Monday’s (June 29) announcement may have caught some city officials off guard, however for the 230 employees at the Marriott International call centre in St. Thomas, they had an inkling something was up the week before. They had been told a video conference call was scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, leaving them to fret the weekend away as to what lay ahead. In this COVID-19 world, where the travel and hospitality sectors have been particularly hard hit, an announcement the call centre here and another one in San Antonio, Texas were to be shuttered later this summer really should come as no surprise. Between the travel restrictions still in place and, before that, the ease of booking trips and hotel rooms online, the warning signs were clearly present.
After enduring a painful three months of coronavirus cancellations, curtailments and closures, this has been an extraordinary week for positive, time-to-move-forward announcements. Let’s begin with Monday’s (June 8) meeting where council revisited its May 19 split decision to leave the tables empty this summer at the Horton Market. Five members of council – Mayor Joe Preston and councillors Jeff Kohler, Gary Clarke, Joan Rymal and Mark Tinlin – reconsidered their previous non-support which resulted in a unanimous vote to proceed with opening the popular market on June 20. The market board of directors submitted a revised plan of operation with enhanced COVID-19 restrictions which assured all members of council the health and safety of both vendors and customers would be a top priority.
Video surveillance will soon be keeping a watchful eye over the city’s downtown core. At Tuesday’s (May 19) meeting, members of council will be asked to endorse Phase 1 of a project that will see the installation of eight CCTV cameras along a two-kilometre stretch of Talbot Street, from CASO Crossing to Queen Street. The locations were selected based on 2018/19 crime mapping data and motor vehicle collision reporting information. In a report to council from city police, it is noted the CCTV program “is a proactive, local solution modelled on successful networks in other municipalities to enhance community well-being and assist the St. Thomas Police Service with solving crime.” Right now when a crime is committed downtown, police need to canvass businesses to see if they have surveillance footage as evidence.
Have to admit, we haven’t experienced a week like this since, what, the 2008 financial meltdown? Wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage with the city unveiling its balanced approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and city manager Wendell Graves suggesting the management team likely would not have to declare an emergency. A day later and the Doug Ford government did exactly that. City hall closed, municipal facilities all shuttered. Students on furlough for at least a couple of weeks. Ditto for many of their parents. Have you ever seen traffic on Talbot Street downtown so sporadic? Do you think life will return to normal on April 6? Do you think COVID-19 gives a tinker’s damn about a calendar date?
My, what a difference a few days make in the life of the coronavirus outbreak. From little in the way of inconvenience to scores of cancellations, long lineups in grocery outlets and the mysterious disappearance of toilet paper from many shelves. To get a sense of the state of preparedness at city hall, we talked with city manager Wendell Graves earlier this week. He advised, “Last night (Monday) at city council, I advised them that our management team met with the Director of Public Health (Dr. Joyce Lock) to review what’s happening in the area and we are also upgrading our internal business continuity plans.” To keep on top of the spread of the coronavirus, Graves noted the management team will likely be meeting on a weekly basis. “We’re meeting quite regularly on it now,” advised Graves, “just to make sure that we’ve got a course of action in place.”
The city’s portion of the cost of providing court security and prisoner transfer (CSPT) has been steadily increasing since it first received money from the province beginning in 2012. That year, the province contributed $75,224. The net budgeted costs to provide the service this year is just over $1 million, with the province providing the city with a grant of $713,000 to offset the expense. That works out to just under 70 per cent of the total cost, down from 74 per cent last year and 83 per cent in 2018. That diminishing financial support was the topic of discussion at a council meeting earlier this month when members unanimously supported a motion to craft a letter to both the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and MPP Jeff Yurek outlining concerns on the mounting court security costs and to seek their assistance in having the province review this matter.
More investment is needed in infrastructure; a number of city assets could be pared; there is a call from the treasurer to address user fees, some of which are too low; and be prepared for several rounds of employee bargaining. That’s the St. Thomas financial picture for the coming year. With a minimum amount of fuss – read little spirited debate – and the complete absence of pencil sharpening, council this week approved a draft of the city’s 2020 budget. Members were content to rubber-stamp the budget which will see a 2.43 per cent increase in the municipal property tax levy next year. That’s dependant on the results of contract bargaining on several fronts at city hall. More on that momentarily.
Recognizing the need to fix “long-standing issues with how hospitals are funded,” the province this past week announced an additional $68 million in funding to support small- and medium-sized hospitals in Ontario. Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek unveiled the funding boost Thursday (Oct. 17) at the CASO station, indicating St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital (STEGH) will received $1.47 million under the investment geared to ending hallway healthcare. “Noting that it is a medium-sized hospital, the hospital has faced its fair share of problems throughout the years,” acknowledged Yurek, “in spite of its success in implementing the Lean program throughout the facility.” The Lean management program – adopted by the hospital several years ago under then CEO Paul Collins – maximizes patient care while minimizing waste at the facility. In other words, creating more value for patients with fewer resources.
“I can guarantee there will be a hospice in Elgin county . . . during my term.” Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek issued that assurance last December and less than a year later, Deputy Premier Christine Elliott backed that guarantee with a $1.6 million pledge to open an eight-bed residential hospice to serve St. Thomas and Elgin. Friday morning (Sept. 20) Elliott, who is also the province’s health minister, made the announcement at Memory Garden in Pinafore Park and added once the facility opens, the province will provide $840,000 annually toward the operating costs. The annual funding is projected to cover approximately 50 per cent of the hospice operating costs.