In-person municipal services centres will remain open — for now.
Despite a report recommending the closure of several municipal service centres in Chatham-Kent, the municipality will retain in-person services for the foreseeable future.
During a recent council meeting, Chatham-Kent Council discussed the customer service review report, which had recommended shutting down underutilized service centres in Dresden, Ridgetown and Tilbury. The report also suggested closing municipal information desks in Wheatley, Thamesville, and Bothwell.
Although council supported moving a handful of municipal services online, many also agreed face-to-face services are a vital part of communities — especially rural ones.
“People still want in-person services,” said Councillor Melissa Harrigan. “Digitizing service and giving people digital options is really important, but we still have a few more decades before everybody is fully comfortable with doing things online. As we transition and expand our digital service delivery, it is really important to continue to have some form of face-to-face contact.”
Harrigan entered a successful amendment asking municipal service desks to be a mandatory consideration in any community where a service centre was recommended for closure.
“We still have a few more decades before everybody is fully comfortable with doing everything online,” she said. “As we transition and we expand our digital service delivery, it’s really important that we continue to have some form of face-to-face contact.”
The councillor said these service desks could be located elsewhere, such as in an arena or library, but would still allow for in-person service. She added the public is more concerned with losing the ability to walk in somewhere rather than the specific building it’s located in.
Mayor Darrin Canniff agreed and said while it might change how it’s delivered, there will be face-to-face services in each community.
“Council talked about how important that was, and everyone agreed. That is extremely important to maintain that presence in each and every community in Chatham-Kent,” he said.
Canniff added it would likely take an entire generation before everyone in the community becomes comfortable and accustomed to using online services.
The issue of potentially closing municipal service centres is one that many local residents are passionate about. During a council meeting last month, more than 100 public deputations took place on the issue.
It took municipal staff more than two hours that night to read council the comments opposed to the potential closing of service centres and municipal information desks in Wheatley, Tilbury, Dresden, Thamesville, Bothwell and Ridgetown that includes a plan to sell the buildings.
One local woman also sent a letter to council regarding the importance of maintaining Ridgetown’s Municipal Service Centre.
According to Marlee Robinson, the Ridgetown Centre is vital to the Ridgetown and District community.
“As a senior living south of Morpeth, I have no access to internet broadband. I am not alone with this problem. This means that the option to apply for information, pay dog licence and municipal taxes, etc. is severely limited for some rural taxpayers,” she wrote. “Ridgetown has extremely limited public transportation. How are residents without internet and without a car supposed to avail themselves of basic municipal services?”
Robinson said the local Service Centre staff know residents and are unfailingly helpful and often proactive.
She highlighted assisting with applications for community activities and events, advice on grants and information, direction to local area staff to solve problems are just some of the assistance offered by Service Centre staff.
“Instead of taking away a valuable asset to residents, why not think of expanding services?” she said.
North Kent Councillor Joe Faas said nobody in the community supports closing service centres, adding it would have a lasting detrimental impact.
“We need to pay attention to what the public has told us and go with that,” he said Monday.
However, Councillor Clare Latimer said she agreed with the amendments and supported the motion.
“There has to be access – face-to-face access – in all of our local communities,” she said. “It will look different. It may not be out of the same building.”
Municipal staff will return to council with a report detailing the plans for digital and other alternative services, the costs, and a timeline for when changes would start to be made.
The following are the votes (Councillor Crew was absent):
1. Council endorse the following three pronged approach to improving the delivery of customer services for Chatham-Kent residents and businesses:
a. Digital Service Delivery
Administration be directed to develop detailed implementation plans to transition customer service functions to digital service delivery methods, including:
i. Review and assessment of municipal services which could be offered through online self-serve options, prioritizing services based on frequency of citizen use, operational efficiency, and potential financial savings;
ii. Development of a plan for a single sign-on portal for all online self- serve services to improve citizen experience;
iii. Development of an education plan for citizens to ease the transition to online service, including support and tutorials for online services.
Motion Carried 12 - 5:
Voting Yes - Bondy, Ceccacci, Finn, Hall, Harrigan, Kirkwood-Whyte, Latimer, B. McGregor, C. McGregor, Sulman, Thompson and Mayor Canniff.
Voting No - Authier, Faas, McGrail, Pinsonneault, and Wright.
1 b. Divesting of Underutilized Services
Administration be directed to develop a plan for the closure and divestment of Service Centres based on available alternatives for existing users, highest used facilities, and lowest cost per transaction, with such reductions only occurring following implementation of the transition to digital service delivery and introduction of Municipal Information Desks (MIDs) and/or alternative service options.
c. Alternative Service Options
Administration be directed to implement alternative service delivery options in communities where Service Centres will be reduced
pursuant to this change in customer service delivery, such as:
i. Inclusion of public access within Municipal facilities to allow for online service access by citizens without technology resources or reliable internet connections; and
ii. Alternate locations for pickup of recycling bins or other similar goods; and
iii. Municipal Service Desks be a mandatory consideration in any community where Service Centres are recommended for divestment.
2. Administration be directed to return to Council following development of the plans for the digital delivery service and alternative service options described above, with a report outlining further details, estimated costs, recommended funding sources based on Service Centre divestments, and timelines, for consideration and voting by Council.
Motion Carried 10 - 7:
Voting Yes - Bondy, Ceccacci, Finn, Hall, Harrigan, Kirkwood-Whyte, Latimer, B. McGregor, C. McGregor, Sulman.
Voting No - Authier, Faas, McGrail, Pinsonneault, Thompson, Wright and Mayor Canniff.
3. Council direct administration to only negotiate further extensions of the ServiceOntario Contracts, for both Dresden and Chatham, if the Provincial Government commits to paying Chatham-Kent’s fully burdened costs of operating those services, and otherwise Council direct administration to inform the Province that Chatham-Kent will cease providing these services effective December 31, 2022.
Motion Carried 11 - 6:
Voting Yes - Authier, Bondy, Ceccacci, Finn, Hall, Harrigan, Latimer, B. McGregor, Sulman, Thompson, Mayor Canniff.
Voting No - Faas, Kirkwood-Whyte, McGrail, C. McGregor, Pinsonneault, Wright.
Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News