Council Meeting Report for May 5, 2020: Well-reasoned discussion, except perhaps on Truck 23

by Theresa Peluso

On the whole, this meeting was well-run, with constructive questions and comments from Council, although I would disagree with one of Council’s decisions.  But then, not having run for Council, I am unable to share my words of wisdom at these meetings, and so I am left to save them for this column….

The first item on the agenda was a report from the Department of Recreation and Culture, presented by Recreation Director Calvin Murphy.  The report outlined a new Adopt-a-Park policy proposed by this department, with the intention of implementing it once the pandemic emergency rules end.  Recreation Director Murphy explained that he and his staff had done extensive research to prepare this policy, studying comparable policies by other municipalities and getting legal advice.  He also pointed out that, while some parks and gardens in Mississippi Mills were well-tended by volunteers, others were not, and he hoped this policy would help to correct that problem.

It seems that following publication of this meeting agenda, both Council and staff have been hearing from many of the volunteers who would be affected by this policy.  These volunteers help because they enjoy the demanding and constant, but rewarding work – nurturing plants of all kinds, managing the threats of weeds, drought, and disease, and taking pride in the beauty and bounty of the flowers, fruits and foliage they’ve tended. These volunteers also enjoy a sense of community and friendship in working with others and sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm.  Quite a number of these volunteers have invested many, many hours of their lives over many years to making our community’s parks and gardens flourish.

These volunteers have made a point of keeping the Municipality informed of their activities, but are now concerned that this new policy, with its many rules, conditions, restrictions, training, schedules, and police checks, will discourage people from participating.  Quite a few of these gardeners are members of local horticultural societies and committees.

Following Recreation Director Murphy’s presentation, several Councillors had comments about the proposed policy. Councillor Cynthia Guerard said that people had told her the policy was too complicated, but she did feel that a policy of some kind was needed. Deputy Mayor Rickey Minnille also said he found this policy overly complex, and hoped this new policy would not discourage volunteers.  Mayor Christa Lowry, acting as Chairperson, suggested that a motion be put forward to defer acceptance of this policy to the next Council meeting on May 19, to allow proper input from the Beautification Working Group and the Almonte and Pakenham horticultural societies.  This motion was duly made and unanimously approved.

People understand that these kinds of policies are becoming more and more prevalent – and are often mandated –, as jurisdictions try to protect themselves from lawsuits and other legal complications.  Although there is merit to having policies that define the purpose and scope of various municipal activities, it is really important to temper the regulations so that volunteers don’t feel hobbled by them. Assuming the municipality requests input from the affected volunteers, I’m sure all parties will be able to reach some compromise that enables the municipality to fulfill its legal obligations while giving these volunteers the freedom to participate as they wish.

The Recreation and Culture report was followed by a report by Dan Cousineau, Facilities/Health and Safety Coordinator, on a draft Volunteer Policy (clearly along the same lines as the Recreation and Culture policy).  CAO Ken Kelly explained that this Volunteer Policy is meant to fill in any gaps left by other municipal policies, and is intended to ensure safety for all those involved in volunteer activities by detailing the who-what-how-etc. of organizing and implementing projects involving volunteers, including what procedures to follow if someone gets hurt.  (Part of the procedure consists of signing a waiver to ensure coverage by the municipality – unless you happen to be over 80 years old, in which case you’re out of luck!)

CAO Kelly also said that, in the case of emergency activities organized by the municipality (such as sandbagging to prevent flooding), volunteers would have different coverage by the municipality, under the Health and Safety Policy.

Following questions by the Councillors, it was learned that this Policy covers only activities specifically organized by Mississippi Mills (e.g., Canada Day), and not general programs like Pitch-In.  Council voted to defer acceptance of this Policy to the May 19 Council meeting to allow more time for revisions.

The policy presentations were followed by the Roads and Public Works Report given by Acting Director Dave Armstrong.  This included a request to extend the road-salt tender (prepared jointly with Lanark County) – at a reduced rate – for another year.  Councillor John Dalgity asked if we were committed to using a predefined quantity of salt as part of this contract.  I thought his question was very astute, given that last winter a number of creeks in the Ottawa River watershed were found to contain higher-than-acceptable levels of chloride as a result of road salt run-off, potentially poisoning aquatic organisms.  Clearly, we need to avoid using salt on our icy roads if at all possible to protect our watershed.

R&PW Acting Director Armstrong explained that there were no such limits on road salt use – but also mentioned that 2,300 tonnes of salt were used last winter – which is far too much salt, in my opinion.  Last winter, Mississippi Mills spent nearly $300,000 on road salt, nearly three times as much as they spent on sand.  It’s not clear what ratio of sand to salt was used.

The bulk of the meeting was spent in a long, tortuous discussion about whether to proceed with refurbishing a damaged dump/plow truck (already owned by the municipality) (hereinafter referred to as Truck 23) and fund these repairs with an insurance payout for the damage in the amount of nearly $207,000.

R&PW Acting Director Armstrong, supported by R&PW Mechanic Ben Kipp and CAO Kelly, put forth many compelling reasons to repair Truck 23: For one thing, it would be quicker and less expensive to make this truck ready to operate, than to order a new one from the main supplier in the USA (at least double the cost to buy new, plus a likely high exchange rate, and a minimum one-year wait (due to backlogs caused by the pandemic)). Apparently, without this truck, R&PW will be stretched to the limit when it comes to snow-clearing, so any delay in getting a new truck could present problems.  Plus, another of the plow trucks in R&PW’s fleet is on its last legs – or rather, wheels. Also, as with all new purchases, there was always the risk that R&PW would pay an enormous sum of money, and end up with a dud. Likewise, a used truck, if R&PW took that route to save money, would result in the same uncertainty.

R&PW Acting Director Armstrong was also of the opinion that, although Truck 23 had sustained considerable damage and had been written off by the insurance company, its engine (the most important element) was still in great condition, and had a lot of life left in it (another 12 to 15 years).  Several members of Council had viewed the truck as well, to form their own assessment.

There were many good questions, and it seemed that many Councillors were concerned about putting money into a truck that had been technically written off.  They also felt it would be cheaper to contract out any necessary extra snow-plowing, and to put most of the insurance money into the Reserve Fund.  Mayor Lowry and Councillor Denzil Ferguson were concerned that contracting out our plowing would create many uncertainties with respect to expense, service quality and timeliness of plowing, and wanted to proceed with repairing Truck 23.  When the time came to vote, five members of Council voted against repairing Truck 23, and Mayor Lowry and Councillor Ferguson in favour.

I myself feel this decision was penny wise and pound (dollar) foolish, because it created far too many unknowns.  Assuming that our R&PW mechanics and engineers have the qualifications and experience to assess the road-worthiness of their vehicles, Council really should have heeded their advice.  We shall see the results of this decision this winter.

The remaining significant agenda item was Treasurer Rhonda Whitmarsh’s third Interim Report on the financial implications of Covid-19.  It appears that our municipality is continuing to lose the normal expected revenues because of the pandemic, but is still managing all right.  Treasurer Whitmarsh then presented three options regarding billing residents for the 2020 municipal taxes, that would take into account any financial hardship resulting from the current situation.  The third option – to waive any interest and penalties for unpaid taxes until the end of this year (anticipated to affect only 15 percent of taxpayers) – was her preferred choice, and it was unanimously approved.

In summary, this meeting went well, and except (in my personal opinion) for the outcome for Truck 23, all the decisions showed a good understanding of the matters up for discussion.