As debate swirls around the province’s decision to raise the minimum wage in stages, beginning Jan. 1 of next year, the Kathleen Wynne government has not taken into account the impact on school bus operators, most notably small, independent firms that have safely transported students back and forth to classes for decades.
The Ontario School Bus Association (OSBA) estimates nearly one million Ontario families rely on school buses to get their children to school. The Wynne government’s push to hike the minimum wage could threaten the availability of bus service in the coming year.In a release on their website, getourkidstoschool.ca, the OSBA notes, “Unlike other service providers, who can manage the new minimum wage by raising prices, school bus operators are bound by long-term contracts that never contemplated the 22 per cent wage increase now planned by the Wynne government for Jan. 1, 2018, and a further increase in January, 2019.”
With many parents in St. Thomas and Elgin entrusting bus operators to get their children to school, we talked to Roger Caranci, executive director of the Independent School Bus Operators Association (ISBOA) about an issue which he admits is not even on the radar of those families.
“It’s an issue that is kind of buried right now but once school is back it will get bigger and once the minimum wage comes into play it will become fully fledged if it is not taken care of.
“We’ve been in discussion with the province and they seem genuinely interested in our issue. They seem to be genuinely concerned with the ramifications of what this could mean to the industry and obviously the consumer that uses it, the students.”
Those long-term contracts are the epi-centre of the problem with no mechanism currently in place for re-opening them midterm, notes Caranci.
“The contracts that are in place, there is no provision in them to do this. Having said that we pointed out when the government went to a procurement process that this would be an issue. We want to make sure they hear us, get the information and understand and digest the numbers and say there is an issue and they have to take care of it. And we hope that happens sooner rather than later because the implications could be dire for the industry.”
With no obvious Plan B, it comes down to money, stresses Caranci.
“Unfortunately you always say you just can’t throw money at something, but this is one where, yes, you do have to put money into it. The only people we can go to for the funding is obviously the province and through the school boards and the consortium (in this area My Big Yellow Bus, the non-profit incorporation that serves as the transportation consortium for the London District Catholic School Board and the Thames Valley District School Board serving Elgin, Middlesex and Oxford counties and within the City of London).
For the school bus operators, Caranci advises about 40 per cent of their costs are labour related. The new minimum wage will up those costs by 32 per cent.
“We’re right down to the bone . . . it’s kind of been a race down to the bottom. There’s only so much you can cut without compromising various things. And we have, in no way, jeopardized safety of our students.”
Unless rectified, could this result in some of the independent school bus operators being forced to walk away from the contracts with the province?
“I don’t like to sound the doomsday alarm and you can make the assumptions yourself, but if you can’t pay someone what you’re mandated to pay by the government, what do you do. That’s a question we’ve put to the government.”
Should the province make additional funding available, will those individuals behind the wheel of the familiar yellow buses be the beneficiaries?
“We will make sure that money will go directly to the drivers,” assures Caranci, “we’ve made that very clear to the government. The companies are not going to line their own pockets.”
RETURN TO REGULAR PROGRAMMING
City council returns to its regular meeting schedule Tuesday with a miniscule 32-page agenda.
In spite of concerns expressed by Erie Street neighbours regarding privacy issues, the height of the project and parking, city staff is recommending council approve a zoning bylaw amendment to allow Sunray Group of Hotels to proceed with a six-storey, 80-unit retirement home at the site of the former Ramada Inn on Wellington Street.
With regard to the height of the proposed structure, no restrictions exist under present zoning and there are several examples of similar undertakings in residential areas.
As noted by city planner Jim McCoomb in his report to council, “There are similar situations of multi-storey residential buildings adjacent to lower density residences already established in the city, including Metcalfe Gardens (5 stories), 20 Dunkirk Drive (4.5 stories) and Wellington Park Towers (7 stories).”
What it boils down to is parking. The city is calling for 62 spaces on site, the developer is proposing 51 spots.
Sunray’s consultant, Trans-Plan Transportation looked at three similar operations in St. Thomas and London and concluded a total of 51 parking spaces is sufficient.
Trans-Plan engineer Anil Seegobin advised 26 spaces will be for resident use and the remaining 25 for staff and visitors.
With limited on-street parking in the area, all residents, staff and visitors will have to be accommodated on site.
In any event, life for Erie Street residents will certainly change from living adjacent to a burned-out shell to welcoming a six-storey structure as a neighbour.
SEATING COST WILL FLOOR YOU
The plan to upgrade the spartan seating in Rink B at the Timken Centre to permanent bleachers has hit a snag. The lowest bid submitted came in $143,000 over the project budget of $200,000.
With an overage of that amount, you have to question how the undertaking was initially costed out by staff.
In any event Gary Drouin, supervisor of recreational facilities, intends to minimize the scope of work and request additional funding when council deals with the 2018 budget.
There was no interest on the part of staff or council to seek additional funds when the tender bid for renovations to the animal shelter came in over budget, albeit at a fraction of the overage of the Timken seating project.
While St. Thomas Energy and Entegrus Powerlines of Chatham-Kent await the green light from the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) on their merger, the latter has been fined for a workplace safety violation.
In London court this past week, the utility was fined $70,000 and ordered to pay a 25 per cent victim fine surcharge after two workers received electrical burns while changing out a switch on a pole in Strathroy.
Entegrus had pleaded guilty of failing to assign a spotter to observe and monitor the six-person crew.
The two utility partners are hopeful of a Jan. 1, 2018 merger date.
YOU WILL BE MISSED CHIEF
Condolences to Debbie, Tara, Corey and the extended family on the death of Rob Broadbent. The city’s fire chief succumbed to cancer this week at the age of 56. Hard to believe a year ago he ran in the Boston Marathon.
At Friday’s visitation, Debbie pointed out how her husband loved to read City Scope every Saturday morning. A truly touching moment for this corner.
Which brought back memories of the afternoon in February of this year when the chief was presented with a note of thanks and a cheque for $765 from a family who, in 1955, enjoyed a very special Christmas thanks to the kindness and generosity of St. Thomas firefighters.
The story is well worth revisiting here