Cathy Still is seeking a fifth term as mayor of Burk's Falls. Still is filing her nomination papers this month and says the municipality faces major projects in the next term of council. One is creating a new fire hall in conjunction with the Township of Armour and the Township of Ryerson. Still says all three municipalities are seeing growth and for Burk's Falls, that may necessitate creating a third lagoon in order to accommodate new residents. “In the last five years we've had many new homes built and I can only see that continuing,” Still said. She believes the influx of people to the southern end of the Almaguin Highlands is due to baby boomers continuing to retire and looking for a new place to live. However, jobs are also being created in the region. Although the price of housing has increased in the Burk's Falls, Armour and Ryerson area, the value of real estate is nowhere near where homes are priced in Huntsville. “We're finding the jobs are in the region,” she said. “However not everyone can afford to live in Huntsville. But people can work there and live here where our taxes and utilities are also cheaper. And even though our housing prices have gone up, we're still more affordable” than Huntsville. The four-lane highway makes it an easy commute to Huntsville, compared to the former two-lane highway. Even though numerous building permits have been issued in the last five years, Still says there remains a housing shortage locally. There aren't enough rentals to accommodate the number of people looking to move to the community of 1,000. But Burk's Falls has quite a few vacant lots the municipality owns in addition to road allowances. Still says the municipality is assessing what can be sold to potential developers to build affordable housing. Still says Burk’s Falls knew the expanded highway would bode well for the area. It's a major reason why 10 years ago it began to improve its water and sewer line. Growth was coming, she said, and Burk's Falls had to be ready with new and improved infrastructure including a $1.6-million water tower to increase capacity. “Had we done nothing we'd be in a real fix now because we'd have people saying we'd like to come here but you don't have enough water lines,” Still said. “It's why we're also planning for that third lagoon.” As for fire services, the Burk's Falls and District Fire Department sorely needs a new location and it's a project the three municipal councils have to tackle since it's a shared service. Still says the existing fire hall was built in 1975 and is now too small. Although the downtown location on Ontario avenue has enough space to accommodate a new building, Still says it's also a residential area. The three councils agree the new fire hall should also include an ambulance component and it may not be too difficult to acquire the necessary land to put both emergency services to occupy one footprint. The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) has parcels of land to the north and south of Burk’s Falls, property the ministry bought when expanding Highway 11 to four lanes. The MTO no longer needs some of that land, meaning the municipality can buy it back to build in that area. Still is a retired paramedic who worked for the Parry Sound EMS. When she approached the organization about new buildings for the fire department and ambulance at the same site, the service liked it. Still's first experience as a municipal politician was in 2000 as a councillor. She admits to being naive about what municipal politics entailed and thought the job would be easy. “People think anyone can do it because it's one meeting a month,” she said. “Then reality sets in and they see it's way more than that.” Still says navigating and putting together a municipal budget is a major eye-opener. “Ninety per cent of the budget is already spoken for, be it things like DSSAB, ambulance or the OPP,” she said. “That leaves only 10 per cent you can really work with and control to satisfy your ratepayers. When new councillors arrive they say 'I didn't know it was like that.'” During her first term as a councillor she was responsible for the recreation portfolio, as well as a day camp and the local theatre. A couple of her accomplishments was to get a swimming program going under the day camp by getting donations from the local Lions Club and Legion to get a bus that drove kids to nearby Doe Lake to swim during the summer. She was also responsible for helping to build a small skateboard park. The opportunity to run for mayor came in 2006. The then-mayor became ill and was replaced by a councillor. But that councillor had no interest in continuing as mayor and wanted to return as a councillor for the 2006 term. He suggested Still run for the top municipal job and she easily beat another candidate in that election. Still has won the mayoralty twice through acclamation and twice in a race for the top spot. Still recalls that first term as mayor was demanding because she worked day and night shifts as a paramedic and it meant working her elected duties around her full-time work. She says she could not have done her work without the cooperation of her former colleagues who would switch shifts with her when municipal duties called. Looking back, Still says she's been fortunate to have had great town councils to work with in addition to having a “wonderful and very knowledgeable staff.” “We're a small municipality so we don't have things like a planner or grant writer,” she said. “So everyone meshes together.” Still says all the municipality's work is done in-house except for engineering, planning and legal work. In addition to the municipal staff, Still says the three local councils have a positive working relationship. “We share a vision, get along and work together,” she said. “It can be hell if you have one of the councils that don't get along. But we've been very fortunate and over the years there were only a couple of past councils that didn't work well.” An example of that cooperation was several years ago when Burk's Falls agreed to extend its water and sewer line south into Armour so the new Tim Hortons and other developments could become reality in the adjoining municipality. She says these kinds of projects are unlikely to happen if there isn't mutual cooperation. Still says the municipality has learned how to lobby effectively for federal and provincial grants to help with its million dollar-plus projects over the last decade. That lobbying is going to continue and Still has already served notice to newly elected Parry Sound- Muskoka Progressive Conservative MPP Graydon Smith that she'll be calling on him. “I've already told him we need an extension at the local health centre and we're going to be looking at a nurse practitioner-led clinic to solve the doctor shortage for people,” she said. Still and Smith know each other well. Smith is the mayor of Bracebridge and both have sat on numerous hospital-related committees. Going after and succeeding at getting senior government grants has helped Burk's Falls pursue those projects while keeping tax increases to a minimum. The municipality, she said, has been good at holding taxes to one or two per cent raises, although this year has been an exception because of the sudden spike with inflation. And she adds the municipality has also started to work again to build a reserve fund. Still says she's looking forward to serving another term as mayor and being part of the ongoing growth in the region. Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget