NORTH PERTH – As it approaches 14 months of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and he contemplates the progress in his third year as mayor of North Perth, Todd Kasenberg took a timeout for an online chat with the Listowel Banner on April 25.
“The housing situation is insane,” he said early in the conversation. “I should be comforted that we’re not alone – all around us it’s bad too – but I’m not. We have to find some reasonable actions to make it possible for our young people to stay in town or come back to town after they have gone away to school.”
Kasenberg acknowledged that it has gotten to the point where it takes three incomes to own a home in this area.
“Is it time for polygamy?” he said in jest. “There’s my joke but this is bad. We’ve gotten ourselves into a really bad place from a housing market perspective and it’s hurting people. That frustrates me. Maybe I’m just a little bit of a soft-hearted man in that I don’t like seeing people hurt.”
He pointed out there are actions that governments can take and some are trying but not fast enough.
“We were not prescient enough,” said Kasenberg. “We did not look ahead enough to see this kind of problem on our horizon and it was bad before COVID started but it’s got exaggerated by COVID because we’ve got people coming out of GTA and out of Waterloo Region continuing the migration west. It’s wreaking havoc on local real estate markets.”
He said committees have been established and many groups are working on various parts of the problem from homelessness to full housing in local market environments.
“There is a lot of energy being put forward right now but we need to move past ideological considerations, political considerations about how public money gets spent and start doing something about it – not just talking about it,” said Kasenberg. “I think we get caught up in the definitions and I see people busily correcting each other over the words affordable, attainable, rentable – there are all these words.”
He said the goal needs to be to make sure that every individual and every family has the circumstances to be able to afford a roof over their heads and still eat at the end of the month without going to the food bank.
“That’s the goal,” said Kasenberg. “I don’t care what you want to call it. I have to admit to being a little frustrated and colleagues correct me. I don’t care what you want to call it. I just remember the outcome and the outcome is to make sure that people are properly housed and appropriately housed.”
He said that the situation is many local workers at factories such as Eerie Meats, LTI or Spinrite are making between $17 to $19.50 per hour and they end up spending 60 or 70 per cent of their net income on just the housing component.
“That is what the market has created, if not worse than that,” said Kasenberg. “I might even be a little modest in my estimate. It could be at the point where to have housing in this market they are spending 70 or 80 per cent of their total take-home revenue. That can’t happen.”
He asked when do people get the opportunity to live if they are working more than full-time hours.
“That’s what we have to start asking ourselves,” he said. “Are we creatures who are just in existence to work to put a roof over our head? I don’t like that scenario. I don’t think that’s a healthy, fruitful quality of life. We need to do something about this.”
He repeated his point that it’s complicated politically and emphasized that there are ideologies that get in the way of using public money, public means, public resources to take action in the housing market.
“I came into the mayorship with a healthy head of grey hair,” said Kasenberg. “By the time my mayorship is done it will be white, and housing is one of the significant reasons why that’s the case. I feel many times like I’m Don Quixote. I’m raging against windmills.”
Despite that, he said he is still excited by the job of being mayor.
“I find myself still filled with passions about some of the causes that I’m committed to but I’m also a little bit more realistic this far in about what can be done and the pace at which change occurs,” he said. “I’m also becoming increasingly aware that you never stop learning in the role. There is always something that’s going to catch you by surprise and that you didn’t know but you needed to learn.”
Kasenberg is glad people have been patient with that learning curve.
“I’m a little bit anxious,” he said. “I feel that the agenda I entered into office with has been significantly slowed by the pandemic and I wish it weren’t so. I realize time is not working in my favour on some of those big weighty files like broadband internet or affordable housing. They are just things it takes time to do and the pandemic swamps a lot of that away.”
On the subject of rural broadband, he said he believes the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) project is an amazing initiative and he is very grateful to serve on the board representing the interests of Perth County.
Having said that, he was not personally involved in the decision to award funding to several projects in the Elma Township recently.
“It’s part of the SWIFT procurement process not to involve the local councillor in the procurement for their area to maintain objectivity,” said Kasenberg. “So as much as it would be a pleasure to say ‘yes, I did that,’ it’s only in so far as the SWIFT mechanism was well framed and formulated and allowed for quality proposals to be reviewed and acted upon by SWIFT.”
Even with the recent awarding of funding for projects in Elma, he acknowledges there is still a lot of work to do to bring broadband to all of North Perth.
“Elma Township was one of the big winners in the SWIFT awards in Perth County and certainly I’m grateful for that,” said Kasenberg. “The one that was left behind was Wallace and that’s a frustration because I’m the mayor of all of North Perth. I knew coming into this SWIFT process that we weren’t going to get all of North Perth done. That’s just unrealistic given the number of funds. We need 10 times the funds that have been allocated in this phase of the SWIFT project but we’ve got some progress.”
He said that conversations are continuing regarding fibre to the home in Wallace.
“About the Xplornet investment locally – I think we’re hopeful that will improve circumstances for some but at the same time the gold standard remains fibre to the home,” said Kasenberg. “We’ve learned through the pandemic how important it is to have fairly generous bandwidth and we know that farming is a changing business and Wallace is predominantly a farming ward.”
Kasenberg said that people tend to judge whether budgets are ambitious on capital investments. He still thinks North Perth has an ambitious 2021 budget even if it’s more in line with the kind of expenditures made a few years ago.
“The last two years, I think, have been particularly ambitious,” he said.
“We’ve had projects that are carryovers. They were so ambitious they needed two seasons to do and we’re continuing to see that. Right now, for example, Line 84 continues – this season of construction should bring that to an end. The same with the Albert Avenue drain project.”
He said there are projects with significant allocations in the 2021 budget such as the Atwood corridor renewal, but that one depends on collaboration with the Ontario government.
“The province has expressed an indication that it has a desire to repave pretty much from Line 84 to Newry,” said Kasenberg. “So it’s a significant public works initiative and our plan all along was to try to take advantage of the province’s start to do some of the capital things we’d like to do in Atwood which includes water service upgrades, stormwater management and dealing with streetscape work.”
He gets the sense that project might be a 2022 initiative because of the partnership with the province and the availability of contractors.
“That latter is an important piece,” said Kasenberg. “We’re finding that contractors have been pretty busy and they continue to be pretty busy and we need more available to us to do some of the big public works projects we have.”
He also pointed out the cost of materials isn’t helping. The surge in the cost of wood affects all construction projects of all types.
Despite that, he said some tenders have been pretty favourable and have been under budget at both the North Perth and county level, but some of the tenders have been shocking.
“I think COVID creates an opportunity of extremes,” said Kasenberg. “I’m pretty optimistic there are several projects we are going to get done this year and the carryover stuff is going to get done as well.”
Looking ahead, he sees that the community has a lot of capital projects that need to be considered in the next four or five years.
“Not the least of which is a Listowel downtown corridor renewal,” said Kasenberg. “It’s a project that most of us don’t mutter about too often because it is enormous in terms of scope. But there is every indication we need to start having serious conversations about planning for a downtown renewal project that goes well beyond… the Community Improvement Program and the Façade Improvement Program – they pale in comparison to what has to happen in our downtown. We need new roads. We need new sewers. We need new sidewalks. We need a lot of stuff happening in the downtown area and it’s enormously expensive.”
One of the capital expenditures in the 2021 budget which he feels will help plan for future project is the Transportation Master Plan.
“It will allow us to set the course for what comes next,” said Kasenberg. “I know there is a 70-plus year history of trying to do a truck bypass in Listowel. At times it was politically inopportune but we’ve come to a point where even in terms of our recovery from COVID, I think we need to continue to focus our efforts on getting trucks out of our downtown and making our downtown a more hospitable, pedestrian-friendly, shopping-oriented environment… That too is going to be really expensive. I’m just squirming about the costs at times. It just feels challenging to figure out how we are going to afford the things that have to happen.”
On top of the downtown renewal, he also pointed out that Listowel needs a new pool and he would like to see progress on the community hub.
“I’m optimistic about that project,” he said. “I think that there are enough players who are interested and of goodwill that have decided to come to the table and advance discussions that we will see some progress on that particular file.”
He also said some interesting projects are being brought forward for consideration in North Perth such as the Agricultural Science Centre.
“I know that we have to be and will be practical people about how we achieve those and in what order, and some may fall off the drawing board but I know that we will work towards wise choices,” said Kasenberg.
Another project he hears about often when talking to residents is a dog park.
“The dog park got raised in the survey of what to do with the arena area in Listowel Memorial Park,” he said. “The number of times it was raised prompted council to hear a message that this community aspires to have a dog park. We can find reasons for and against doing it… I find myself balancing those pros and cons too but given the broad appeal and the fact that people injected that idea into the process of trying to determine appropriate use of a space that is considered… significant in the life of our community is interesting to me.”
He did say that when a dog park was suggested for the Listowel Memorial Arena location many residents were offended.
“They thought it was disrespectful to what happened at that site,” said Kasenberg. “But that said, what it represented to me was the pent-up demand that continues for a dog park in this community.”
With some of the arguments against a dog park being that people won’t properly supervise their dogs, he believes there is an interesting message to deliver that people need to own their responsibilities in the community and that it relates to how people are acting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I mean with COVID, we need people to own their responsibilities to do what is right,” said Kasenberg. “To do what Public Health has asked us to do because we are in a community and we should love our neighbour and so we all have a part to play in this. One of the concerns that get raised often with a dog park is the same thing – will owners be careless and let the dogs off the leash and stand at the fence playing with their phones.”
He repeated that people need to own their responsibilities in these community situations.
“If we have a dog park it’s going to have to be one of those attended dog parks where the owner must stay with the dog,” said Kasenberg. “We can’t escape that we live in a time where people are calling for their freedoms and they are calling for various services and they want restrictions removed, but we have responsibilities as citizens to do our part to make our community as vibrant and safe as possible. That is the piece of the puzzle to remind people about. With any of these things we’ve been talking about there comes risk and there comes responsibility that has to be appropriately encouraged."
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner