Grievances aired at North Huron town hall meeting - Nov, 23, 2017
BY DENNY SCOTT
North Huron Township Council faced some pointed questions from a handful of ratepayers at a municipal town hall meeting last week.
As part of encouraging public feedback, council drafted a bylaw several years ago making one such meeting per year mandatory.
The meeting was held in Belgrave and covered topics ranging from police coverage to council remuneration to winter sidewalk maintenance.
The meeting was moderated by Director of Planning for Huron Country Sandra Weber who explained that questions would be taken first from people who had signed up to speak, then from the floor. She said each issue would be given five minutes if required and council could respond past that time limit if necessary.
The first question came from Wingham resident Steve Hill who wanted to know if the township planned on removing snow from sidewalks in community safety zones.
The areas in question were created by bylaw around local schools to encourage slower traffic through high-foot-traffic areas.
Reeve Neil Vincent said he wasn’t comfortable commenting on that issue as he didn’t know what kind of equipment or manpower would be necessary without input from the relevant departments.
Hill said it would require existing staff to move over 10 feet while clearing the streets. Futhermore, he said he asked about the issue at last year’s town hall meeting and still hadn’t received an answer.
“I asked last year what the cost would be and was told it would be worked on,” he said.
Councillor Brock Vodden said the Public Works Department has been under several different department heads, both temporary and permanent, over the last several years. As a result of the turnover, the issue was still being dealt with, he said.
“[Snow removal] is on the docket to be looked at, not just in safety zones, but across the municipality,” he said, adding he expects a “good plan” to be presented regarding the issue.
John Brown asked the assembled council members about the next steps regarding the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) policing model that was presented earlier this year.
Brown, an East Wawanosh resident, explained that he was concerned with the rising cost of the Wingham police department, especially if council decided to expand the department’s services to the rest of North Huron.
“My worry is that Wingham ... [will expand] to include East Wawanosh and Blyth,” he said. “Wingham is paying an exorbitant price for protective services.”
Brown said each home in Wingham has paid over $800 per household for the 2017 taxation year and he didn’t “want to see the white elephant come to East Wawanosh and Blyth.”
“[My concern is] costs may come down in Wingham, but [East Wawanosh’s] and Blyth’s costs would raise exorbitantly in order to subsidize Wingham,” he said. “Right now, OPP is costing me $210 per year and Blyth is $365 per year, which is the provincial average for the municipalities.”
He said he has nothing against the Wingham Police Department, but when it comes time to weigh the expenses and the benefits, in a community of 3,000 people in a township of 4,800, a dedicated municipal police service isn’t affordable.
Councillor Trevor Seip thanked Brown for his comments and said his concerns were exactly why council is looking at three different options: OPP coverage for the entire municipality, Wingham police coverage for the entire municipality, or maintaining the existing policing services.
“The costing for the police service hasn’t been looked at since amalgamation,” Seip said. “There has been no change in service since then .... We have to look at all the services we provide and ask, ‘are they sustainable?’ Council has asked for all the alternatives. We don’t want to subsidize one ward for another.”
Hill, taking to the podium a second time, asked if the North Huron Police Service Board meetings could be moved to Wingham Town Hall so the meetings could be broadcast similar to council meetings.
Seip, who sits on the police services board, responded, saying he has already placed that issue on the next police board agenda, saying he wants the meetings moved for the same reason.
Brian Rintoul also had queries involving the Wingham Police Department, asking about specific incidents.
Rintoul asked about “walkabouts” performed by the police. He said that while it was claimed there was an on-the-ground police presence provided by the Wingham Police Department, local business owners hadn’t seen it.
Seip said the foot patrol isn’t done when business owners are in their shop because that isn’t when the service is most needed.
“The foot patrolling is at night,” he said. “The foot patrol is not there during day hours.”
Seip explained that, among other services, the police are checking to make sure businesses are secure during the patrol.
Blyth ratepayer Gary van Leeuwen asked council what was being done to address his perceived housing stock shortage in the village of Blyth.
“I’ve spoke with someone [who was] approached about selling their house,” he said. “One of the employees of Cowbell came to ask. I’m not sure there is much building stock left in the village.”
Agricultural homes are also disappearing, van Leeuwen said, as farmers expand their operations by buying additional farmland.
“Is there a good plan council is going to put in place to keep homes available for 25 years?”van Leeuwen asked.
Vincent said he couldn’t provide a name, but said someone was looking at developing between 40 and 50 houses at the north end of the village.
Weber acknowledged the development, but couldn’t speak to it. North Huron Chief Administrative Officer Dwayne Evans said township staff is working on the development.
Another concern van Leeuwen shared was a potential shortage of business properties, referencing Blyth’s recent commercial boom.
“[Are lands] being set aside for businesses that want to move to town?” he asked, pointing to the fact that Tim Hortons and Blyth Cowbell Brewing Company developments in Central Huron.
He also identified rumours of a new hotel potentially being built in Central Huron as another example.
Vincent said there is one 16-acre lot zoned for industrial development in Blyth and van Leeuwen asked if council was promoting that space as available.
“The township does not own that property,” Vincent said. “[A developer] would have to go through private owners for a business [to use it]. If asked, council definitely says there is industrial land available in Blyth.”
Hill asked individual council members whether they would forego their meeting stipends as a means of encouraging volunteerism in the community.
“I’m wondering if council would give up their $1,000 a month paycheque for council attendance,” he asked.
Council members didn’t think that was a fair ask of them.
Vincent said it wasn’t just to ask anyone to give up the relatively small remuneration for the significant amount of time being a council member takes. He said he works 30 hours a week between responsibilities for Huron County Council and North Huron Township Council.
Seip felt the same, saying he didn’t run for council for the pay but to provide a voice for the public.
He said that, for the amount of time council members spend on the job, the pay wasn’t as much as Hill may believe it is.
Seip said he wouldn’t request any change to the remuneration formula.
Jason Schiestel asked about the North Huron Museum in Wingham and the details on the $3.8 million pricetag for rehabilitating the structure entailed.
Director of Recreation and Facilities Pat Newson explained that the report dealt with bringing the building up to code as well as costs to operate it as a museum.
She pointed to the fact that the entire structure doesn’t have central temperature control, instead relying on window air conditioner units to maintain temperatures for artifacts.
After queries from the audience were exhausted, Seip asked what council needed to do to encourage more feedback from the municipality.
Seip asked what would encourage more public engagement through meetings like the town hall one.
Schiestel said he would ask for it to be later. The meeting started at 6 p.m., which he said was difficult to attend after having left work at 5 p.m.
Councillor Brock Vodden said he receives significant feedback from ratepayers when he is out in the community, saying he likely talks to more people in his daily trips to the post office than he would at any meeting.
Vodden’s statement led van Leeuwen to ask if there was any kind of record kept of the conversations that happen away from official forums such as the town hall meeting.
“Every conversation I have in regards to a service or an issue is passed on to senior management or staff,” Seip said. “I don’t keep a log, as not all conversations are constructive, but if there is an issue I hear about, I pass it to the staff [member] it should go to.”
Vodden said there are too many questions and conversations to keep track of but if there are numerous people asking about the same thing, he takes note.
Primarily, Vodden said, he directs people to fill out the online forms out for issues that go directly to staff.