by Theresa Peluso
Report on June 16, 2020, Council Meeting: Long but productive, with some good news
This three-hour-long Council meeting was quite well-run. The length of the meeting was mainly due to the number of items on the agenda – and therefore, my report will be even longer than usual. This time the agenda was published on time, and links to the recording were easy to find.
Municipal Audit Results
There was one deputation by the municipal auditor, Howard Allan from Howard Allan & Partners, who presented the 2019 audit of Mississippi Mills’ financial statements to Council. This included revenues and expenses of the Ottawa River Power Corporation, Ottawa River Energy Solutions Inc. and the Mississippi River Power Corporation.
Surprisingly, our revenues were better than anticipated in our budget, and our expenses were lower than anticipated. Mr. Allan commended Council and staff for adhering to the budget throughout the year. Our net debt, which is modest relative to our total assets, was paid down last year by almost $1 million (from $5.2 to 4.3 million).
In connection with the five-year review and trend-analysis component of his report (somewhat constrained by the unpredictable nature of the Covid-19 impacts), Mr. Allan said that Mississippi Mills’ tax rates were competitive, that our tax arrears continue to decrease (we are among the most successful municipalities in this respect), and that our net financial assets are very low-risk.
Mississippi Mills’ long-term debt is $1.8 million, well under the provincial limit of $4.4 million, and our budget surplus and reserves have increased steadily in the last five years. Mr. Allan gave credit to our Treasurer, Rhonda Whitmarsh, and her staff for their excellent work in managing our finances, and keeping excellent records.
Following Mr. Allan’s deputation, the Building and Planning Department report was discussed, specifically about whether to permit raising hens in settlement dwellings, such as Pakenham, Blakeney, Clayton, Appleton, and Almonte, and all estate-lot subdivisions. The Planner, Niki Dwyer, reported that during the last 90 days she had received 15 requests from residents to change the current bylaw to permit hen-raising.
At first, Planner Dwyer and her staff had concerns about the negative impacts of making this change, but after reviewing the experiences of other municipalities that permit hen-raising, realized that many of their concerns were not borne out in practice. This by-law would specifically exclude keeping roosters and would limit the number of hens permitted to four. The hens could only be used to provide eggs, not meat, and it would be forbidden to sell or give away any eggs or manure from these hens. In addition, there would be specific requirements regarding fencing of the hen yard, and shelter (type of construction and minimum distance from the owner’s property line)), as well as handling of the manure and any deceased animals.
Several Councillors had questions about whether the smell or noise of the hens would bother neighbours, how dead animals would be disposed of, whether the hen feed would attract vermin, and whether there would be specifications to ensure the hen coops were properly insulated to withstand freezing temperatures.
It was decided to defer the decision to the upcoming Committee of the Whole meeting in August to allow time for public input and further discussion.
I was a little puzzled at some of the concerns mentioned. Residents are currently allowed to have bird feeders and pets, which can result in similar concerns (e.g., the presence of food that can attract vermin, noise, and disposal of dead animals). The fact that pets can cause damage to gardens, attack people, and kill wildlife has not resulted in any bylaw restrictions to keeping pets. The fact that hens provide a nutritious, inexpensive source of protein and improve our food security should far outweigh any minor drawbacks.
The Report from Roads and Public Works (R&PW) contained an update on spring observations of wild parsnip growth on municipal roadsides. Acting R&PW Director Dave Armstrong said a few slight changes had been noted, compared with last year’s observations, but it was decided to proceed with the original plan for this year’s spraying routes. Acting R&PW Director Armstrong said that the spraying would take place in July, and that staff would then be sent out again in August to check the results. He mentioned that 80 residents had opted out this year, about half the number that had opted out in 2019.
Prior to the July spraying, all roads are being assessed this month (June), and then again in August and in September – which seems like a lot of unnecessary effort – and will result in a report on these observations to Council in the fall. In view of the fact that there are vast expanses of fields covered in wild parsnip all over our municipality – far from the reach of the spray trucks – why is so much time, money and chemicals being poured into our roadsides to kill the plants there? How much more useful it would be to spend this staff time and energy to educate people on managing their roadsides in an environmentally sustainable way!
Mayor Christa Lowry pointed out that last year, R&PW had sent personal notices to all residents whose roads were being sprayed, whereas this year all notification was through newspaper ads and online messages. She was concerned about residents who had opted out of spraying last year (after receiving the personal notice), and whose roads were slated for spraying again this year. Because they wouldn’t have received a personal notice, they might assume that their road was not to be sprayed, and would be upset to discover otherwise. Mayor Lowry wanted to know if the municipality had any plan to contact these residents. It seems there was none, so after some discussion, it was decided to leave it to staff to reach a solution for notifying these residents.
Budget Process Changes
As part of the Finance and Administration report, Treasurer Whitmarsh proposed changes to the 2021 Budget schedule and process that would ensure the budget was approved on time and provide more opportunities for public input. Essentially it would mean starting the process earlier, in September instead of October, and increasing the number of public and staff meetings and information updates. The motion to accept this change was quickly passed.
Live streaming Council meetings – coming soon!
The next agenda item concerned the return of in-person Council meetings (remember those?) in the Council chambers at the next scheduled meeting in August – and live-streaming (YES!). Because of the new physical-distancing requirements, it will be possible for our Councillors to maintain the appropriate distancing, but not for any of the public who would attend these meetings. Therefore, the element of public participation would be achieved through live-streaming.
To solve this problem, municipal staff have identified a new live-streaming and meeting management software solution called eScribe, which is already being used successfully by many municipalities. For a mere $25,000 initial fee to set up the camera and recording technology and a $23,000 annual fee, you get a user-friendly system that provides closed-captioning, plus links between the agenda items and the recording pertaining to that item. Once this system is installed, reporting on Council meetings will no longer be required because all pertinent information will be readily available to all Mississippi Mills residents. I very much look forward to this move to increased access and accountability!
Interim Report on the Financial Implications of Covid-19
As part of the Interim Report on the Financial Implications of Covid-19 up to June 7, Treasurer Whitmarsh explained that the municipality is still managing, albeit with difficulty, to maintain a stable financial footing despite the impacts of the current situation. Treasurer Whitmarsh will continue to monitor our revenues, deficits and cash flow levels.
Another Push for Broadband Access
The last agenda item concerned garnering support for access to broadband for our municipality. This was in response to a letter sent in early June by Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark to local municipalities, which supported our appeals to the Federal Government for increased funding and access to reliable broadband, as part of the economic recovery, post Covid-19. Local municipalities are appealing to the Province for financial assistance as well. The plan is to fund shovel-ready projects. Some suggestions arising from Council’s discussion were for staff to research and report on information concerning existing Internet service providers and their ability to implement a ready-made solution, and finding out whether the Local Improvement Act could be used to raise funds for the work. Let’s hope that this time our municipality can make this now essential service happen!
The above items are most, not all, of what was discussed at the June 16 Council meeting. For more information, please go to this link: https://www.mississippimills.ca/en/document/document.aspx?param=2Bh08jOBOMjCLQ86X55lA5HLbgeQuAleQuAl .
As this will be my last Council report, I want to thank all those who have encouraged me in this endeavour. Whether or not you found my (opinionated) comments on Council matters helpful, please take the time to follow these Council discussions yourselves. With the new live-streaming software being implemented, you can now take shortcuts to the matters that most concern you, and then decide on your course of action. You never even have to leave the comfort of your living room, and can listen to these discussions at any time you please!
It is especially important, in this era of fake news and demagoguery, to take an active interest in how we are governed, to ensure that we have an inclusive, engaged, and equitable society. We all must do our part.