Council Meeting Report for March 17, March 30 and April 7, 2020:  Coping with Month One of the Covid-19 Crisis

by Theresa Peluso

Neither ice storm nor floods, nor pandemics stay our municipal Councillors and staff from the performance of their appointed duties.  Needless to say, all residents depend heavily on their local government to ensure that essential needs are met, especially during difficult times such as this.  Agendas of the Council meetings can be found on the municipal website and recordings can be found here.

March 17 meeting

The day following the Province’s announcement on March 12 that all publicly-funded schools would close as of March 23 to minimize spread of Covid-19, Mayor Christa Lowry announced that, effective March 16, the municipality would close its daycare, recreation and cultural facilities, and cancel all municipally-run events and programs, all private functions held in municipal facilities, and all advisory committee meetings.  This decision was made in consultation with senior staff, and without consulting any other members of Council.

An excellent account of the March 17 meeting has been written by Reporter Ashley Kulp.

In summary, Deputy Mayor Rickey Minnille, supported by a majority of councillors, requested an emergency meeting, which was held on March 17 (the regular meeting scheduled for that day was cancelled) to discuss Mayor Lowry’s announcement.  He and the other five councillors had no objections to Mayor Lowry’s decision to implement an emergency plan, but all of them were concerned about the decision process because they were not consulted beforehand, especially since they were already in the municipal building around the time that Mayor Lowry made her announcement. Each Council member in turn, calmly explained their position on this issue with very cogent arguments.Mayor Lowry said that because the decision to close municipal facilities was related to operations, there was no need to consult with Council; her statement was backed by CAO Ken Kelly.  She also pointed out that the mayors of most of the neighbouring municipalities had acted as she had done – without consulting the other members of Council.  Deputy Mayor Minnille made the point that just because other mayors didn’t consult with councillors, it didn’t justify Mayor Lowry’s approach.  Further on during this meeting, a request for the Deputy Mayor to take up a position on the Emergency Control Group was refused by CAO Kelly and Mayor Lowry.

The result of the meeting was that all Councillors agreed their concerns needed to be dealt with by updating the Municipal Emergency Control Group plan and by-laws, and by being provided with more information, inclusion and training.  My impression, on listening to the recording of this meeting, is that there was an earnest desire on the part of the Deputy Mayor and Councillors to fulfill their mandate as our representatives and share in these very important decisions.  Although Mayor Lowry maintained that her decision to act without consulting Council was justified, perhaps, in the end, she did realize that it should have been done differently.

March 30 meeting

This meeting was well run, despite numerous technical glitches.  It was all the more critical because of the announcement just two days previously, of a Covid-19 outbreak at one of the long-term care homes in Almonte, which as foreseen by our Health Officer, Dr. Paula Stewart, has exploded.

My over-riding impression was that all of Council were earnestly searching for ways to ease the financial and emotional burdens of residents, without unnecessarily imposing additional costs on the municipality.

For residents of Almonte, it was decided to provide some leeway, on a case-by-case basis, to residents affected by lay-offs and business losses caused by the pandemic, regarding payment of their water bills.  In addition, it was agreed to increase the number of garbage bags for free curbside collection from one to two, for the duration of the provincial emergency, while also stressing the need to recycle when possible.  This was partly because the new self-isolation/physical-distancing/ requirements make it difficult for residents to buy bag tags (which can be used for extra garbage bags); partly because now (as a result of being housebound) people have all kinds of time to clean and declutter their homes; and partly because the Hub and Rebound are now closed and can’t take donations of used items.  Councillor Bev Holmes also commented that residents might end up dumping excess garbage in the ditches if tags were hard to obtain.  Councillors Jan Maydan and Holmes asked for updates in one month’s time on the financial impacts of these decisions.

Council also received an update on the decisions by the Municipal Emergency Control Group (MECG) (which includes Fire Chief Chad Brown and the Lanark OPP, Lanark County Paramedic Service, social services, Ottawa River Power Corporation, Almonte General Hospital and the Medical Officer of Health with the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit).

The decision to implement an Emergency Plan for Mississippi Mills was the result of the following:

  • the Federal Government’s decision on March 25 to implement the Quarantine Act for residents returning to Canada from outside the country;
  • the Province’s request two days later for all municipalities to assist police in applying these restrictions; and
  • an assessment by the EMCG of the seriousness of the situation in Mississippi Mills and of the resources available to implement the Emergency Plan, the details of which were shared by Mayor Lowry with Council.

Council agreed that municipal staff, pursuant to being provided with appropriate training and equipment, would communicate these restrictions to residents, with fines imposed by our by-law officers and the chief building official, as well as enforcement by the OPP, as a last resort.  Council also agreed to make municipal buildings available for pandemic-related uses if needed.

Councillor Cynthia Guerard reminded Council and staff of the need to ensure that the Emergency Plan was communicated both through electronic means and more traditional means (mailings and phone calls) to ensure that all residents were informed.  In the meantime, CAO Kelly said that staff were keeping track of developments, stopping misinformation about the Covid-19 virus, and helping out the Food Bank.  He has also asked for more clarification from the Province about the municipality’s role in implementing the Emergency Plan.

Municipal Clerk Jeanne Harfield then requested that Council appoint a temporary Deputy Clerk (this position is currently not filled), and that Mississippi Mills Treasurer Rhonda Whitmarsh be assigned this additional role while the pandemic restrictions were in place.  This was quickly passed.

It was clear to me that all Council and staff members had, as their sole goal, to make sure that they were looking after the needs of the whole community, and trying to make the best use of the resources available.

April 7 meeting

The recording of this meeting started rather abruptly (probably the result of a technical glitch), with Councillor John Dalgity requesting, in connection with the pedestrian crossings on Ottawa Street, that modifications be made to a previously approved table of recommendations.  Because of the unwieldiness of these virtual meetings (everything, from comments to votes, has to be done in roll-call form (Member A, then B, then C, etc., and then back to A, then B, etc.,  every time a new step regarding each agenda item is taken)), Councillor Denzil Ferguson asked that the amendments requested by Councillor Dalgity be written down and included in the next Council meeting agenda.  The items from the table of pedestrian crossing recommendations that everyone agreed on were passed, with the rest to be discussed at the April 21 meeting.

The next agenda item involved the conversion of an old fire truck that had been sold by the Mississippi Mills Fire Department to Roads and Public Works for use as a plow truck, which had resulted in a shortfall of $18,000.  In answer to questions about whether the municipality could still afford to cover the shortfall, Treasurer Rhonda Whitmarsh said that the money could come from any funds left in the budget at year-end, or from reserves if required.  This item was passed.

In connection with the agenda item on the extension of seasonal employment contracts, Councillor Bev Holmes asked if the planned hiring of a summer student to help with this year’s wild parsnip management program would be cancelled as a result of the new pandemic rules, to which the answer was yes, because this contract had not been filled before the Emergency Plan had taken effect.

Regarding extension of the municipality’s garbage collection contract with Waste Management Ltd, it was recommended that, because of time constraints, this contract be renewed for one more year.  Councillor Denzil Ferguson asked why our costs were significantly higher than for comparable garbage collection provided to a neighbouring municipality with similar characteristics to Mississippi Mills.  Councillor Jan Maydan asked for staff to conduct a comprehensive review before this contract came up again for renewal. CAO Ken Kelly said that this could be made part of the ongoing municipal service delivery review.  A motion to approve this contract extension and for staff to complete a review of our garbage collection requirements by August of this year was passed unanimously.

Then came the culminating point of this meeting:  the Interim Report on Financial Implications of COVID-19.  Treasurer Rhonda Whitmarsh did an excellent job of summarizing the implications of all the rows and columns of numbers she had prepared.  Treasurer Whitmarsh humanized the numbers, and tried to explain how she was trying to quantify the few knowns and many unknowns resulting from the pandemic’s impacts in her estimates.  She estimated the inflows of capital at somewhere between $1.5 and $2 million, and the outflows of capital at somewhere between $1.3 and $2.5 million, based on historical trends.

The fallout from this pandemic has already been huge.  Significant revenue losses have resulted from the closure of the municipal daycare, recreational and cultural facilities, while, at the same time, staff and maintenance expenses continue to accrue.  Delays and defaults on payment of municipal bills are anticipated, as a result of residents’ loss of income.  And now the Province has put a stop to residential development until further notice, leading to even more losses of revenue.  The municipality has received a number of grants that were applied for earlier, and Treasurer Whitmarsh hoped that the Province would provide some financial support to help municipalities weather this crisis.  The only tools in her belt were to delay planned non-critical capital projects, and reduce and reschedule optional tenders for work.

Councillor Maydan pointed out that the development charges, which form a significant part of our reserves ($2,710,000), and which can only be used for development-related expenses, can legally be applied to fund our libraries, perhaps to help pay for the expansion of the Almonte library branch.

All the Council members expressed their appreciation for Treasurer Whitmarsh’s presentation, and all shared her concern about where this might lead.  They asked for bi-weekly updates, and for certain categories (water and sewer debt, and library expenditures) to be shown separately.  The Treasurer’s report was then approved unanimously.

The meeting ended a little while later.  As with the March 30 Council meeting, all members seemed to be working collaboratively and doing their utmost to make the best of a difficult situation.  This pandemic has been creating a lot of real grief but, at the same time, is bringing out the best in so many people, as we try to get through this, together.