It is always exciting to see younger audiences take interest in the politics that influence the world around them. I believe it's important to encourage the next generation to participate in the democratic process and think critically about the claims and arguments those running for election make. For this reason, I was happy to receive questions from the Grade 10 Civics class at Owen Sound District Secondary School (OSDSS). The students had excellent questions about important issues affecting Grey Bruce and Owen Sound. I would like to share those questions, as well as my answers:
I am running for re-election as Mayor of the City of Owen Sound and as such, as a councillor at Grey County.
Each resident of Grey County is represented by two levels of municipal government, the lower tier, City of Owen Sound, and the upper tier, County of Grey. Property taxes paid in Owen Sound go to both the City and to the County.
There is a division of responsibility between to two tiers. In Ontario, housing, homelessness, social services, childcare and long term care are the responsibility of the upper tier counties. Grey County receives funding from the province for housing and social services. The City looks after recreation facilities, parks, water and waste water, streets, snow removal, waste disposal and buses. We share responsibility on climate change, tourism and economic development.
In any council there will inevitably be some disagreements. If a conflict arises, how would you manage it as mayor?
There are nine members of Council, nine different personalities, and therefore potentially nine different opinions. Not everyone communicates the same way. From many years of experience in a court room, I recognize that some issues can be emotional. I believe every idea can be challenged as long as the person with the idea is not personally challenged or disrespected.
We have a Procedural Policy which sets out how meetings should be dealt with. I try to apply discretion in interpreting the policy depending on how large the agenda is, or how the meeting is flowing.
In addition, there is a Council Code of Conduct. If a member of Council breaches the Code of Conduct, a complaint may be filed with the independent Integrity Commissioner.
During the past term, we had special meetings with the Integrity Commissioners and others, to try to address the conduct of councilors. If a Councilor chooses to ignore the policies and code, council is limited in how it can respond, and you hope voters recognize and remember inappropriate conduct at the next election.
With the growing population, Ontario has not built enough houses to keep up. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, we need to build 1.5 million more homes in Ontario by 2030. How do you plan to help our municipality keep up?
Since 2010, the cost of housing in Ontario has almost tripled from $329,000 to $923,000 in 2021. More than 3000 households in Grey County cannot afford the home they are living in part
because average household income has only increased by around a third. How do you plan to help lower housing costs?
When I was first elected as Mayor, the City was issuing very few building permits for new homes. Our population was shrinking, and our commercial and industrial tax rates were too high to attract new jobs. The City had to become proactive to turn this around.
Council has positioned our community for appropriate growth by making the right connections and fostering the right relationships. We've made investments toward economic growth. We've invested in infrastructure in order to have development ready land for housing.
In the past year alone, approximately 350 new housing units have come onto the market within Owen Sound. That is the largest housing increase in one year since the 1980s. Approximately 300 of those are rental units. Owen Sound is ahead of most other municipalities. 27 % of the 300 new rental units are affordable or attainable. Of all housing units built over the past 5 years, 22% has been affordable. Our goal at the County of Grey is to have 30% affordable. I will
continue to support the County to lobby the Provincial Government for more funding for new affordable housing and to support groups who will build. There are currently 139 rental units, plus condominiums and houses under
construction to open in 2023. There is one rental apartment project that intends to start construction soon. And there are three developments near the hospital with site plan approval with a mixture of housing types.
I want to continue to work with those developers to build more residential units that are attainably priced as soon as possible. We need to do everything we can to reduce red tape procedures and unnecessary expensive studies to ease time and expenses that will otherwise be added to the purchase price. I will support reviewing incentives for attainable and affordable housing available through the Community Improvement Plan, instead of development changes.
I note that CBC reported on September 15, 2022, that, “The average price of a Canadian home sold in August was $637,673, a number that has fallen by more than 20 per cent since February.”
This increase in housing rates impacts some families' ability to purchase food. Community food programs have collectively provided 31% more meals since the pandemic started. How would you bring attention to this issue and support people who can't afford food?
Owen Sound already has an organization called Safe n' Sound that is doing everything they can to reduce the number of homeless people in Owen Sound. However, the population of homeless people is still increasing and Safe n' Sound's funding is not. How will you work toward supporting this organization and homeless people in Owen Sound as emergency pandemic funding dries up?
There are on average six opioids overdose visits to local hospitals per month. Recovering drug users say if you know an addict's hidden story, and understood drugs aren't a choice when you are addicted,
there would be less judgement and more empathy. Former drug addict Andrea Donaldson said she didn't seek help sooner because she feared looking weak and of "being looked down upon." Do you
intend to make it more comfortable for drug addicts to reach out for help? Would you make it safer for addicts to get what they need without relying on tainted street drugs?
In Ontario, housing, homelessness, social services, childcare and long term care are the responsibility of the upper tier counties. Grey County receives funding from the province for housing and social services.
Both the City and the County provided financing to Owen Sound Housing to help get the Odawa affordable housing projects going.
The annual BMA report for 2021 showed that Grey County spends the most per capita on (affordable) public housing, compared to all other Counties in Ontario. Grey County’s budget for housing in 2022 was close to $24 million. That is almost two-thirds of the City of Owen Sounds entire budget. Over $2 million of that goes to the homelessness initiative. For the past two budgets, County Council has added 1% of the total levy directly to housing. That has added an additional $680,000 each year. I would support adding 1% per year in future years.
Homelessness is a big challenge for all communities. We have seen more people living on our streets this year. The safety and wellbeing of vulnerable people is a concern for all of us. Grey County has an Affordable Housing Task Force, and has had a Housing and Homelessness Plan since 2014, which includes strategies to reduce chronic homelessness and increase supportive housing.
Homelessness is so much more than available housing. Mental health and addictions are at the heart of this challenge. Owen Sound and other lower tier municipalities work with Grey and Bruce Counties on Community Safety and
Wellbeing Planning to work together on social issues. City staff, a councillor, police chief and a police board member are at the table with representatives from CMHA, the Health Unit, Grey County Housing and Social Services, and several other agencies.
In recognition of the increase in homeless people on our street over the past eighteen months, and pursuant to the Housing and Homelessness Plan, Grey County has purchased a building in Owen Sound to provide transitional housing for the areas homeless and to support transition to more permanent housing. It will open in 2023.
The Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Michael Tibollo has approved 36 new beds and $6 million for Grey Bruce Health Services to expand mental health and addictions treatment for a new residential treatment centre in Owen Sound, also to open in 2023. This will bring the total number of treatment beds to 45.
In addition, Grey County has a Mental Health and Addictions Task Force, a Health Care Funding Task Force, and a Hanover - Owen Sound Task Force. Grey appoints members to the Health Unit, and the Community Drug and Alcohol Strategy. Owen Sound and other lower tier municipalities work with Grey and Bruce Counties on Community Safety and Wellbeing Planning. The County works with and provides some funding to Safe n’ Sound, and several other agencies through out Grey County. The increased funds for housing each year provides options for funding services.
With regard to safe injection/ safe supply, I believe it can work and worth exploring. The number one goal is to keep people alive, and then try to get them the help they need. This is within the provincial jurisdiction, and it is not permitted in Ontario at this time.
Final note, at present, Owen Sound has had had 5 over dose deaths in 2022. This is down from 8 in 2021, and 14 in 2020. Statistics show that most over dose victims are at home by themselves and not homeless. Many have hidden their addictions from friends and families.
We as youth representing future generations are worried for the well-being of our environment and want to promote and implement environmentally friendly ways of living. This is a serious issue because we are the ones who will have to deal with and experience the negative impacts of past generations' neglect to nature. How will you encourage and incorporate environmentally friendly opportunities in our community? An example of a program that includes environmentally friendly infrastructure is Glassworks Village. Do you support initiatives like this? If not, what alternatives do you propose?
In 2021, the City adopted a Corporate Climate Change Adaptation Plan to understand the impact that climate change has on services and infrastructure which the City is responsible for. The Corporate Climate Change Adaptation Plan identifies climatic threats and impacts to infrastructure and services and then evaluates and prioritizes efforts by assessing the vulnerability and the risks to Owen Sound’s physical, economic, social, and ecological systems.
In addition, given that climate change doesn’t stop at municipal boundaries, we are pleased to work together collaboratively within Grey County. At the recent AMO conference, the provincial Minister of Environment encouraged municipalities to work regionally. As of April, 2022, Grey County has a new Climate Change Action Plan. In addition to adopting the plan titled Going Green in Grey, County Council also declared a climate emergency, drawing attention to the urgency of the climate crisis which poses significant threats globally and locally. That Plan applies to the City, and City staff will be working on their part.
And further, by working with the Clean Energy Frontier through the Nuclear Innovation Institute, we have a great opportunity to take advantage of Bruce Power clean and safe nuclear energy, plus its technology development to lead the province in development of new clean technologies and energy storage, such as hydrogen, pump storage and the development of battery operated heavy equipment.
I will continue to support these initiatives in the City, County, and throughout the region.
Seniors make up about 25% of the population of Owen Sound. It's well documented that the cost of living is going up. Owen Sound advertises as being a good place to retire, how are you going to work to keep it this way?
Owen Sound has the 29th highest taxes per capita for a residential bungalow among all municipalities in Ontario. (The 4th highest among municipalities with populations 15,000 – 29,999.) The city has the 5th lowest average household
income among all municipalities. Over 25% of City residents are over age 65 and many of them are on fixed incomes. This makes it difficult to spend on new initiatives without harming low income and senior tax payers.
In recognition of this, we have cut costs such as selling the airport, and increased assessment, resulting lower tax increases over the past several years compared to our neighbours. The City is currently conducting a Service Review by an external accounting firm to try to find efficiencies and savings.
The best way to spread out the tax burden is to attract new investment and grow the assessment base. This will give us opportunities to ease taxes and to enhance the services that the City provides. I will continue to work on attracting
commercial and industrial investment and jobs.
Our municipality has facilities for youth programming including the pool, ice rink, and basketball court. Will you take youth voices into consideration as you budget for the maintenance of current facilities and plan future ones? How will you make Owen Sound attractive to us so we want to move back when we are adults?
The City of Owen Sound has several advisory committees with unelected citizens. Our biggest challenge has been getting people to sit on them. If anyone is interested in having input on City services, I encourage them to watch the City web site in the next couple of months for information about committee applications.
Last spring, Owen Sound made changes to traffic light timing to improve travel speed through downtown Owen Sound. Do you feel that the changes were successful? If not, how could traffic flow be improved?
All traffic in Owen Sound from one side to the other is limited by the river and the bridges. We would love to build another bridge but we are limited by land ownership, unaligned streets, and financial ability. Tenth Street is the busiest street in town and is a never ending challenge. We will continue to look at different options for traffic flow.
Thank you to the students at OSDSS for taking an interest in your local government. I hope you enjoy your studies as you explore the different levels of the Canadian government.