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Report recommends refreshing 10-year strategic plan to reflect change in the County

A report checking in on council’s strategic 10-year plan indicates a refresh is needed to reflect changes in Prince Edward County – including COVID-19, change in leadership, work completed and work planned.

“The plan is not adequately defined and linked to operating plans and budgets,” states Aidan Grove-White, a director with StrategyCorp in his report to council Tuesday night. The municipality sought the update as a mid-way check-in with staff and council on its progress, and areas for improvement.

He notes many councillors and staff say the plan’s goals are valid but lack specific outcomes. “Many councillors and staff say this makes it hard to effectively monitor progress and advance this vision for PEC.”

The report, said Mayor Steve Ferguson, “is illuminating, and there is much food for thought for this council and the incoming council.”

The existing strategic plan was adopted in 2016, and renewed in 2020. Its stated priorities are: financial sustainability, corporate culture, infrastructure renewal, maintain rural and historic character, stable and diversified economy, livable community and adapting to climate change.

The check-in is designed to work with council and staff to evaluate the priorities and determine what should be completed this term, set foundations for the incoming council, and what requires a broader conversation with the community. These are to be accomplished before a final report to be done in March 2022. The questions, he notes, are: What does the public want the County to be in 10 years? What are some challenges and opportunities? How to decide trade-offs?

StrategyCorp identified five conversations it recommends to have with the public (in a variety of methods yet to be determined) to chart a direction for the coming decade:

1 -Fostering meaningful public engagement and effective local government
•How to ensure more community members are productively engaged when important decisions are made.
•What barriers exist for engagement with the public and how to overcome them.
•Begin the conversation about what residents want from their Councillors, and if they think Council structure needs to change to deliver better decision-making.

2 -Ensuring a thriving, inclusive economy in an historic setting
•Defining central County concepts of “rural” and “historic character” so they can be operationalized by the County.
•Balance maintaining functional rural communities and preserving the historic character of settlement areas.
•Using the tools the County has to help shape the economy to deliver a good quality of life for all residents.

3 -Aligning priority infrastructure renewal with responsible fiscal policy
•Developing a plan to identify and fund the long-term infrastructure needs of the community (both maintaining existing infrastructure and building new where required).
•Balancing infrastructure funding needs with the ability of residents to pay taxes.

4 -Balancing tourism and housing affordability
•Tourism has brought a lot to the County but it has come at a significant cost to housing affordability.
•Building more housing is part of the solution for improving affordability, but it could degrade the rural feel of the County.
•Limiting the use of residential properties by short-term accommodation or for use as “second residences” for non-permanent residents may form part of the solution.

5 -Thinking global and acting local on climate change
•Deciding how the County should prioritize addressing climate change, i.e., through emission reduction activities or by adapting to it.
•What goal or targets should the County be reaching for in addressing climate change?

The updates follow response that the existing plan had a limited role in day-to-day decision making.

Regarding each current priority, the report notes:

On Financial Sustainability: Feedback noted the term “sustainability” was too broad and that it and “infrastructure renewal” should be more closely related.

“There’s a split view that the County is too fiscally conservative and that it needs to explore debt to spend more,” the report states. “Interviewees believe that this item was on a positive track, with some concerns that multi-year budgeting and upcoming asset management plan would create a ward versus County-wide priority tension during those engagements.”

On Corporate Culture: Most respondents believe it has improved due to staff and leadership changes which resulted in more staff pride in the County. Some concerns included long-term staff retention due to housing costs and compensation. Addition concern about incidences that negatively impacted staff morale. Going forward, staff and council should focus on continuing to improve corporate culture, establish performance metrics and address succession concerns and staff retention.

On Infrastructure Renewal: The most discussed strategic plan priority item, with road maintenance, building repair, water and wastewater, long-term care facilities, and accommodating growth the key topics of concern. Maintaining and funding new infrastructure was seen as a top challenge and priority for the County, with more co-ordination with the Financial Sustainability Strategic Plan item needed. Future goals included a more transparent process for funding infrastructure, including social infrastructure like affordable housing into this category, and recuperating tourism-related infrastructure costs.

On Maintaining Historic and Rural Charm: Respondents believed this was important, but was not implementable due to its broad definition and divergence between the idea that rural charm was a physical attribute (buildings, main streets, farms, etc) or a less tangible set of qualities such as volunteers and a slower way of life. The new County Official Plan was seen as a positive achievement for this strategic plan item, as it focused growth away from rural areas and clearly articulated the value of the physical community character. Looking forward, respondents believed that more needs to be done to spur new residents to join volunteer organizations, and determine how the maintenance of rural character is achieved.

On Stable and Diversified Economy: Respondents expressed the view that Prince Edward County’s economy was dominated by tourism, and was likely to become more so due to macro-level forces beyond control of the County. Some respondents stated that the County should explore ways to attract other forms of employment, while others believed that the local cost of living was an insurmountable barrier to achieving this goal.

On Livable Community: Many respondents stated that that to operationalize the goals “affordability” and “liveability” need to be expressed separately, and that this strategic plan item needs more definition of who “livability” is for (e.g., County families, new residents, or tourists). Interviewees expressed concern of a lack of progress on this strategic plan priority, particularly when considering housing affordability issues. More feedback from the community is needed.

On Adapting to Climate Change: Some stated emissions reductions should be a priority, and others believe that adaptation activities such as protecting infrastructure should be the approach. An absence of goals to measure against in the strategic plan item was cited as a reason for a lack of progress, and the Climate Emergency Declaration was viewed as purely symbolic by many. Respondents believed that a clear set of goals should be developed along with performance metrics and the public needs to be better engaged to determine how to move forward.

Report notes on strategic context:

A location that supports tourism but challenges other economic activities
• Prince Edward County’s location between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and the United States was seen as a benefit for attracting tourism and potentially employers.
• Location 40 minutes off of Highway 401 and rail corridors was perceived as a barrier for new industry.
• Economically, agriculture still represents the largest sector by dollar value, however tourism and hospitality are now the main employers, which has created an affordability problem and is limiting he ability for other employers, including agriculture, to attract workers.

An engaged, mature, and active community
• Prince Edward County’s population is a decade older than the rest of Ontario, which is typical of a rural economic base.
• Volunteerism was cited by many as an important part of the County, and responsible for creating cohesion.
• Current volunteer base is aging out which presents a risk as they are an instrumental part of the community and do not rely on funding.
• Civic engagement is seen as uneven; there was a perception by some that small delegations of vocal residents had a disproportionately large impact on Council’s decision-making process.
• Governance issues were identified in nearly every interview, e.g., council too large or too ward-focused. Not enough consideration for “County-wide” impacts when decisions are made.

The cost of a successful and growing tourism industry
• The rapid pace of the tourism industry’s expansion was described as a “mixed blessing at best” primarily due to its impact on housing affordability.
• Tourism blamed for an inability to diversify the economy
• Annual and cyclical “boom and bust” tourism cycle were also seen as a challenge.
Professional staff that are dedicated to serving the community, even if they cannot find a place to live in it
• Staff were seen as a key strength of the County, and were almost universally described as dedicated and responsive to residents.
• Corporate culture was also seen as a strength, with new leadership and structural reforms a key contributing factor.
• Major risk identified is that cost-of-living obstacle provides a barrier for both attraction and retention of talent, particularly at entry levels.

Unprecedented residential growth brings new challenges
• Seasonal residents in the County are expected to double from 6,000 to 12,000 in the roughly 20 years, a figure that many suggest needs to be updated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
• When coupled with other large-scale changes and challenges occurring in the County, many people suggest that transformation is taking place too quickly.

Fiscal policy and the increasing infrastructure deficit
• General agreement from respondents that more revenue is needed to fund services and infrastructure needs across the County, however there was also unanimity in understanding that many fixed- and low-income residents cannot afford higher taxes.
• Decision-making related to where infrastructure dollars are spent is seen as becoming more ward-based and adversarial
• Significant agreement that post-COVID, replenishing the County’s depleted reserves should be a priority.
• Broadband access and adapting existing infrastructure for climate change identified several times as known infrastructure challenges close on the horizon.
• County roads and their insufficient state of repair and unknown service standards were seen as a challenge for all respondents.

Pre-established trends accelerating due to COVID-19 and providing additional uncertainty
• COVID-19 has had a significant effect on County finances, including reserves.
• A surge in short-term accommodations and the presence of more tele-commuters in the County are trends which are still developing, but reaping the benefit and mitigating the costs is likely to remain a significant challenge for the County.

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