go where they need to be put and we stretch them, and we have to beg, but we still show the provincial and federal levels just what can be done with a dollar.”

Schreiner also spoke to shoreline erosion along the Great Lakes and the impact on infrastructure, together with concerns about the increased incidents of flooding and other impacts of the climate crisis and how that affects infrastructure costs.

He asked Mayor Ferguson if climate impacts would affect the municipality’s costs and whether those impacts are going into the analysis of future costs.

“Our municipal-infused structure and private homes and businesses face further flooding, in part owing to the change of climate.” He reminded that 2017 and 2019 were huge years for flooding, and the municipality did prepare for flooding in 2020 that did not transpire. This year, he noted, water levels are significantly lower and drought is a concern given agriculture is a significant sector of the economy, as well as rural residents relying on wells for water.

“We fully expect flooding is going to occur in future and we take dealing with the environment very seriously,” Ferguson said, noting the formation of the Environmental Advisory Committee in 2019.

Ferguson noted several adjustments the municipality is making to address climate change, such as converting to LED lighting, improved walking and cycling trails, embarking on a tree planting program, as well as reviewing the organics composting program. The extent of the cost upon infrastructure is difficult to calculate.

“We have certainly seen significant erosion in 2019 as a result of the flooding, for residential properties and shoreline properties in some cases been quite catastrophic and that extends to residential and agricultural lands affected by flooding and made unworkable because of rises of the water level,” he stated. “I can’t quantify it, but it is on our radar to examine and understand more fully what that impact is on infrastructure and services going forward.”

Panciuk noted that at Belleville City Council this week, a climate emergency was declared, joining the 500 other municipalities (including Prince Edward County and Quinte West) in Canada.

“We did so primarily so we can qualify for funding from the new carbon tax stream, and we already spend millions of dollars on protection from effects of climate change.”

Addressing the lack of money combined with the demands placed on municipalities, Pancuik suggested the province could reduce their costs in the short-term, giving one example with policing.

“We have to look at the requirement for municipalities to fund police service boards who are only able to use fully sworn police officers,” Panciuk said. “For example, allowing non-sworn police officers to deal with non-life threatening situations (such as traffic management in construction zones) will reduce those costs and allow us to reinvest the money; we need to take a hard look at that.”

Panciuk said he would like to be able to make agreements with the federal government, noting that since municipalities have no legal status, any funds that come from federal government have to come through the province.

“Why not advocate for a complete re-think? Why not allow municipalities to step-up? We are a modern, mature form of government. We provide most services that residents rely on, and we don’t just want to be the junior partner in this relationship, but full partners at the adult table.”

Schreiner concluded by saying, he fundamentally believes “all three levels of government need to be equal partners at the table.”

 

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  1. Fred says:

    You move to where you can make it
    That’s survival principal.

  2. Dennis Fox says:

    After reading the article, I think it is safe to say that none of the mayors were using the same definition for “sustainability.” I watched Greta Thunberg address the Austrian Climate Summit – she nailed it! All politicians do is talk and use the right words – but none of them really want to make the tough decisions that will start to reverse emmissions and to make our planet more sustaiable.

    Affordable housing will not take place in our community unless upper levels of government fund it – to say otherwise is not helping the situation. How can a family with both working at minimum wage afford a $300 – $400K home? They can’t! Plus, when was the last time homes in PEC could be found at that price? Let’s stop with the poilitical rhetoric and stop promising something that PEC can’t deliver on without provincial or/and federal funding. Until then, our community will never be truly sustainable – at least not for those who do not have deep pockets.

  3. Susan says:

    With all the extravagant homes, cars, restaurants, wineries and influx of stuffed wallets it is easy to forget the struggles of so many locals.

  4. Nate says:

    Its 2021, there are middle class families wondering about their next meal and where they’re going to sleep. There are more complex and important issues to deal with in 2021 than potholes. Good grief.

  5. MI says:

    While there are many issues to comment on, I question how reducing rural severences will help our affordable housing dilemma. My studies in economics did not suggest that reducing supply of anything, will make it more affordable.
    I understand the NIMBYism of many activists and their assault on every decision Council makes. However, when something doesn’t make sense, there may be an agenda that noone is admitting to. More people to pay the outrageous water fees maybe?
    I’m thinking that with the unprecedented development occurring inside the town limits now, traffic and parking will be unimaginable.
    Council may want to rethink its “planning” strategies.

  6. Mark says:

    Pressure needs to be placed on the Province to reinstate County Rd 49 as a Highway. It was prior to downloading, and it is a continuation of Hwy 49 and a major entry point to the County.

  7. Angus Ross says:

    Strange that with respect to flooding Mayor Ferguson said ““I can’t quantify it, but it is on our radar to examine and understand more fully what that impact is on infrastructure and services going forward” when a few days earlier Council turned down a survey that would have done exactly that.

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