This past year, 2019, has not been one without its challenges for all of us, from all levels of government, but it has also been one of the most gratifying experiences and it is your voice that has given me strength. I thank you for that.
When council started in December 2019, we had three major objectives.
The first council objective was to be more accessible and accountable, the second to build a strong community in a balanced way, with a sustainable budget, and the third to finish unfinished business from previous years.
ACCESSIBLE AND ACCOUNTABLE
One of the most frustrating experiences for constituents, with a council that is voted in “at large,” is to know which councillor to call on an issue. This year we created, and published, a work plan with target dates, and assigned members of council with responsibility to address specific issues so the public knows who to call.
Our communications to the town residents and businesses is more frequent, and the consistent use of Join the Conversation has increased community engagement. We also created an Inclusivity Committee and a Customer Experience and Technology Committee to make recommendations to council about how to improve our communications.
This year, 2020, we will have monthly “Coffee with the Lord Mayor” meetings that will include members of council when their schedules permit, to have informal discussions about how the Town is doing, what constituents would like to see and where improvement is needed.
I am very proud of the fact that our council members are responsive to community requests, attend community events and attend the outside agencies, boards and commissions to which they have been appointed.
STRONG COMMUNITY WITH A SUSTAINABLE BUDGET
Community-building is the very essence of local government. It is the reason local government was created. The Province sets the rules and local government works within those rules. To build a healthy community requires places where people can work, homes for people to live and services people need for a good quality of life, done in a way that is financially responsible.
We learned very early on that our constituents want (these are all equal in value): 1) a prosperous and diverse economy; 2) strong environmental stewardship; 3) an inclusive, integrated, healthy town; 4) a centre for culture, heritage and recreation; 5) mobility choices; 6) a well-planned built environment; 7) a prosperous and sustainable agricultural sector; and 8) well-managed municipal finances. These are the eight strategic pillars in the Community Vision in the Official Plan and are also included in council’s Strategic Plan.
We have worked with members of the community to ensure public engagement. We created the Lord Mayor’s Economic Development Task Force, the Community Wellness Committee and the Lord Mayor’s Youth Advisory Committee to bring forward advice to council. The Economic Development Taskforce has presented their final recommendations and the Community Wellness Committee will bring forward a report in January.
The Lord Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council have worked throughout the year to set their goals and objectives for 2020. They have been working with community mentors to achieve this. One issue we found of vital importance to our youth is mental wellness. In response, council established the Pathstone Program in Niagara-on-the-Lake to accommodate counsellors to give guidance to young people.
We adopted the Official Plan (now being reviewed at the Region) and a Strategic Plan that sets the direction well beyond the four-year term of council with accountability outcomes each year. The five objectives of our Strategic Plan are: 1) smart, balanced growth; 2) customer service excellence; 3) protecting heritage, agriculture, and other community assets; 4) excel in positive workplace culture; and 5) strengthen two-way communications.
Other actions taken by council include the approval of the Niagara Nursery School Expansion Project and the establishment of the St. Davids Pool Fundraising Committee.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is also one of the two areas in the Region that established a Community Safety Zone along York Road. At the request of council in December of 2018, the Region approved the pilot. This was something that the St. Davids Residents Association had been asking for since 2016.
Council adopted an Official Plan amendment to introduce infill policies for Old Town and Virgil, requiring development to be compatible with the surrounding buildings and also requiring a tree replacement plan before any trees are removed.
To further protect our heritage, council amended the Property Standards Bylaw to introduce provisions under the Ontario Heritage Act to address demolition by neglect. This will enable the Town to address situations where owners of heritage properties do not properly maintain buildings and properties.
Our Communities in Bloom Committee will be competing again in 2020. The CIB Committee has been working hard to prepare for the competition by creating a sub-committee to bring forward fun ways to celebrate our winter season in an even bigger, brighter way, working with the NOTL Chamber of Commerce, the NOTL Horticultural Society and local residents. Communities in Bloom also worked with the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre and NOTL Hydro to celebrate our local artists by wrapping hydro boxes with public art.
FINISHING UNFINISHED BUSINESS
This was the third objective for council. Over the past few years we have heard from the public on a number of issues that were not completed or needed review: the Tree Bylaw, Noise Bylaw, short-term rentals, long-term rentals and cannabis. We have spent the year listening to residents and put forward our ideas to staff to review these bylaws. Our goal is to have these come forward in the first and second quarters of 2020.
In terms of ongoing planning, and subject to the final budget deliberations in January, we will embark on a Master Plan for Transportation and complete the Irrigation Master Plan in 2020. Both of these are long overdue.
Council will complete the process to hire a new CAO by May or June of 2020.
Council will also review what are considered Heritage Districts in town.
Looking beyond 2020 is important. If we want to continue to maintain control of our future, we have to think beyond 2020. To name one example, the Region has been talking about the reconstruction of Niagara Stone Road for many years. As a town, we could just let it happen, and have the Region determine how Virgil will look over the next 20 years, but thanks to dedicated residents, the Urban Design Committee has created a subcommittee that has been working with the Region to bring enhancements to Niagara Stone Road. These enhancements will bring a pedestrian feel to the street including wider sidewalks and enhanced landscaping, lighting and benches. The concept is to have Virgil feel more like a village. The rich history of Virgil is unique, and should be celebrated. This construction is scheduled to happen in 2022. We will be ready.
Council will be deciding on the budget in January. It will be a budget that will assist in supporting our objectives of good customer service, a healthy community, preservation of our quaint neighbourhoods and agricultural community, and provide the resources to meet our Strategic and Official Plans.
I would like to wish you a healthy and prosperous New Year. And on behalf of my colleagues on council, Clare Cameron, Erwin Wiens, Gary Burroughs, John Wiens, Wendy Cheropita, Stuart McCormack, Allan Bisback and Norm Arsenault, we look forward to working with you and for you in 2020.