A busy start to May

May has arrived and the first week of the month was a busy one, with some great events and announcements taking place around the city. It’s worth a look back on some of the good news stories and notable events that happened to lead off the month.

Special Olympics Announcement

On Wednesday May 3rd, Sault Ste. Marie was announced that it had been selected as the host site for the 2019 Ontario Special Olympics Winter Games. The community last hosted the Special Olympics in 2001 and this will be the first time we have hosted the winter games.

Special_Olympics

At the announcement that the Sault will host the 2019 Special Olympics Ontario Winter Games on Wednesday May 3rd.

With 450+ athletes and coaches expected to make the trip for the games, the event will be quite substantial and a significant economic boost for our tourism sector. But more importantly, the games will afford us the chance to celebrate the human spirit and the unique abilities and potential of every person. I know it will be a very meaningful event for everyone involved and I am glad that we will be able to host it in our community.

At Wednesday’s announcement, Special Olympics Ontario declared the Sault Ste. Marie’s bid was “the best they had ever seen.” Congratulations to the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service and Tourism Sault Ste. Marie for all of their excellent work on securing the event.

Riding the Big Bike with Reggie and his crew

A month or two back, I dropped in at Reggie’s Place after work with a few people. Lorraine Daigle (Reggie’s sister) asked me if I would be interested in riding the Big Bike with their team in May. I suggested that I’d be glad to do it, but that I thought it was important that we had Reggie participate as well. Lorraine pledged that if I did it, she would get Reggie to do it.

Fast forward to Thursday May 4th and both Reggie and I made good on our respective promises. The Reggie’s team was kind enough to outfit me with a flashy cape and even added me to their team name. It was a great time with a fun bunch of people and best of all we were able to support the great cause of heart and stroke research.

Jane’s Walk for Accessibility

On Friday May 5th, I took part in the Jane’s Walk for Accessibility that occurred downtown. City Accessibility Advisory Committee Member Diane Morrell led our tour of Queen Street East and it was very enlightening. There are many little things that make for accessibility challenges—like the slope of a driveway or uneven sidewalk blocks—that you don’t really appreciate until you travel in a wheelchair or push someone in a wheelchair. Making our city accessible is an on-going job, one that government, businesses, and residents all have to be mindful of its importance.

jane_walk

Touring Queen Street East, as part of the Jane’s Walk.

This is the second year that Jane’s Walks have taken place in the city and they are a tremendous event. The walks are a great way for residents to learn about neighbourhood histories and local urban issues from their fellow citizens.

Milestone Anniversaries

On Sunday May 7th, I was privileged to attend a mass and dinner in celebration of the 100th anniversary of St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. Throughout its history, the church has been an important place of spirituality and worship. It’s also provided an important link to Ukrainian culture and heritage. Best wishes to everyone from the church’s community as they celebrate their centennial year!

Changing City Council

Two Council meetings ago, City Council voted to give notice that it intends to change its composition from 12 councillors to 10 and to redraw the City’s ward boundaries from six wards to five.

I voted for the change because I think it is a sensible, evidence-based decision that will lead to a Council that is more appropriately-sized for our community. However, there have been questions raised in regards to the decision that I will try to address here.

Why not go lower than 10?

The research examined by the Council Review Committee shows that there would be a case to be made for having eight councillors. I don’t think there is a good case for trying to go with fewer than eight. With six councillors we would have to entertain making the positions full-time or adding staff at City Hall to help them manage their workload.

In some public commentaries, I’ve seen examples cited of larger cities have relatively few councillors. Kitchener tends to be a popular example, as they had only six councillors for a long time (they’ve since expanded to 10). It bears remembering though that Kitchener—along with many southern Ontario cities—is part of a two-tier municipal structure, whereas Sault Ste. Marie is a single-tier city.

Although Kitchener is several times larger than Sault Ste. Marie in terms of population, the tax levy managed by their City Council is actually quite comparable to the size managed by our Council.

Regardless, it was clear from our deliberations that there was interest on Council in changing from 12 to 10 but not any lower than that. Doing so is a step in the right direction that I am happy to support.

Why not have one councillor per ward?

Although we are changing the size of Council and the number of wards, we are still going to have two councillors elected from each ward. It is felt that this is important because it ensures that when a vacancy or extended absence of a councillor occurs ward constituents will still have a representative whom they can contact.

Obviously, when the provincial by-election is called we are going to have a situation where both councillors in Ward 6 are temporarily absent. However, these situations are rare.

Is a referendum needed?

In the opposite direction to the questions addressed above, there has been some suggestion that the status quo should be maintained or that the question should be put to voters in a referendum.

To that, I would say this: in Ontario, the Municipal Act vests the power to change a council’s composition (subject to certain limits) with the municipal council itself. The process to do so is set out very clearly in act. There is no requirement for a referendum or ballot question. When wards are created, redrawn or dissolved, there are requirements for notice to be given to electors and for a public meeting to be held. Any resident who objects to the proposed changes has the right to appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board.

Our local system of government operates under the tenets of representative democracy. Every decision that our Council makes can be considered an expression of the popular will of the community. Arguing that no one expressly campaigned on reducing the size of Council is a red herring; Council is called upon to decide matters all the time that were not broached during the election campaign. Because we are elected, we remain accountable to the public for all of our decisions.

To me though, the larger point is that we have to be open to change both in the community and at the City of Sault Ste. Marie and that openness needs to extend to Council itself. For the last several years, we’ve been asking staff to trim their spending. We’ve been exploring ways of delivering services differently. We’ve watched as the City’s senior management team has restructured itself to have fewer managers. We have to be willing to turn that same level of scrutiny on to our own operations as a council and I, for one, am glad that we did.

-CP

Pothole season is upon us

Spring itself may still be a week or two away, but the snow is starting to melt and that means that the beginning of pothole season is officially upon us. I’ve already received a number of questions, comments and concerns about potholes, so I decided to check in with Public Works myself to see what is presently being done.

The response I received is that crews have been out patching potholes daily for the last two weeks and they’ll be continuing to do so. The challenge for the time being is trying to get as much water off the roads as possible, which is why snow removal is still happening overnight.

Because asphalt plants haven’t opened for the season yet, right now Public Works is recycling asphalt to use for patching potholes. They are recycling approximately 18,000 to 24,000 kilograms of asphalt per day (the amount varies due to weather)—which gives you a sense of how much work is underway already.

Potholes are unfortunately a fact of life for northern cities. And whether it’s a mid-sized one like ours or a metropolis like Chicago, the end of winter is a challenging time to keep up, as they just seem to appear everywhere you look. This winter has been especially difficult, because we’ve had alternating freezes and thaws happen several times, often with temperatures swinging from around -20 to +7 or +8 within the span of a few days, and that creates a lot of issues.

I understand it’s frustrating for drivers to have to contend with potholes at seemingly every turn. However, we have a hard-working team at Public Works that is doing their best to address the problem with the resources that are available to them. Once the snow is gone, the weather becomes warmer, and the asphalt plants open, it will be possible to make some more lasting progress.

-CP

Sault Ste. Marie Among the Lowest in Ontario for Water Costs

I wanted to spend a little time looking at water and sewer costs in Sault Ste. Marie and how we compare to other municipalities across Ontario and the north. As I’ve written about before, after property taxes, water and sewer costs are the next biggest expense placed on citizens by municipalities and they form part of the municipal burden.

In 2015, City Council reduced the sewer surcharge.  As a result, for residential users the sewer surcharge is, as a percentage of your bill, the lowest it has been in more than 30 years. In order to give residential citizens a further break, the PUC Board (of which I was and am a member) also made the decision to forego increasing water rates in 2016. These actions had the net effect of saving households about $150 a year on average.

The annual BMA municipal study collects and compares data on Ontario municipalities across a number of measures—including water and sewer costs. The 2016 study is now out, and there are some really interesting findings as to how Sault Ste. Marie has been able to improve its water and sewer affordability and cost-competitiveness.

In 2015 Sault Ste. Marie ranked 39th out of 94 surveyed municipalities. In 2016, thanks to the decisions made by City Council and the PUC Board, our rank improved to 6th out of 101. The table below captures some of the relevant changes:

Changes in Residential Water and Sewer Costs / Competitiveness between 2015 and 2016

Year SSM Cost Prov. Avg SSM Rank $ Difference % Difference
2015 $839 $923 39/94 -$84 -9.1%
2016 $685 $976 6/101 -$291 -29.8%

Across Ontario, the average increase in water and sewer charges was just a little under 6% between 2015 and 2016. In Sault Ste. Marie, ours costs went down by over 18%, the sharpest drop of any municipality in the survey. We are now almost $300 lower than the provincial average.

Top 10 municipalities in Ontario for water and sewer costs

By virtue of our actions in 2015, Sault Ste. Marie is now also leading the way amongst the Northern Ontario towns and cities that participate in the study and we are about 33% lower than the Northern Ontario average which is, in real dollars, close to $350.00 below the Northern Ontario average.

Comparison of Northern Ontario municipalities for water and sewer costs.

What becomes striking when you start to delve into the study results is just how uncommon it is for municipalities to be able to reduce their costs year-to-year. Of the 94 municipalities that reported information in 2015, Sault Ste. Marie was one of only three to reduce its water and sewer costs by a more than nominal amount in 2016 (North Bay and St. Catharines were the other two). Even high-growth cities like Toronto and Markham had to put their rates up.

I think that just goes to show that it’s a challenge controlling costs at a municipal government under the best of circumstances. In Sault Ste. Marie, we’ve faced additional challenges over the past several years with a difficult local economy and the non-payment of taxes by a major industrial employer that has negatively affected the City’s cash flow. Despite this, I’m pleased that Council and the PUC have found a way to deliver meaningful savings to citizens also to substantial improve our City’s affordability and cost-competitiveness.

-CP

Thoughts on the McMeeken Incident

We had an alarming incident occur in our City on Tuesday evening when the McMeeken Arena had to be evacuated due to elevated levels of carbon monoxide. A substantial number of people who were exposed became sick and had to seek or receive medical treatment, while an even larger number had to go to Sault Area Hospital to be checked out as a precautionary measure.

Ultimately, it’s a relief to know that the persons affected were treated successfully and that everyone is going to be ok. However, that in no way discounts the discomfort and anxiety that this episode caused, which was very real and understandably upsetting to everyone involved.  Adding to the apprehension was the fact that many of the people affected were teenagers and in some cases young children. As a parent myself, I can appreciate how frightening it would be to have to take an ill child to the hospital as a result of something like this.

I want to acknowledge and recognize our firefighters who did a terrific job leading the evacuation in a calm and orderly way and then explaining to the evacuated persons what symptoms they should be wary of and when they should seek medical attention. The firefighters have also been doing great work to ventilate the building and assist with finding the cause of the problem.

I also received a compliment from a constituent about the professionalism and orderliness of the rink attendants who assisted with the evacuation, so I want to acknowledge them for their assistance.

On the medical side, as the extent of the situation became apparent, our paramedics assisted with meeting incoming patients at the hospital and ensuring that those in need started receiving treatment right way. And of course, Sault Area Hospital and their staff really stepped up and performed admirably. They’ve been rightly applauded in many corners for how they handled the situation and I’m happy to add my voice to that chorus. They quickly realized that they needed to escalate due to what was happening and they brought in substantial additional resources right away in response. Everyone pitched in, all the way up to Sault Area Hospital senior management, and their team was prepared, professional, and ready to address contingencies that might arise.

In all, everyone involved in the evacuation and treatment pulled together and worked as a team and I want to thank everyone involved in the immediate response for their efforts and great work.

Obviously though, we are left with some pressing questions that need to be answered. We need to know the source of the carbon monoxide and why the climbing CO levels did not trigger an alarm from one of the multiple detectors located in the building.  We need to come to understand why this incident happened and, just as important, we need to know if there is something that the City needs to be doing differently to ensure that an incident like this does not happen again. We’ve had regulatory personnel from TSSA, third-party experts, and City staff working on the scene to find out what happened and why.

My commitment to you on behalf of my office and City Council is that we will find the answers, we will bring those answers to the public and we will make whatever changes are necessary to ensure that something like this does not happen again.

 

A Place for Everyone

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet a newly-arrived refugee family at the airport. They were a family of seven from the Congo. They had undergone a long and tiring journey, travelling from Zimbabwe to Germany to Toronto and then to here. Despite the difficulties of their travel and despite being overwhelmed at arriving in a place unlike anywhere they had experienced before, I could tell they were relieved to be here.  Exhausted no doubt, but relieved.

It was touching to see, just as it was touching to see the excitement and happiness on the faces of the staff from the Sault Community Career Centre and the volunteers from the community who were there to receive them. I was even able to carry out a young, sleeping boy to the car that was taking the family to their hotel. It was a special moment.

It is my understanding that there are more than 65 million refugees in the world, displaced because of war, famine, and political instability. It’s a shocking statistic.

We can all agree that Canada is a big place. We’re a country of some 36 million but we could accommodate many millions more than that. Canada has the opportunity to be a world leader in resettling displaced persons. To put it very simply, we have the room.

And not just in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. There is an opportunity for Sault Ste. Marie. We’re a City with a population in the 70,000s, but we have the infrastructure to support 85,000 or 90,000, perhaps even more.  With the right support from the provincial and federal governments, slow-growing places like Sault Ste. Marie would be able to take in a substantial number of refugees and new migrants to Canada.

I think that could be a very good thing for our City. While I recognize that people need opportunities for work and so forth, people can also create those opportunities. People create economy. Ultimately, bringing people here means more customers for businesses, more students for schools, and more people paying taxes. It’s an investment in our own human capital.

However, to make this happen we have to adopt the right mindset. We have to embrace diversity and inclusiveness and we have to work hard to make newcomers feel at home. Like the arch in front of the Civic Centre declares, we have to be “the friendly City.”

Ultimately, we are going to need a lot people just to maintain our current labour force and population and those people, whether they are immigrants, new Canadians, millenials, or former Saultites thinking of moving back, are all going to want the same thing: a City where they feel safe, welcomed, and at home.

We can only achieve that if we commit ourselves, as a community, to the values of tolerance, respect and open-mindedness. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s not just a moral imperative, for us, it’s also an economic and social imperative.

I think we are on our way. As Mayor, I’ve spoken with international students who are enthusiastic about the City and want to stay after they graduate. I’ve seen the recent outpouring of local support in the wake of a hateful incident that happened here and also in response to the tragedy in Quebec City. And I’ve seen the caring and commitment of citizens who have stepped forward to donate time, money, and possessions to help those fleeing unimaginable circumstances settle in our community.

We don’t have to look further than Passport to Unity, held yesterday to see some of the great work happening in our community.  It was a tremendously successful event and I noted, as I made my rounds, that the family from the Congo that I had welcomed at the airport a few weeks ago was there – eating submarine sandwiches in and amongst dozens of other newcomers.  I was happy to see them.

Sault Ste. Marie can be a place for everyone. With all the challenges in the world and with our own demographics being what they are, we have to be.

-CP

Civic Centre Renovations

Yesterday, City Council debated the replacement of the windows and cladding of the Civic Centre. I’m not surprised that this project has attracted quite a bit of public interest and that there are some misconceptions about why it is happening, which I would like to try to clear up.

To begin with, I want to make it clear that the renovations are not happening for aesthetic reasons. It’s being made because the current state of the windows and cladding present a health and safety issue. An asset review study that was done in 2014 recommended making the replacements as soon as possible, but no later than by 2018. It is a project that has to happen and we would be negligent to try and postpone it any longer.

The Civic Centre will be 42 years old this year and it is starting to feel the weight of those years. Extensive work was done on the roof last year. I think just about all of us understand that roofs wear out over time and eventually they have to be replaced. In this case, the replacement of the windows and cladding is similarly necessary.

It is also important to understand how we will pay for the project. We are going to use long-term debt to pay for the majority of the costs to replace the windows and cladding. To me, this is a prudent decision because the City carries exceptionally low debt and we are still in a very favourable environment for interest rates. Furthermore, an annual stream of funding has already been identified within the 2017 budget to finance the loan. This project is not increasing the budget or increasing your taxes.

The City is required by the province to have an asset management plan. The plan guides how the City makes needed repairs and upgrades to its buildings and facilities over a 25-year horizon. There is an annual allocation within the budget (approximately $2.3 million) that funds the asset management plan. This is money that is used to make repairs, improvements, and replace equipment. A portion of this annual amount will be used to finance the loan.

The point I want to stress is this: if we did not have to replace the windows and cladding at the Civic Centre, the money in the budget that is going to finance the loan would be used for other projects and other repairs to City facilities, because that is its dedicated purpose. We would not have any additional money to lower property taxes or to provide extra services.

I know we are still in the midst of a difficult economic climate, so I understand some of the outcry about what the City’s “priorities” should be. However, to that I will say this: taking care of the things we own as a City has to be a priority too. Because I think experience has taught us by now that we don’t gain much by stalling decisions for another day. The options generally boil down to paying today or paying more in the future—and often suffering problems in between when we decide to kick things down the road.

Throughout this Council term, we’ve been looking for opportunities to divest the City of old buildings and property to thereby lower our asset management costs. Our recent decision with respect to the Steelton Seniors Centre is a good example.  By relocating the Steelton Seniors Centre (from an old, inaccessible building) to the fully-accessible Northern Community Centre, we have helped the City forego more than a million dollars in future renovation costs.

However, I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that our municipal government could function without a City Hall, so it is important that we commit enough funds to make sure the one we have stays in reasonably good working order. The building is, after all, a reflection of our community and as such we can’t let it fall into disrepair.

Lastly, I appreciate that some people are disappointed by the proposed change in the building’s look.  We have to keep in mind that over 40 years have elapsed since the cladding and windows were first installed.  Materials and technology changes and in this respect, Council has to defer to the architectural and engineering experts.  In the end, I am confident that we will have a visually appealing and modern looking building that will continue to be one of our city’s distinctive landmarks.

-CP