Looking back, 2019 was a year filled with challenges as well as opportunities.
As regional councillor for Niagara-on-the-Lake, my priorities included restoring public faith in regional government, including its agency, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA); conducting business with integrity, demonstrated by doing the necessary homework and preparing for meetings; developing working relations with colleagues; and dealing with leftover bad actors.
Also important, was progressing on the issues of housing affordability, economic growth, transit delivery, GO implementation and service delivery review.
Almost immediately after being sworn in, regional council found consensus on dealing with leftover bad actors. Council directed key staff changes, and several policies were implemented which improved staff morale, increased accountability of council and sent a much overdue signal that problems were being properly addressed.
I was fortunate to be selected for the original group of councillors to join the NPCA board. Our task was to reset that organization, stabilize the staff, and refocus the organization on its strategic priorities. Sounds simple, but was more difficult than expected.
Key evidence of success was that after nine months, staff issues had been cleared, an interim CAO, Gayle Wood, was hired to guide the resetting process, and as 2020 approaches, the organization has begun serving residents according to its mandate.
With the recently released Provincial Ombudsman Report, An Inside Job, regional council can now turn the page on speculation, and permit appropriate professionals to follow through on the issues uncovered, while council focuses on the matters of regional government.
Despite the fact that regional council meets separate from town council, early on I developed an excellent working relationship with Lord Mayor Betty Disero and the town councillors. Our priority was ensuring that NOTL was well represented, and its voice heard at regional council, and this continues to be the focus of our joint efforts. NOTL is well represented at the Region. I served on the NPCA from January to October, 2019, and serve on Planning and Economic Development and Public Works Committees and as Budget Committee chair.
This past year, 2019, saw regional council develop two budgets. Election timing moved the process for budget last year into January 2019, and the 2020 budget was just finalized. Key priorities in the process have been accountability and transparency. Regional council has put forward two budgets since the election that are transparent with residents in the need to balance affordability of taxation with a sound financial plan for asset management, taking into consideration anticipated growth and council’s priorities around its Strategic Plan.
Housing affordability is an issue to which NOTL is not immune. In fact, with some of the Region’s highest property values and the important protection of our lands by Ontario’s Greenbelt legislation, NOTL has many residents experiencing core housing need. Core housing need is when people are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on their housing costs. There are a significant number of NOTL residents which fall into this category, and with many experiencing lacklustre wage growth, and a large number on fixed incomes, this pressure on housing affordability is magnified in NOTL by a limited supply of a broad range of housing styles, mainly apartment dwellings.
With 2020 approaching, our community needs to have an appetite for development of apartment dwellings in appropriate locations. A ‘not in my backyard’ approach is harmful to the greater community. Housing styles which increase the availability and supply of housing improve affordability, and provide more housing opportunities for all, not just the well-to-do.
Affordable is not limited to social housing, it must include rental housing. Rentals provide options for lower-income residents and those entering the housing market for the first time. The solution to improve supply cannot rest solely on government. Private stakeholders and housing non-profits must be incentivized to participate in filling the housing need.
NOTL has an opportunity to make progress on this issue. The Town owns several pieces of land which could be used in conjunction with partnering with the private sector or housing non-profits to create an appropriate housing development to meet local core housing needs. We must ensure current development approval processes do not hamper the creation of a greater housing mix. By addressing barriers, government can make progress.
Another issue is how municipalities deliver services. This year saw the Province make some significant changes in both policy and downloading of services to municipalities. This placed significant financial and delivery pressure on services provided by the Region in the areas of community services and public health, including homelessness, children’s services and social services. The choice was to either cut programs, previously funded by provincial dollars, or continue programs by funding with local property tax revenue.
The essential need to provide services to those most vulnerable in our community made the decision to continue it the most responsible choice.
The Province has been clear that municipalities must find efficiencies in service delivery and that is what we need to do. Niagara Region began with a independent review of service delivery by KPMG. That process identified several key recommendations which have been agreed upon, with others being reviewed further to identify an implementation process if approved.
I believe that a path forward to improve government service delivery in Niagara exists — one which ensures autonomy to cities and towns, leaves local decisions to locally elected people and leverages regional scale and knowledge clusters.
Niagara is a unique collection of very independent communities. That uniqueness is our strength, and a key ingredient into what makes us so desirable as a place to live, grow a business or visit. Going into 2020, let’s leverage these strengths and find the solutions.
The discussion around governance, how many councillors, who they are, etc. is important, but needs to be separated from and come after the service delivery discussion. Those decisions on governance will be best made by local people, in their communities, after service delivery is settled.
There are many more issues confronting the Region and possibly some unknowns around the corner. It is my hope that residents recognize that there is a competent group on local and regional council that has a willingness to tackle complicated issues, keeping the betterment of our communities at the forefront. I welcome your conversations and recognize that together, we can achieve better outcomes.
Best wishes to you and your family for 2020. I look forward to the privilege of representing you in our work at the Region.