With all the knocks against the province’s coronavirus attack plan and vaccination roll-out, you have to wonder how much consultation there has been with the local health units and their medical officers of health?
In fact, how closely is the government listening to medical authorities at institutions like Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto and other experts in the field on a safe back-to-school policy?
You can point to the federal government for their handling of the vaccine itself, but is the shortage an easy target when your own program is likewise sputtering and subject to rapid and unexpected about turns?
At the grassroots level our local health unit, Southwestern Public Health, is being proactive and has approached the city to obtain use of Memorial Arena as a vaccination hub.
The matter is a late addition to Monday’s (March 1) council agenda.
As noted in city manager Wendell Graves’ report to members, “Attributes of the site include easy access, good parking and the ability to map out an operational floor plan that would allow for the greatest number of people to be vaccinated as expeditiously as possible.”
And the layout of the facility makes a smooth flow through the building as people progress through the various steps of the vaccination process.
Once up and running, Graves is suggesting the arena could operate up to 10 hours per day, seven days a week.
The health unit would like to gain access right away in anticipation of the availability of vaccine by mid-March and turning it back to the city on Sept. 1, depending on vaccine supply.
Of note in his report Graves cautions, “While this location will be established principally for the residents of St. Thomas and the greater Elgin county area, it should be noted, and in a larger provincial strategy, as public health units across the province establish and open vaccination sites, the individual sites may be made available to all Ontario residents without regard for their local address.
“For example, residents from London may be able to book online for vaccination in St. Thomas and vice versa. This system has not been totally confirmed at this point.”
That is already the case as healthcare workers here get vaccinated at the Agriplex at Western Fair.
As for the financial side of the agreement between the health unit and the city, Graves notes “the city will be able to track costs associated with the provision of the vaccination site and submit them to SWPH.
“For its part, SWPH will then undertake its best efforts to recover 100 per cent of the costs from the province. It is anticipated that the city will in fact be able to recover its costs.”
A major consideration the health unit is aware of is the cost of heating Memorial Arena, which can run upward of $30,000 per month.
Use of the vacant Memorial Arena as a centrally located and critical vaccination hub should be a no-brainer.
ONE TO WATCH
Based on the whim of council, city ratepayers could get a further break on property taxes this year.
If you remember, after some creative pencil sharpening, council whittled the tax levy increase down to 1.5 per cent.
Well, according to a report to council from finance director Dan Sheridan, the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC, which assesses every property in the province) provided a revised growth number for 2021, which mushroomed from $1,565,000 to $2,241,000 or an increase of $676,000. MPAC noted that the growth increase is due to properties that were assessed in December of last year.
“Given the fact that the community at large continues to deal with the pandemic situation and that we have established an aggressive 2021 budget, administration would recommend that the increase in the 2021 growth be used to reduce the net levy increase . . .”
Sheridan notes, “a large increase like this is a rare occurrence and may be a result of slower assessment processing due to COVID- 19.”
With this new growth projection, the city’s effective tax levy increase would drop furth to 0.31 per cent.
Council is faced with two options: go with the lower rate or pump some or all of that $676,000 back into the budget.
Sheridan makes the following recommendation to council.
“Given the fact that the community at large continues to deal with the pandemic situation and that we have established an aggressive 2021 budget, administration would recommend that the increase in the 2021 growth be used to reduce the net levy increase from 1.5% to 0.31%.”
I would think ratepayers would urge council to follow the finance director’s observation.
PLAYING PET TAG
Could pet licensing shortly be a thing of the past in St. Thomas?
A report to council on Monday recommends a public engagement process aimed at removing the requirement for cat and dog tags and a review of the fee structure for impoundment and adoption.
In 2019, 1,263 dog licenses were sold along with just 237 tags for cats.
You have to know the majority of pet owners are not participating in this.
“Both the City of Woodstock and the Municipality of East Zorra-Tavistock have discontinued their dog licensing program. Proof of pet ownership is still required to retrieve a lost pet, but the choice of identification will be up to the resident.”
As to impoundment and adoption, the report notes “In an effort to recover the current costs associated with feeding and boarding, veterinary care costs and basic animal care, a comparison to surrounding animal control shelters was undertaken.
“Findings revealed that our fees are grossly undervalued in comparison to our neighbouring municipalities and we are using pet tag revenues to subsidize our services.”
Furthermore, “If adoption and pound fees are adjusted to appropriate levels, there will be no operating budget impact by removing the tag revenue.
“By allowing residents to handle their own pet identification it will lower the private costs as well. This may result in a small increase in private pet store revenue.”
Of note, “Both the City of Woodstock and the Municipality of East Zorra-Tavistock have discontinued their dog licensing program. Proof of pet ownership is still required to retrieve a lost pet, but the choice of identification will be up to the resident.”
Takes us back to the animal welfare committee meeting three years ago this month at which time bylaw enforcement officer Rob McDonald noted no tickets were issued to any of the owners of the thousands of tagless dogs.
He complained of a staff shortage for the lack of action.
McDonald went on to postulate owners who don’t currently have a licence and adamantly refuse to purchase a tag in the future “generally are in trouble with the law and don’t care.”
Asked if he had any statistical evidence to back up that rather grandiose claim, McDonald admitted he did not.
So, if there is no enforcement it results in a considerable loss of revenue for the city.
So, is it really due to a staff shortage? Or is it far less hassle to ticket an illegally parked car with no driver in sight?
If the latter is the case, then the real culprit is apathy, in various quarters.
Perhaps some of these factors will see the light of day through the public engagement process.
Each year as we head into March there’s the pending promise of spring’s arrival, the allure of longer days once we get over the hour of lost sleep and then there’s the annual who’s who of the Sunshine Club.
That’s the listing of the municipal employees who earned $100,000 or more the previous year as per the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act of 1996.
The report from the new director of human resources, Sandra Schulz, is contained in Monday’s council agenda and accounts for salaries in 2020.
Last year 138 city employees earned more than $100,000, up from 133 in 2019.
That includes 54 members of the St. Thomas Police Service (up from 48 in 2019), 49 in the fire department (48 previously) and 35 at city hall (down from 37).
The top wage earner last year was not city manager Wendell Graves at $200,592, up from $197,642 in 2019.
Instead, it was St. Thomas Police Chief Chris Herridge at $202,472 ($176,814 in 2019)
Other notable salaries at city hall with 2019 salaries in brackets:
Graham Dart (now retired), director of human resources, $156,785 ($154,424)
Justin Lawrence, director of environmental services, $156,785 ($154,424)
Ross Tucker (now retired), director of parks & recreation & property management, $159,460 ($157,014)
Dan Sheridan (new last year), director of finance & city treasurer $139,746.61
Patrick Keenan, director of planning and building services, $137,351 ($154,466)
Sean Dyke, CEO Economic Development Corp., $137,348 ($135,222)
Michael Carroll, Valleyview administrator, $135,041 ($133,000)
Heather Robinson, CEO St. Thomas Public Library, $130,521 ($128,363)
Maria Konefal, city clerk, $135,611 ($135,231)
Chris Peck, chief building official, $102,626 ($115,257)
And, fire chief Robert Davidson $151,582 ($149,353)
THE READER’S WRITE
Last week’s item on the Alma College Square residential development prompted an interesting cross-section of opinion. Joe Docherty Sr. has changed his view of the development over time.
“The Alma College Square development has morphed from an apartment complex containing a restored amphitheatre to a gated condominium project.
“Initially, I was in favour of the development based on information presented at various public meetings and at the site plan presentation. I am now concerned that the developers are continuing to make changes as they stumble along.
“Is financing the reason for these plan alterations? I no longer am in favour of this project.”
Meantime, Dave Mathers is in favour of the reliance on new technology.
“I don’t think it is a coincidence that the two people complaining about the revised exterior for the Alma project are the same two who tried to stop the project in the first place.
“It is refreshing to see the project using new technology.”
Carrie Hedderson Smith sides with Dawn Doty who lives right across the street from what will become a three-tower residential development.
“I’m with Dawn on the Alma development. A plan is approved and adhered to. The development should adhere to the approved design.
“A HUGE disappointment is an understatement. Changing designs and letting them go through sets the WRONG precedent for other future development.
“It’s like ordering a beef burger and getting chicken. Two totally different things. I veto this new plan design too!
“Come on city hall do what is right and make the developer fix this.”
Leticia Mizon of The Nameless elaborated further on our harm reduction item from last week.
“Many things we do in a day is an act of harm reduction, and to normalize and destigmatize what harm reduction is, is a good way to talk about it.
“Housing is harm reduction.
“Food security is harm reduction.
“Speed limits, cold weather alerts, cancelling buses, vaccinations, graduated licencing for drivers, and human rights are all examples of harm reduction.
“We often hear a lot of deferrals when asking how to get involved, unable to get past the gatekeeper for the meetings, we sit idle.
“We have a vast array of valuable information, data, relationships, and people who have shown that they can and will do the work.
“We just need that little bit of help to do better and more.”
And we’ll leave the last word to David Smith.
“Harming yourself is easy, living is hard!”
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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.