Moving St. Thomas forward despite the coronavirus: ‘There’s no shutting the key off on this bus’ – Mayor Joe Preston

city_scope_logo-cmykAs city residents transitioned from Christmas celebrations to life under a minimum 28-day province-wide shutdown, we chatted with Mayor Joe Preston on how this will impact the administration’s game plan for 2021.
Considering council and administration accomplished much in a year we would otherwise like to forget.
That includes a new transit system that will begin to take shape this month, the impressive number of building permits issued in 2020, construction projects underway like the residential development on the Alma College site, new industries like Element5 springing up, affordable housing projects and a new civic park project to be developed on the site of the former police headquarters.
Always upbeat, Preston began by pointing out city hall will remain open during this time while other municipalities have chosen to keep their administrative offices closed.

“You didn’t get the message the first time? We’re still here to serve. Even though we’re in a lockdown, there are still people who need your services.
“How can you plan for this year if you’re not issuing building permits and you’re not planning stuff, right now, this minute in January?
Joe Preston jpg“There’s no shutting the key off on this bus. You just can’t.”
Acknowledging his customer service background Preston continued, “Yes, it’s different and we’re going to have to do it a different way right now.
“We learned you can hold council meetings with masks on, distancing or with Zoom. And, we’ve asked staff to do things so many different ways this year.
“And, some of those things are better ways. We’ve found new ways of doing some of the old stuff.
“And I just dislike the term, ‘But we’ve always done it that way.’ We’re in a different time and place now.”
Driven off the planned course of action by the coronavirus, which did not sidetrack many of the objectives expected to be put in place during 2020, stressed Preston.
“The past year has been a whole lot of good news stories well hidden by a pandemic. If I sit here with a piece of paper and write them all down, there are a lot of good things that got done this year.

“It’s like getting a new bike for Christmas but it just snowed four feet. But come spring, we’re going to take that bike out.”

“Starting last March, we had to concentrate on the really important things like is the water coming out of the taps and are the roads plowed or whatever else needs to be done?
“That’s the first thing you have to look at when you hit something that serious. We can still do all of those things but here is what has to happen and the restrictions that go with it.
“A way to believe we can be safe and still progress. A whole lot of things have happened but we still have to be concerned about people’s safety and we’ll celebrate what happened when we get to use each of those.
“It’s like getting a new bike for Christmas but it just snowed four feet. But come spring, we’re going to take that bike out.”


The city is promoting two affordable housing projects – apartments above the Talbot Street transit building and two floors of the Mickleborough building – for possible funding under the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Rapid Housing Initiative.

Transit station micro apartment rendering             We talked with city manager Wendell Graves this week on any updates on the status of these submissions.
“We’re hoping to know more at the first of the year,” advised Graves. “We’re hoping to bring back tendering results in early January related to that.”
With a pair of projects submitted for consideration, could the city hit the jackpot and get funding for both?
“We’ve not heard there’s any limit on what they would consider for communities. I think it’s all about project readiness, if the housing can be provided in a timely fashion.”
In other words, can the projects be completed in a one-year construction window?

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At Monday’s (Jan. 4) meeting council members will be asked to approve the 2021 capital and operating budgets. It will be a given since the increase to the municipal property tax levy was held to 1.5 per cent, as per council’s request.
The tax levy is $59.6 million, up from $57.2 million last year.
The capital budget comes in at just under $41 million while the operating budget is pegged at a shade over $138 million.
Taking a look at individual numbers, the budget for councillors comes in at $269,122, which is 9.7 per cent lower than last year.
The mayor’s budget at $78,826 is down 7.2 per cent over last year.
Much the same story in corporate administration with a budget this year of $352,892, down 4.9 per cent from 2020.
The treasury department budget remains the same this year at $723,100.
A different story in the HR department with an 11.65 per cent hike in this year’s budget to $1.9 million, mainly due to a 44 per cent increase in workers compensation expenses pegged at $650,000 for this year.
The police budget sees an increase of 5.81 per cent to $13.5 million, with a 77 per cent increase in part-time wages to $309,000 and an 8 per cent hike in full-time wages to $9.7 million.
On the fire service side, the increase has been held to just 0.22 per cent, despite another 5 per cent climb in overtime to $420,000.
That number may be on the conservative side as the 2020 overtime tab of $577,000 was well over the budgeted amount of $400,000.
Full-time wages are pegged at $6.2 million which is a decrease of 0.85 per cent over 2020.
The parks and forestry department has a budget this year of $2.4 million, up just under 2 per cent from last year, with a 5.68 per cent increase in full-time wages to $675,313.
Of note, the vacant Wellington Block is expected to set the city back $53,221 this year in maintenance costs.
The library budget increases by 4.1 per cent in 2021 to almost $2.6 million, in part due to a 20.8 per cent increase in full-time administrative wages to $528,532.
The planning department budget dips by 3.66 per cent to $465,681.
Social Services – Ontario Works sees its budget increase by 3.76 per cent to just under $4.4 million.
Meantime, on the Valleyview Home side of Social Services, the budget increase is 4.87 per cent to $2.6 million, with a slight increase to $9.6 million in projected revenue.
The major capital projects approved for this year include road rehabilitation ($2 million); Complete Streets program ($6.8 million); Fairview Avenue improvements, Elm Street to Southdale Line ($10.8 million); Edgeware Line Phase 1 servicing ($4.5 million); the downtown Westlake-Evans Civic Park ($2.1 million) and a new 30-metre ladder truck for the fire department ($1.8 million).

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As is the case with so many things in life, it’s a numbers game.
And, despite increased restrictions and finally a 28-day shutdown in effect after Christmas, the COVID-19 numbers in the Southwestern Public Health region are dismal.
So much so that on the last day of 2020, the health unit issued a statement on local coronavirus modelling. It was prompted by a one-day record the previous day of 71 confirmed cases in the health unit’s coverage area.
The previous record was 47 cases set just a week earlier.

“Our team is working at maximum capacity, our local health care system is strained, and we are urgently asking for your support to modify behaviours to stop the spread.”

The health unit advises new modelling projects daily case counts of 100 or more early into this month. Something they caution “represents a critical point in the pandemic.”
Medical officer of health, Dr. Joyce Lock, advises in a statement, “Once we start to see daily increases approaching 100 per day, it becomes very difficult to conduct contact tracing within 24 hours to contain the virus.
“Our team is working at maximum capacity, our local health care system is strained, and we are urgently asking for your support to modify behaviours to stop the spread.”
Dr. Joyce LockA key piece of data employed by health authorities is percent positivity which, up until recently, had been below 1 per cent. It has now hit 3.5 per cent as of this week.
Doesn’t sound like a high number but it is above the 3 per cent threshold health authorities use to determine if a region is at risk of being overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.
Another warning-bell statistic is ongoing confirmed cases per 100,000 population. As of Thursday, our region had 139.5 ongoing cases per 100,000 as compared to 124.1 per 100,000 in the Middlesex-London Health Unit region. The crude rate for St. Thomas is 542.3 cases per 100,000 population and 3,350.2 per 100,000 in Aylmer.
A number above 40 per 100,000 population is generally enough to move a region into the Red-Restrict Zone or, if well above that number, into the Grey-Lockdown Zone.
As a result of the recent spike in confirmed cases, Dr. Lock advises, “We need to prioritize contact tracing to ensure we contain the spread in high-risk settings, such as workplaces, long-term care homes, and in schools.
“It may take us longer than 24 hours to notify positive cases elsewhere.”

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And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.


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