Friday, January 9, 2015

My First Year On Council - An Update

I had a comment left on my blog regarding a post I made at election time regarding some things I would like to see happen in the town. This is the comment that was left by anonymous, which drives me crazy by the way, if you expect me to give you an answer to a question or want to criticize me please attach your name to it. Anyway, here is the comment
AnonymousJanuary 06, 2015 so many great ideas you have here as your platform prior to running. Just wondering how many have come to fruition? I don't think any, but perhaps I am wrong??
Now, I don't consider this comment to be out of line so I decided to publish it and take a few minutes to reflect on the last year and how I see what has been going on. Here is a link to my previous story where I had listed my priorities.

Over the past few years and in my campaign literature I had outlined some specific areas that I would like to see changed and different approaches taken. Regardless of one persons opinion or stance on Council it is important to remember that individually we only have one voice and one vote. Working together for common goals is essential if we wish to move things forward.

As always I want to remind people that I am speaking for myself and my views and opinions may not necessarily be those of council or the town.

Shortly after the election, council got together to outline what our priorities were going to be in the next 4 years. There were some significant items identified and lengthy discussions on how we should move forward. All those initiatives are listed in our Strategic Plan which is used to guide us forward. Once this strategic plan was developed council held a public information session to inform residents of what our plans were.

Here are some items that I thought were important and what steps the town has taken from my perspective.

Resident Engagement - Council has stated from the onset that we would like to engage residents more in the decision making process and give them an opportunity to participate. Over the past year we have demonstrated a willingness to do this and have taken real action towards these goals. Some of the things we have done include creating new committees and inviting residents to sit on them and provide advice and input to council. These include a Heritage Advisory Committee with a Beach sub committee, Environment Advisory Committee which will also work in conjunction with the Torbay Environment and Trails Committee. There are also at least two other sub committees initiated over the last few months to include seniors and business owners specifically.

On top of the inclusion of residents in committees, council has also implemented pre-budget consultations. This is an opportunity for residents or groups to submit their budget ideas to council in any manner they feel comfortable. This includes face to face, email or by regular mail if they wish. This is something that I had been asking for for two years prior to being elected to council and I was very happy to see us implement it. One thing I have to say regarding this and that I was expecting more people to take part. During the 2014 budget we did have a number of presentations and submissions which was great for the first year. I was disappointed during the 2015 consultations because we didn't have one submission from residents or groups and the opportunity was heavily advertised.

Additionally council has adopted a new question and answer structure to replace and improve on the existing one at our public meetings. The old method was an informal type of Q & A at the end of the meeting and was never recorded in the minutes. That was always my main complaint with the way it was done and I did avail of this session before I was elected to council. I think the new expanded structure does everything the old one did and more. There are so many opportunities for residents to interact with council it is hard to keep up with them. You can make an appointment to present to council prior to a meeting if you like. The Mayor will inquire with members of the public sitting in the gallery at the start of the meeting if they have something to say and add them to the agenda. We still have the 15 minute session towards the end of the meeting where residents can ask questions about anything was that discussed at the current meeting, all of it is recorded in the minutes of the meeting so there is a record.

The Town has also implemented a new contact form on the town website where residents can choose which department of the town the inquiry goes to. This new initiative is still a work in progress and should improve how residents interact with the town and provide.

Recreation Facilities - I have heard from a lot of people over the past few years saying that we just don't have enough access to facilities for our user groups. Whether that is the 50 plus club, cubs, beavers and girl guides they all need to have access to space. Our community has grown over the years and we have not kept pace with that growth as far as building new space or even upgrading the ones we have.

Currently there are several projects under way to address our needs where recreation facilities are concerned including many of the things I had listed as initiatives important to me.

Probably the biggest need we have is a community center and that process is under way as part of our Town Center Plan. Over the last year a significant amount of work has gone into this and the town has been in consultation with residents as well as property owners in the area. The corner stone of that town center plan is our new community/wellness center that is a much needed new space for all of our residents to enjoy. It is my opinion that the work done to this point have been the most significant steps taken by a council towards addressing our community center needs in a very long time. I am looking forward to watching this initiative take shape over the next year.

There are also several other projects that are in the works to improve our recreation facilities and the needs of residents, several of which will be at the Upper Three Corner Pond Park. This is an area of our town that has served our purposes well over the years but there is a need for improvements. The town has benefited greatly from that park over the years and it should be remembered that the softball field and the existing lights were constructed and paid for by volunteers. I still remember doing bottle drives to raise money for that facility when I saw very young. Over the years with the addition of the soccer field and increased use the existing infrastructure is not suited for it's current use and the light system is desperately in need of replacement.

Some of the improvements coming to that park are a new multi-purpose clubhouse that can be used by people participating in sporting events and a space that can be utilized by our other user groups who are always looking for space. The ball field will be extended to accommodate the type of ball that is being played there now to bring it more inline with similar fields in the region. The lighting system is also slated to be replaced to address the aging ones there now that have frequent breakdowns and serious safety concerns. There is also a dog park being constructed at that site to accommodate dog owners who would like to take advantage of that type of facility. Over the last year we have heard from multiple people regarding the need for a dog park in the town. Work on the dog park is currently ongoing.

One other significant development that should be noted is that the town is pursuing a purchase of the Holy Trinity Parrish Priest house. In my opinion there are several advantages to the town owning this building, one of which would be the ability for the town to preserve an important heritage structure. Those of us who have lived here for 30 years or more would have remembered the loss of our convent and old church and I am happy to support trying to save this one. With that in mind, it lends itself as the perfect place for the town to house our local museum. My understanding is that many of our most historical items are currently sitting in storage because we don't have the room to display them. It is also my opinion that once opened, that building can be used for some of our other functions like wine tasting, art show, etc. that could be accommodated there. That opens our other spaces like the Kinsmen Center for other uses.

This fall the town has also started work on the White Ways Pond picnic area to try and clear some of the old dead trees and over grown brush to make that popular area better for residents. This, along with construction of new trails and upgrading of existing ones should go a long way to providing options to residents when it comes to going outside to enjoy the outdoors. One such trail is the long awaited completion of the one in Western Island Pond. This trail has been in the works for a long time and has had several delays, not all of which were the fault of the town. As I understand part of the problem is the acquisition of the land took longer than expected. After trying to negotiate the land purchase from property owners the town ended up having to go the expropriation route. After speaking to people that live in that area I realize that they may feel a bit frustrated that the trail isn't done yet. In my opinion when the Town of Torbay of any other level of government takes the decision to expropriate someones land, it has to be a last resort. All reasonable efforts need to be made to come to an agreement with the land owner before making that decision. If that makes a particular project take a little longer, then that is something we have to deal with and I am sure there were some valuable lessons learned during this process that should help in the future.

One other interesting project that has been completed is a new duck pond in the Bourne Development off Quarry Lane. As part of the agreement when the subdivision was being proposed this duck pond was planned and it is a great enhancement to that neighbourhood and a terrific use of green space. I have heard from some people who have gone over and looked at it and they were very impressed with it.

Waste Water Treatment - The towns current practice of pumping our raw sewage into Torbay Bight is something that I and many residents have been talking about for a number of years. I am happy to say that over the past year, as a member of the Public Works committee with the support of council, we have taken steps toward finding a resolution for this. A couple of years ago the Federal Government introduced new waste water treatment guidelines along with timelines for compliance, 2020, 2030 and 2040 depending on a risk factor. With these new guidelines and changing requirements from the Federal and Provincial Governments, the previous Best Available Technology (BAT) study which recommended was halted. Over the past year we moved forward with a new BAT study which was extensive and necessary to obtain critical information as it relates to how we move forward on waste water.

One of the first things we need to know is the quality of the sewage coming from our outfall. This is essential as everything stems from this information, from the type and size of treatment plant to which risk factor level we fall into. These two pieces of information will determine how we move forward and how quickly it has to be done. Step one of the study is ongoing and sampling continues for a twelve month period to satisfy requirements imposed by the Federal Government to determine risk factor. One thing I would like to add is that from the outside looking in I used to think that we just stick a plant at the end of the line hook it up and your done. I have learned so much about waste water treatment over the past number of months that my eyes are certainly opened to the complexity of the issue.

Even after we determine exactly what we need in terms of treatment there will be very important decisions to make as we move forward. Waste water treatment is a very expensive endevour and aside from the capital costs to build it there are significant operational costs to follow for the life of the plant. Funds to cover the capital costs should be available from the federal government on a cost shared basis, but once the plant is operational the town will have to pay to operate and maintain it. This is the same with any large infrastructure project but until the preliminary work done we won't know the entire cost and impact to the town as we move forward.

Municipal Water Supply - Municipal water continues to be a huge issue for the town and will likely be for a while to come. Over the past year our PW committee in conjunction with staff have been trying to identify issues with our current system and find ways to improve it. To say that it is a challenge is putting it lightly as a member of the PW committee I get many inquiries from residents as it related to water issues. Everything from dirty water, low pressure and odor which are common issues related to water supplies like we have with primary disinfectant as apposed to full fledged treatment. The age of some of the infrastructure in the ground is also a big factor and we need to make sure we plan for its eventual replacement. Some of the pipes we have in the ground are in excess of 30 years old and may be a contributing factor to some of our water issues, especially leaks.

I know that we are always working to make improvements to the current system and that town staff have implemented processes to try and improve the water quality. These improvements include a flushing program to flush the system to clear pipes of debris and buildup. Extensive leak detection has been done to try and fine leaks in our existing infrastructure and that work is ongoing and effective. The lime feed system that controls the PH of our water is being replaced this year and also improvements to the intake filters at North Pond are being explored. THM's and HAA's present in our drinking water have been elevated for a number of years and it is anticipated that improvements scheduled in our existing system may help lower those levels. We have also installed a flow meter at the North Pond site to monitor how much water we are actually using because the simple fact is that our water supply is pretty much operating at maximum capacity.

Our PW committee along with the support of council is undertaking an initiative to explore all options as it relates to finding alternate sources of water for the town of Torbay. Also while this will be taking place the town is awaiting the results of a North East Avalon regional water study that is currently under way to determine if there may be available water from the City of St. John's. Water is such an integral component in how our town can plan for the future that we can't afford to leave any option off the table as we move forward.

Municipal water is most commonly associated with water supplies but in our town we can't forget that we have a large portion of our population who have their own wells and septic systems. As a result of lack of supply of water, our town has grown in a manner that has increased our reliance on ground water as a source for our homes. With this in mind we have commissioned a complete ground water assessment of the entire town. This study will identify areas in the town where there may be high yields of water and also areas where the availability of water for wells may not be as abundant. This information is crucial for the town as we move forward with development plans and will allow us to better manage where our growth occurs and if it is sustainable. One thing I would like to mention with regards to well water and that is I encourage people whether you have a drilled or shallow well to get your water tested at least once a year.

I know these initiatives with water and sewer are not the most visible things we do in the town but they are absolutely critical if we want to go forward in a sustainable manner.

Pedestrian Safety - This is an issue that is broad and includes many facets like sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting, traffic flows and speeding etc. The town has taken some steps towards trying to identify and fix these problems as they arise. We are also trying to be proactive in our approach and in the most recent application for gas tax funding our PW committee proposed to have a study done on how to make our community safe for those who use our streets. Like many other communities in our region we have many streets that are narrow with small shoulders and ditches which make walking on some of them pretty treacherous, especially when we need to share those roads with drivers who may not always obey the speed limit.

We as a town (council and staff), have taken some steps towards trying to make our roads safer especially in the school zones where we did go ahead and paint crosswalks and "School Zone" on Torbay Road. We approached the province to do this painting as it is a provincial road however we were told that particular type of work is outside of their mandate, so we went ahead and did it and continue to do it. This along with placing our speed feedback sign in the area was intended to make it safer. The PW committee along with staff decided to paint crosswalks in the school zone on Doyles/Quigleys Lane near the elementary school to try and improve the situation there as well.

As part of our regular operations we have been responding to residents with speeding complaints by deploying our speed feedback sign and recording speeding data to pass along to the RNC. This approach works in several ways, one by allowing the town to identify when and where cars are speeding and exactly how fast they are travelling. This allows us to go to the RNC with hard numbers and not anecdotal information when we request that they put additional resources in a particular area. We have also purchased and installed a permanent feedback sing on Mahons Lane to monitor the traffic coming and going from the high school.

These responses to specific problem areas are only one step and that is why this study we have commissioned is so important. As citizens, we all have opinions of how to make the streets safer and many of our suggestions may be perfectly valid and indeed work. However that again is reactionary and may only addresses one aspect of a problem. Upon completion of this study we hope to get concrete evidence of where our problem areas are and how to address them on a large scale throughout the town. Eventually along with immediate measures to make our streets safer we should end up with an actual speed calming policy for the town so speed calming measures can be applied effectively and consistently. In my opinion once we have this information in our hands we may be able to approach the provincial government to possibly implement some of the necessary measures on the roads that are under their jurisdiction. There is no guarantee they will agree to do it but as I have learned over the past year, whenever you go to the province looking for funding one of the first questions they seem to ask is where is your study?

Development - Over the past number of years our town has grown significantly and certainly some of our infrastructure hasn't kept pace but also the way we allowed developments to occur may have become outdated. A lot of discussion has happened over the past year as far as development is concerned and we are currently in the midst of a review of our town plan which hopefully at the end of the day strengthen how we develop. Despite the town plan review not being completed, we have implemented some new regulations that are intended to improve development.

A Zero net run off policy has been implemented that is intended to ensure that when a developer submits a design for a subdivision that there is no more water run off after the construction is done than before they started. This is extremely important in a town like ours where we have a lot of land that is not exactly flat.

There have also been changes to sub-division guidelines to require developers to put sidewalks on serviced subdivisions and a minimum of a walking trail next to the road in un-serviced sub-divisions. If this had been a requirement over the last 20 years we would be a lot further along in terms of walk-ability in some of our existing subdivisions. However hindsight is 20/20 and we can't look back only go forward and try and make the right decisions as we go. In conjunction with this, we have also increased the width requirements for new roads from around 50 to 60 feet in new sub-divisions.

The town is continuing to have flood plain analysis done in areas around the town water bodies. As we have all seen in recent years the number of storms we get in the summer has increased and the intensity and the amount of rain has also increased. This type of work is so important for us to keep doing if we want to make sure we are not allowing people to build in a flood plain. There are some houses built years ago in the town that are sitting right in flood plains and if this type of planning and information had been available to those people then they may not have built where they did.

These are just a few of the development changes we have made and there are several more designed to move the town forward in a reasonable and sustainable way. I think that when we make changes to how people need to develop, we need to be careful and that it is a balancing act. If we impose too much, we may make it not viable for developers to build and if they do we don't want to make it too expensive for people to buy the houses. As we have seen in recent years as costs of materials and labor has gone up the price we need to pay for land or a house has also increased. That in turn drives up our assessments and the amount of money we have to pay in taxes also goes increases; it is a vicious cycle that has really hit the communities on the North East Avalon and especially Torbay hard the last ten years.

Public Works Infrastructure - As a member of the PW committee for the last year I have become intimately familiar with the issues facing our current infrastructure and the need for new. Probably one of our greatest needs is our new municipal depot. I didn't' really understand this when I first heard about it a couple of years ago but have a new appreciation for it now. Not only does a new depot effect how we service the residents with regards to public works issues it is integral to get it moved so we can move forward with our town centre plans. I am please to say that in the past year our PW committee with the support and input of all council, have been able to make a recommendation on the location of the new depot and also purchase the land required to build the new building. A tender for our project engineer has been awarded and work continues on the design phase. This building can't get built fast enough for my liking and I have to say it is frustrating sometimes to see how long it takes to get some projects off the ground. I certainly have a new appreciation for the obstacles that municipalities have to face sometimes when we are required to use provincial funding to do a project.

In contrast to that, the PW committee put forward recommendations to council on how to spend our gas tax money for the next three years and we decided to spend it all in the first year and use it to leverage other types of funding that might be available. With that funding we are going to be able to get around 12 roads resurfaced next year and build the club house at the Upper Three Corner Pond Park and other initiatives related to water quality and pedestrian safety. Where this is gas tax funding and not multi-year capital works from the province we have more flexibility and are able to do much more with less.

I am sure there are many other initiatives that are ongoing in the town and especially in the committees and departments that I am not part of. I certainly couldn't list it all but I can assure people that council has been very busy and I am sure it is not going to slow down. Since the start of our council term I have been a member of the Planning Land Use and Development committee, Public Works committee and council liaison to the Torbay Volunteer Fire Department. The reason I mention this is because sometimes residents as me questions about certain things that are going on in the town and when I tell them I am not sure or I will have to look into it they are surprised. I guess some residents expect all members of council to be involved in every facet of the town which is just not possible. The workload, responsibility and duties for each member of council has to be spread out and shared or we would never get anything done in my opinion. That is why most of the things I have been talking about fall under the umbrella of the committees I am a member of.

I know this post is long but I just wanted to share my experiences over the past 12-15 months and give residents an idea of what exactly is going on from my perspective. I know I occasionally hear that nothing has been happening in the last year and what exactly is council up to. One thing I can tell you and my wife and kids will attest to this, the amount of time I have been putting into council related activities is astounding. I figured I would be busy when I ran for council but being a member of two busy committees and a liaison to the fire department takes up a lot of time. Add to that meeting with consultants, federal and provincial government officials, representing the town at conventions and regional meetings and attending town events all adds up.

Probably the part of being on council that I like the most and also takes up a large portion of my time is meeting with residents and trying to help them or listen to their concerns. I may not always be able to help them and sometimes they don't like the answers I have to give but I always try and tell them like it is.

I know that despite everything I have written in this post residents will still have questions and ask why don't you do this or why don't you do that? Those questions are valid and each compliment, criticism or complaint is equally important in my opinion. I have tried to be open to and accessible to residents since the election and remain committed to doing that.

I am sure I have missed something in this post or didn't talk about an issue that you have an interest in. If that is the case and you have questions or comments please don't hesitate to contact me.

You can email me at or call me at home 437-7288.