By Spencer Seymour, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority’s General Manager Ian Wilcox and Board member Tony Jackson joined last Tuesday’s Special Meeting of St. Marys Town Council to discuss the municipality’s proposed contributions to the Authority’s 2021 budget.
Wilcox began by reviewing UTRCA’s 2020 financial results and its impacts on the 2021 budget. Despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, UTRCA did have some successes. He noted that naturalization projects, once permitted, were able to continue, albeit in different forms than usual. Education programs were switched to all-virtual forms but also continued, and stewardship projects were initiated. Wilcox added that, once recreational areas were opened to the public, the response far exceeded expectations.
The financial impacts of COVID were far-reaching, which included layoffs, a reduction in wages, no capital spending, cutting of seasonal positions, and across-the-board expense reductions. These challenges were compounded by the lack of revenue support, including wage subsidies, from senior government. Per Wilcox, it was a credit to UTRCA staff that the 2020 deficit came in at around $60,000 versus the initial projection of $1.3 million.
Wilcox then presented Council with the Authority’s 2021 draft budget, which totals $16.8 million, a slight decrease from last year’s budget. The funding in the draft budget comes from three sources: 55.5 percent from the UTRCA’s generated revenue, 40 percent from Municipal Levies, and 4.5 percent from the Provincial Transfer Payment (though the majority of the provincial amount is set aside for source water protection).
Overall, the amount requested from St. Marys was $126,593, representing a 12 percent reduction from last year. Of the requested money, $93,266 would go to operating costs, an increase of 2.2 percent from last year, but St. Marys’ proposed contribution to the Authority’s capital budget is down from $56,586 to $33,327, a decrease of 36.6 percent.
Following the budget presentation, Wilcox took questions from the Council, the first of which came from Councillor Tony Winter. Referencing the Council’s recent builder and developer roundtable discussion, Winter noted that multiple housing market professionals cited the UTRCA as an impediment to their timelines. Wilcox responded that it isn’t specifically the UTRCA that is a hindrance to these projects as they don’t necessarily come up with the regulations that create a roadblock for developers, but merely enforce those regulations. He stated that conservation authorities are aware there are problems with the regulations. However, the solution to these challenges will require the Province to work with municipalities and conservation authorities to develop more sensible regulations. Wilcox cited the example of some people needing a permit to install a deck as an example of a Provincial regulation that not only hinders the developers but takes time and focus of the conservation authority staff away from bigger-risk projects.
Mayor Al Strathdee then took the floor to speak on an issue with the UTRCA, not connected to the budget directly but as part of an ongoing back-and-forth between the municipality and the Authority. Mayor Strathdee brought up concerns over the environmental targets proposed by the Authority and their cost to municipalities, including a need for more accountability and transparency throughout the process. Strathdee recommended a third-party review of all spending related to the environmental targets. Wilcox responded that there currently no plans for third-party review until after the changes coming from Bill 229 are clear.
Mayor Strathdee raised two other issues, the first being that St. Marys doesn’t have a full representative on the Board, despite paying more capital and levy than other represented member municipalities. Furthermore, concerning transparency and accountability, Mayor Strathdee took the UTRCA Board and Chair Sandy Levin to task for not responding to a letter sent by the Mayor on September 19, 2019, followed by another correspondence with the Board in February 2020. “I would ask the courtesy of a response. I find the fact that I was not even given a response, Mr. Wilcox, I don’t care if the response is ‘the Mayor of St. Marys is crazy’,” Mayor Strathdee said, “But the reality is if you’re going to sit here and preach that your Board responds and is transparent, I would like the courtesy of a response.” Wilcox said that he would convey the message to the Chair and Strathdee that he was disappointed the Chair wasn’t present, as well as offered his hope that the Chair wasn’t ill or avoiding the Town.
Spencer Seymour, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Marys Independent