The question was posed recently by Peter Ostojic of Walter Ostojic & Sons Ltd.
“Just do not understand why the city is involved in building affordable housing units themselves.”
The former mayor of St. Thomas was referencing the community and social services hub now under construction at 230 Talbot St.
The subject was broached again this past Tuesday (Sept. 3) at the reference committee meeting in which city manager Wendell Graves updated council on Phase 2 of the project, which will front onto Queen Street.
With Phase 1 nearing completion this fall – “something Graves described as a shiny, new nickel for us” – he presented a conceptual business case to council members.
The structure would contain a minimum of 48 housing units on two floors with the possibility of more units should the structure be expanded to a third or fourth floor.
The estimated cost of constructing each unit is $225,000 with 24 of them renting out at $500 or so per month and another 24 geared to income at approximately $300 per month.
The preference is to supply one- and two-bedroom apartments with the possibility of smaller bachelor units, according to Graves.
The total cost of the building is estimated at $12.9 million with $6.7 million of that recoverable through the sale of existing city housing stock and available grants.
The remaining $6.2 million would require long-term financing.
“That’s a lot of dollars,” observed Coun. Steve Peters. “Can we partner with private enterprise?”
Graves was cautious in his response.
“Yes, but there is no impact on ratepayers.”
Several minutes later, Coun. Gary Clarke wondered, “Would adding another floor reduce the unit costs?”
“When the city owns the units we can dedicate their use to whichever members of the community stand to gain the most benefit from them.”
Graves reminded members, “We are conceptualizing right now,” with the possibility of an additional floor or two.
Still no definitive answer to Coun. Peters’ query, so perhaps this insight from Ralph West, housing services administrator for St. Thomas-Elgin Social Services, might shed a little light via a letter submitted to City Scope earlier this summer.
“The city has no motive to increase rents above the guideline amounts at any point in time. The city’s goal is simply to permanently increase the stock of affordable housing units in St. Thomas and the County of Elgin (at no additional expense to city taxpayers).”
West continues, “The second difference connected with having the city own the housing has to do with who can gain access to the affordable units which are built. When the city owns the units we can dedicate their use to whichever members of the community stand to gain the most benefit from them.”
You can read West’s full letter here.
As to the possibility of a Phase 3 on the Talbot Street property, Graves “I would say probably at this point, not. I think what we will try and do is maximize the number of units in Phase 2 of the project.
“And we need to balance that out with green space and parking requirements on the block.”
We noted last week the St. Thomas Professional Firefighters’ Association forwarded a letter of non-confidence in fire chief Bob Davidson to Mayor Joe Preston and members of council.
The content of that letter was a topic of discussion during an in-camera meeting of council.
In a conversation this week with City Manager Wendell Graves, he declined to elaborate any further on the matter but did offer, “We have a high regard for the association and its membership.
“And I’m not going to comment on some labour relations things in play. But it has been addressed.”
Graves continued, “I think both the association and the city, we are both waiting for the results of the arbitration process. And that really is the anchor of all of this.
“I think everybody is disappointed we have not seen that yet. I think the sooner we see that, the better for everybody.”
That process has consumed the better part of this year.
The most likely scenario in closed session would have been a vote of confidence in the chief by council, with correspondence to that effect conveyed to members of the association.
CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
Still with the city’s fire department, this corner would suggest the lack of confidence in Bob Davidson is rooted far deeper than the current arbitration process.
A case in point.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Davidson was questioned by several councillors regarding the disruption to 9-1-1 service due to a primary Bell Canada service line being inadvertently cut.
He was asked about the time required to restore the emergency system and a contingency plan for the future.
On at least a couple of occasions, Davidson praised the actions of the deputy chief.
Not once did he identify that individual by name, as if everyone knows of whom he is speaking.
So, a tip of the fire helmet to the yeoman effort put forth by Ray Ormerod.
Your actions that day should not go unrecognized.
It’s episodes like this that have led to the toxic environment inside the city’s two fire halls. Including an alarming increase in grievance claims filed by the firefighters’ association.
No vote of confidence by council members behind closed doors at city hall is going to remedy the situation.
POINT TO PONDER 1
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Coun. Jim Herbert directed several questions to Rob Foster of Graham Scott Enns LLP.
Foster was presenting the 2018 audited financial statements to members of city council and Herbert was directing his attention to the pages dealing with St. Thomas Energy/Ascent.
The councillor sought clarification on a couple of financial matters dealing with the utility and ultimately the merger last year with Entegrus.
Good initiative on Herbert’s part, however, aren’t these questions he should have asked years ago in his capacity as chairman of the board of directors of St. Thomas Energy/Ascent?
ACHIEVING A GEESE BALANCE
Last month a reader contacted this corner wondering about the city’s egg oiling program to control the Canada geese population in St. Thomas.
He wondered if the program had proven to be too much of a deterrent as he had seen virtually none of the birds in city parks over the summer.
To follow up on his observation we contacted Adrienne Jefferson, Supervisor of Parks & Forestry, who oversees the population control undertaking.
In May of this year, she updated council on the status of the egg oiling and we spoke with her this week to determine the status after the second year of the three-year program.
“Through the permit process we have to apply for when we do this program, we can only do a certain amount of eggs,” advised Jefferson. “We were approved for 300 eggs this year and that’s what was done.”
That’s up from the 280 eggs oiled last year.
Is there any basis to reports of diminished sightings this summer?
“Throughout the summer, when we have our day camps, the geese don’t stick around in the park,” she stressed. They’ll go to other areas like the Tarry ball complex, the stormwater management ponds and they go to the Canadale (Nurseries) property where there are less people.”
As a result, added Jefferson, the population over the summer is more manageable but they are still hanging around.
It’s a matter of balancing newborns with the existing adult population.
“But we’re keeping the spaces cleaner because people were complaining about the mess on the trails. There are a lot of things we have put in place to help create a balance between the two because that’s what we really want.”
The geese population was a particular aggravation for Lake Margaret residents.
Jefferson explained a lot of that has to do with how people are treating the property.
“When we have a lot of encroachment and people cutting the grass around the lake, the geese prefer areas like that. They prefer cut grass where they can easily access the water. We’re trying to promote naturalization around that lake so the geese aren’t creating problems for the homeowners.”
“There are many different municipalities doing the same thing. We’re just looking to control the population, not looking to eliminate them.”
With a population balance possible based on the success of the program to date, will the egg oiling be extended beyond the three-year timeframe?
“Our plan is to evaluate to see where we’re at. Where the public wants to see it and where we want to see it.
“The reason why it was three years is because it essentially takes that long for the geese to figure out there might be a problem with their breeding and they’ll look at breeding elsewhere.
“Each pair can produce up to 12 goslings in a year. So you can see how the population explodes without some of the controls.”
And, the egg oiling is not unique to St. Thomas.
“There are many different municipalities doing the same thing. We’re just looking to control the population, not looking to eliminate them.
“We had a lot of complaints prior to starting this process. Now, the complaints have just about disappeared. That means there is a balance.”
POINT TO PONDER 2
In the audited financial statements mentioned above dealing with St. Thomas Energy/Ascent, it is noted “The City also owns 100% of Ascent Energy Services Inc., which in turn owns 100% of Ascent Solutions Inc., Ascent Utility Services Inc. and Ascent Renewables Inc.
“In 2017 with no further assets or employees the Corporations filed for bankruptcy or ceased operations. City management and the sole Board of Director are working with regulators to finalize the bankruptcy and wind down of the Corporations.”
How can the process of winding down the affairs of the remnants of Ascent Group proceed when a shareholder claiming to own a 49 per cent stake in one of those entities has launched a legal claim against the city?
A CONSERVATIVE VOTE ON CONSERVATION?
Was it a case of protecting the Conservative franchise Tuesday night during a vote on whether to support the Catfish Creek Conservation Authority (CCCA) in their challenge of the Doug Ford government’s missive to wind down non-mandatory programs?
In this case, the program in question was the popular maple syrup festival held each year at Springwater Conservation Area.
Rick Cerna, CCCA board chairman, had encouraged city council “to support the conservation authority at this time by challenging the direction to ‘wind down’ in letters to Jeff Yurek . . . that reinforces the idea that the municipalities should be able to decide on whether or not to fund local non-mandatory programs.”
Cerna stressed, “continuing programs such as the maple syrup festival generates the much-needed revenue to offset the significant shortfall in provincial funding for mandated programs.”
Mere seconds after Coun. Linda Stevenson tabled a motion to draft a letter of support for the CCCA, Mayor Joe Preston made it clear he would not support it.
“We’re not through the process,” suggested the former Conservative MP. “I will vote against the letter.”
He quickly received support from Coun. Jeff Kohler – a known Tory – who added, “I agree with the mayor. Where is this going?”
In the final tally, council voted 6-3 to proceed with a letter of support.
Coun. Gary Clarke joined Preston and Kohler in opposition to Stevenson’s support motion.
POINT TO PONDER 3
How’s that sensitivity training coming along for members of council? Will there be a report from the HR department at the conclusion of the training documenting the success of the undertaking?
FOR THE CALENDAR
Federal Conservative candidate Karen Vecchio officially launches her campaign this Monday (Sept. 9) from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at her campaign office, 4-24 First Ave. If you plan on attending, RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
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