Sunday, April 12, 2009

Downtown Revitalization Update

Last November I wrote here about the Town’s multi-million dollar application to revitalize Pelham’s downtowns. I am writing now to provide you with an update.

As you will recall, last September the Federal and Provincial Governments announced the Building Canada Grant Program for communities under 100,000 people.

The Town of Pelham submitted an application to the program requesting a total of $7.1 million to revitalize downtown Fonthill and Fenwick. In December, the Building Canada program deemed our submission to be two separate projects and the Town had to choose one project over the other. The Town amended the application to fund the downtown area of Fonthill – the larger and more expensive of the projects (at more than $4.6 million).

In February, 2009, I was informed that the Town would receive $852,572 from each level of Government for a total of $1.7 million. Based on the amended application, this left a shortfall of nearly $1.3 million in funding from the two levels of Government.

Later, Town staff was informed that Building Canada deemed burying of the hydro lines, and the purchase of benches and planters as “ineligible expenditures” under the program. While the cost for the benches and planters are minimal, the cost to bury the hydro lines (including contingencies, engineering and Environmental Assessment costs) was budgeted at approximately $1.9 million (for all three levels of government)!

On March 17, the CAO and I met with representatives from the Ministry of Energy & Infrastructure, the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs in Toronto. We not only sought clarification on these exclusions, but we also implored them to agree to fund expenditures relating to the burying of the hydro lines.

While we were again informed that the burying of hydro lines was not an eligible expenditure, Ministry representatives indicated that very small pockets of funding may be available once the Town finalized the design. An eternal optimist, I continue to be hopeful in this regard.

In the meantime, Council recently awarded the contract for the engineering and infrastructure design of both Fonthill’s and Fenwick’s downtowns. We continued to include Fenwick’s downtown in the contract to get better pricing and so that we will be "shovel ready" for any further grants. This engineering design will not only advance the projects but will also provide an accurate cost to bury the hydro lines in both our downtowns.

I will continue to keep you informed on our progress.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Public Utility for Regional Water & Waste Water?

During some Regional meetings last week, I was reminded of the quote, “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink” from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” There we were, after several deferrals and much debate, discussing the Regional water and waste water rates for 2009.

You see, since the fall the Region has been working on a new way to charge for water and waste water services.

The Regional side of your water and sewer rates pays for both the water and sewer treatment costs and any delivery costs to the 11 Towns, Townships, and Cities that have retail water services. In fact, last year 75 million cubic meters of water was treated at the Region’s six treatment plants. In addition, 91 million cubic meters of wastewater was treated at nine sewage treatment plants.

But, essentially, the Region is the wholesaler of water to the municipalities. Up to this year, the price was based on a three-year rolling average of a Town’s or City’s usage. However, under that system, the Region accumulated an $18 million deficit over the last five years for water charges! (That’s on a base of an annual water budget of approximately $41 million.)

How could that happen?

Well, in some respects, it’s really some good news. You see, water consumption has significantly decreased over the last number of years. We were told that the drop in consumption was due both to increased conservation by users (great work everyone!), and to wet summers in 2008 and 2006. As the numbers show, the trend is quite clearly for decreased water usage. (And, I argued that the Region clearly wasn’t budgeting properly for the decrease!)

So, the Region proposed instituting a 50% fixed water charge because the service has “between 60% and 90% fixed costs.”

Various municipalities – the retailers of the water to you and your neighbours – disagreed. They argued that such a high fixed-price component would jeopardize efforts to conserve water.

Finally, after many meetings over many months, a compromise was reached.

First, the fixed component was set at 25% for the next two years.

Second, staff will present options for linking the “wholesale” and “retail” components together. We suggested researching a common regional water rate structure, or even a separate, public utility model for regional water delivery! While this may take some time, I wanted you to know about the direction we are investigating at the Region.