PAB makes annual trek to St. John's

PORT AUX BASQUES — Two weeks ago, municipalities across the province sent representatives to St. John’s for meetings with department ministers about concerns and issues they have moving into 2023. Andrew Parsons, Minister of Industry, Energy and Technology helped facilitate meetings for his district.

“For a number of years now, the town has come to St. John’s to meet face-to-face with cabinet members and departments. In this case, over the last two days, they met with Gerry Byrne, Krista Howell’s department, Steven Crocker’s, Derrick Bragg’s, Tom Osborne’s, John Abbott’s. They met with Environment. Also, they met with the Premier, so they had meetings with multiple departments,” said Parsons.

The meetings focused on many topics, including the most obvious.

"A lot of Fiona discussion across the departments because a lot of people have an involvement,” said Parsons. “We had conversations on everything: coastal erosion, vulnerable areas, the effects of consolidation of the health board and how that’s going to affect us, healthcare in general in terms of doctor and nurse retention, housing opportunities as it relates to NL Housing, tourism. Whether it’s the T’Railway or tourism opportunities, RCMP. It was a whole wide range of conversations. My biggest job was to be the facilitator. I speak to these people all the time and advocate, but it’s really nice for the towns to be able to do this.”

There wasn't a meeting scheduled with the Premier Furey, but once he found out PAB was there he made time to meet with the representatives to see how the town and region were faring almost three full months after Hurricane Fiona.

“He was more concerned, knowing we were in meetings with Ministers, for us to come up so he could see how things are going, get some updates about what was happening around town and our thoughts on it,” said Button. “He was more concerned about how everybody was doing, residents onward, and we chatted about a couple of things on how things are progressing.”

The town met with nine separate ministers over the course of two days.

“We were in pretty much every department. We started in Justice with Minister Hogan. Minister Hogan has been a chair for the committee responding to Fiona and we had a good chat with him on various items, the demolitions. We talked about vulnerable spots and what that means. We had a pretty lengthy conversation,” said Button.

After that was Municipal Affairs, which focused on the town budget, planning, and Fiona. They also spoke with Minister Elvis Loveless with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

“We spoke to him as well regarding the TCH, planned changes in Town. I spoke to him about the overpass and their plans to remove it. It’s currently weight restricted. They did have plans to remove it at some point in time, but we did ask them to find alternatives or replace it in some way, shape, or form,” said Town Manager Leon MacIsaac.

Port aux Basques has earmarked about $15 million for infrastructure work in 2023, and that figure does not include the $20 million estimate for repairs related to Fiona.

“Like anybody who talks about the highway conditions and stuff, we had a lengthy conversation surrounding that as well. During the disaster as well, Transportation has been on the ground here, taking over some of the projects as if it were a transportation piece, so we did talk about that as well and the work that got done and what we will see in the future," added Button.

One of the major topics discussed was Marine Atlantic cost recovery.

“We discussed it with Minister Gerry Byrne,” said Button. “We talked about immigration and the shortage of workers, but we had a lengthy conversation as well when it comes to Marine Atlantic and talking about the federal government subsidy that’s given to them and the cost recovery. It was a fair conversation we had with him regarding it.”

Marine Atlantic's federally mandated cost recovery has long been a thorn in the side of Port aux Basques council, but despite years of effort there has been no policy change or reduction from Ottawa.

“He’s pretty knowledgeable about the constitutional agreements and the ships entering and leaving the harbour as well as the immigration piece as well,” said MacIsaac.

While in conversation with the Minister of Health, specific issues plaguing LeGrow as well as the province were covered.

“We met with Minister Osborne as well and we discussed everything from the delivery of services here at LeGrow Centre. We talked about nurse and doctor recruiting, which is very important to us. We had a lengthy discussion with Minister Osborne and his staff on things for Port aux Basques. I think we will be seeing some positive things that may be coming,” said Button. “It was a very positive meeting.”

Even though the town may not have the ability to provide a financially robust retention and recruitment plan like Stephenville, it has plenty to offer potential healthcare workers in this region.

“We’re having conversations now, working with administrative people here, and looking at ways. We’re doing some things, but we may not be in the aggressive mode that Stephenville is, and sometimes I question how you can do all that, but we have had talks about things we might be able to do which would be very proactive as well,” said Button.

With Fiona still at the forefront of many conversations, certain issues that were exacerbated by the storm were discussed at length.

“We spoke to Minister Abbott, talking about the housing, because housing is a big piece for us right now,” said Button. “We’ve all come out of it with some agreements on things we want to take a look at moving forward. We’ve got some consultants that are being hired to look at things around the housing piece and that department will be working with us through that.”

Aside from the lack of housing, there's still the matter of homes left standing, unable to be demolished.

“We can't take down the homes because they are in the process of being assessed by assessors and until it’s signed off both by the province and the homeowners, that everything is done with the homes and the assessor is no longer needed and the resident is okay with it, we can’t take down a home,” said Button. “We’ve just released several homes now for tender for demolition.”

The storm also damaged existing infrastructure, causing extensive leaks that must be tracked down and repaired.

“We are losing litres of water that we shouldn’t be. We have isolated a number of them, but there is still a large volume that’s going out and we don’t know where (the leak) is to, and we’re hoping that it can be fixed because if can’t be fixed it has to be replaced,” said Button.

“We did have residents reach out to the Town to tell us of a few areas where we were able to identify some leaks, maybe not the big ones that we’re looking for, but we appreciate any resident that is going around. These things can be hidden, might be going into a storm drain or whatever."

The possibility of significant wind development on the Southwest coast is also on the Town's radar.

“We were entertained by a number of different companies interested in hydrogen, as were other municipalities. We know they visited Stephenville and different areas of the island for energy, down on the Burin Peninsula, Central, in around Botwood. They have been here trying to get a feel for how we feel about wind energy,” said MacIsaac.

“We’re all for any kind of development that brings in jobs to the economy. Even if it happens in a town that’s adjacent to us, everyone benefits on the Southwest coast. I would hope that we are on the forefront there somewhere. The land's available, and we’re eager. Everyone would love to see jobs here.”

Fortesque is one of the more prominent companies involved.

“We’ve had the opportunity to sit and meet with them," said Button. "It’s been quiet now for a little bit because of the procedures going on with government, the new year. Before Fiona, we talked to several companies."

“The more energy projects, the better, as long as it doesn't disturb too much of the natural environment,” added MacIsaac.

Overall they believe the meetings were beneficial.

“Although Fiona has become number one priority, we still had other priorities that we had in the pressure cooker and we don’t want them to get lost in all of this, so it was a good opportunity to talk with different departments,” said Button.

Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wreckhouse Weekly News