City hall is the battleground this week in a growing controversy. Literally. The central player in all of this is the Horton Market and whether it should be allowed to open at the end of the month to provide a sales venue for area fruit and vegetable growers, among others. On Tuesday (May 19) city council, by a 5-4 margin, defeated a motion to provide a letter of support for plans to be submitted to the health unit allowing the popular Saturday market to open for the season under COVID-19 restrictions. We’ll break down that vote in a few minutes. It didn’t take long for the controversy to flare up, not unlike the divisive environment associated with debate around the city’s twin-pad arena and the new police headquarters.
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?
“This is not a luxury hotel. It is an appropriate place for end-of-life care in a cost-effective manner.” Coun. Linda Stevenson’s observation at the Jan. 16 reference committee was typical of the words of support from council members for the Hospice of Elgin, a 10-bed palliative care facility which, when built, would serve the residents of St. Thomas and Elgin county. Trouble is, neither municipality has come forward and put dollars on the table. Even though in September of last year, Deputy Premier Christine Elliott pledged $1.6 million pledge toward construction of the hospice at a yet-to-be-determined location. Plus, 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. Late last month, the county played its cards in the form of a letter from Warden Dave Mennill to city council advising municipal officials there resolved “to support the Elgin Hospice Group through non-financial measures but declined to offer financial support.” In a conversation with after this week’s reference committee, he elaborated further. “It won’t be financial support because we are tied to 2023.” That’s when the county’s financial commitment to The Great Expansion at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital is fulfilled.
With the observation, “Our assets are the strongest link to the new city branding,” a pair of St. Thomas railway-based entities are seeking an exemption from paying municipal property taxes. Matt Janes of The Railworks Coalition – representing the Elgin County Railway Museum (ECRM), the CASO station and, in the near future, the St. Thomas Elevated Park – made a pitch to city council at Monday’s (Jan. 20) reference committee meeting requesting tax relief. While no decision was made at the meeting, there was no shortage of questions and comments from members of council combined with a healthy dose of skepticism from several quarters. In an email to City Scope on Tuesday, Janes outlined three objectives behind the deputation to council. Topping the list was the need to, “Stress how important the Railworks’ assets (ECRM, CASO Station and Elevated Park) are to “The Railway City” brand, and the economic activity generated by our organizations.”
Four months ago, the province green-lighted an end-of-life residential hospice for St. Thomas and Elgin. And Thursday (Jan. 16) city council got an enhanced picture of what the palliative care facility will look like and feel once inside. In her presentation to Mayor Joe Preston and councillors, Laura Sherwood, director of hospice partnerships with St. Joseph’s Health Care Society, detailed the pressing need for the Hospice of Elgin, which will serve the only county in southwestern Ontario currently without a community-based hospice. Sherwood noted each year, more than 800 people in St. Thomas and Elgin die without adequate services, “placing tremendous pressures on families, caregivers, and our local health care system.” Within the next dozen years or so, that figure is expected to increase by as much as 50 per cent.
Size does, in fact, matter. That was the finding back in 2003 of what was known as the McCarthy-Tetrault report, a full and independent review of the council of the day and its working relationships at city hall. The initial call for a review of council and staff dated back to April 28 of that year when Jeff Kohler, then an alderman, moved that “the City of St. Thomas undertake an independent review of human rights practices in the corporation of the City of St. Thomas.” The subsequent report categorized council as “dysfunctional” and its inability to operate in cohesive fashion is “rooted in the mix of personalities . . . . The resulting lack of respect for others seriously undermined the effectiveness of council.” The report’s author, Chris White of the law firm McCarthy-Tetrault, made several recommendations, the most contentious of which called for the reduction in the size of council to seven members from the then-current eight, including the mayor, in an effort to cut down on the number of deadlocked votes.
Let’s start with the following premise. “If the joint goal of our community is to provide as much affordable housing for people (as possible), it is important that the private sector be the primary delivery agent.” That’s the argument put forth by Peter Ostojic who, along with his brother Joe, has completed several affordable housing developments in St. Thomas and Aylmer. In the past several months via emails sent to this corner, Peter has repeatedly questioned why the city is undertaking the construction of affordable housing units such as Phase 1 of the city’s social services and housing hub recently opened at 230 Talbot Street. A total of 28 apartment units are located on the two floors above the ground floor office space. Of those units, eight one-bedroom apartments have received funding through the federal/provincial Investment in Affordable Housing (IAH) program. As such, rents can be no higher than 80 per cent of the average market rent for the area.
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.
The city’s much-maligned transit system may very well become a greatly relied upon people mover if council endorses the recommendations of the soon-to-be-released Strategic Transit Plan. The proposed changes would involve route and schedule adjustments, the introduction of demand-responsive transit (DRT), the possibility of larger buses and electric bus technology and a pilot project to explore regional bus service. At Monday’s (Nov. 18) reference committee meeting, Brian Putre of Stantec Consulting and city engineer Justin Lawrence presented an overview of recommendations to members of city council. The plan, which is 95 per cent complete, drew favourable comments from all of council, including the stark observation from Coun. Joan Rymal that “any change is better than what we have now.”