By Joe Konecny, Central Elgin Correspondent, Aylmer Express

A laundry list of issues – everything from the St. Thomas “land grab,” to the ladder truck purchase – was vetted by ratepayers at the Aylmer Express All-Candidates Meeting for Central Elgin (CE) Council.

The largest field of municipal candidates in CE history – 22 in total, including four mayoral challengers – is registered in the October 24, 2022 municipal election and most joined the September 29, 2022 event at the Masonic Centre of Elgin. About 200 CE residents attended.

Brett Hueston of the Express served as moderator. Ratepayers questioned Mayor and Deputy Mayor candidates for the first portion of the meeting, and Councilor candidates for the second half.

“It doesn’t seem right, or fair for Central Elgin to have that property taken right out of our farming community,” said financial services professional Todd Noble, of Union, who is mounting a campaign to become CE Deputy Mayor.

Noble was responding to an inquiry about a June 8, 2022 announcement by the City of St. Thomas and the St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation, proposing a “mega-site development” on over 800 acres of land in northeast St. Thomas.

Backed by the Government of Ontario, the plan proposes commercial-industrial zoning for an area now comprised of agricultural land, woodlots and wetlands in Central Elgin. An appropriately zoned development site already exists in CE, directly to the south, along Hwy. 3.

“With the Province spearheading that, I don’t know how we have a lot of control, other than speaking up,” added Noble. “I don’t think anybody is happy to see that land leave CE and become part of St. Thomas.”

Another Deputy Mayor candidate, incumbent Ward 1 Councillor Colleen Row, explained that current Council members were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements with the Province before the Progressive Conservative government would share any details about the mega-plan.

“It’s a very difficult question for those on Council now,” said Row, a retired PepsiCo finance director . “We could choose not to sign it, but then we wouldn’t know what is actually going on. It was a Catch-22 situation. The only thing that I would say is that it is in CE’s best interest to know what’s going on and to be very firm in what they’re expecting to get out of all this.”

Mayoral challenger Andrew Sloan, a Port Stanley businessman, said he had consulted with St. Thomas officials, who told him that $100 million in Provincial funding for the mega-site development was to begin flowing to the city on October 1, 2022.

“I haven’t and I wouldn’t sign a non-disclosure agreement,” said Sloan. “It’s a done deal. The money is supposed to go through the first of October. We have people leaving their farms.

“Central Elgin is now in the position where we have the opportunity where we can find some of the revenues that are coming from this and use it for our own good,” added Sloan. “Who’s going to negotiate the funds from these lands? Who’s going to negotiate the costs that are going into this land? That agreement will be made with the next CE mayor and the  Mayor of St. Thomas, and will make a cost-sharing agreement, and that’s what we have to focus on at this point.”

Lynhurst resident Tom Carr rose at the meeting to ask Mayor and Deputy Mayor candidates about the ladder truck that Central Elgin Fire Rescue purchased for nearly $1 million several years ago. “I would like to know what happened to the fire truck? What happened to the million dollars? We as taxpayers have a right to know.”

Mayoral candidate Dennis Crevits, the incumbent Ward 2 Councillor, was the first to respond.

He explained that the ladder truck was involved in a collision with a passenger vehicle about one year ago at the intersection of Belmont Road and Ron McNeil Line. Two people extricated form the car were taken to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

“The fire truck was a write off, so we had to make an insurance claim, and the insurance claim is currently in the process of fixing it and once it’s completed, it’s going to be put back up for sale,” said Crevits. “In the hiring of the new fire chief (Raymond Ormerod), it was decided” that another type of vehicle, a “quint,” or quintuple combination pumper, would eventually be bought to replace the ladder truck.

“That truck was a mistake, a big mistake,” said Deputy Mayor Tom Marks, a mayoral candidate. “Probably the accident is bailing us out. Councils make mistakes. That fire chief (Chris McDonough) is not with us anymore.”

Another ratepayer noted that two mayoral candidates – Sloan and businessman Casey Siebenmorgen – have no experience as members of Council and asked whether job experience matters.

“I think experience matters very much,” said Marks. “It’s not so much experience, as knowledge.

“The mayor also sits on County Council,” he added. “At that table, we’re dealing with three long-term care homes, dealing with a couple conservation (authorities), health and police services, Provincial offences, and more.

“Without having some kind of background, you’re going to be so overwhelmed,” he added. “It boggles my mind that someone thinks they can start at the top. There’s a lot going on. To try to just step into it, that’s very hard.”

Crevits used the controversy over CE water and sewer rates to make a point. New members of Council, he said, may not be familiar with the nuances of the issue’s history and “try to reinvest the wheel.”

“This is one time I actually have to agree with Tom,” said Crevits. “Experience is something that is required. There’s a learning curve.”

Sloan added: “Speaking on behalf of CE, I don’t understand how having been on council necessarily makes one an efficient spokesperson for the organization.

“The mayor is one of seven votes, but the mayor also leads the agenda and under the municipal act is the CEO of the municipality,” said Sloan. “So the ability to lead, the ability to professionally manage a $33 million budget, those are key skills that I bring to the table. I think that what we should look at here are different ways of doing things as opposed to the situation we are currently in.”

Siebenmorgen said: “My main tools are time and budget, and if I go over time, we over spend budget. I feel I have the experience, without being on Council.”

Mayor and Deputy Mayor candidates were also asked about Port Stanley parking. Ratepayers raised objections to the new parking bylaw, and asked candidates for solutions.

Ward 1 candidates Mike Derrough, and Michelle Graham, as well as Ward 4 candidate David Conners (left to right)

“It’s not unlike anything that’s introduced in other parts of the province,” said Row. Council changed its parking bylaw this season in an attempt to help cover the cost to maintain the public beaches, she said. “Different municipalities have paid parking, in different locations, for different reasons. We are being reactive. We are listening. If there’s more that needs to be changed, we can certainly talk about it.”

Crevits has requested municipal staff to draft a detailed report to guide the new Council on the parking issue.

“It should be noted that the paid parking in Port Stanley generated $650,000,” said Crevits. “That’s a two per cent tax levy.

“We could just eliminate paid parking all together and add two per cent taxes to every body’s residence, which is about $120. That’s what it works out to,” he added. “Paid parking has its reason. We have to pay for lifeguards, the beach cleaning. It’s a necessary evil.”

Among the changes that could be entertained by the new Council, Crevits suggested a $50 season pass, or half off the current rate. He also said removing all fees from the pharmacy parking lot may be an option.

“Parking is a mess, everybody knows it,” said Sloan, adding that “confusion about parking” is one reason why Port Stanley Festival Theatre (PSFT) attendance dropped to 47 patrons at a recent show, when capacity is 160. “We need to go back to square one. I think that the whole implementation was wrong. I don’t think there was any communication with the residents.

“The spending of our money, then telling us why they’ve spent it, is no longer tenable in today’s environment,” he added. “There are headwinds with the respect to the economy and it’s time to do things differently.”

Sloan suggested people with CE postal codes should be allowed to park for free.

Siebenmorgen agreed changes are necessary. “The parking spaces in the lots, they’ve been bought and paid for by the people of Port Stanley. So why are we charging them again.”

Marks said a “permanent solution” is necessary and outlined a plan to use the former Shamrock Chemical property on Carlow Road as a parking lot. He suggested capping the contaminated site with materials removed from the harbour the next time Kettle Creek is dredged.

Mayoral candidates Dennis Crevits and Tom Marks

“We heard the message about high water rates and high taxes (and) we asked staff to tighten the belt and find ways to generate more revenue and slow down on the spending,” said Marks. “Having the lifeguards, picking up the garbage, doing all the things that make it the gem that it is costs a lot of money. The beauty of Port Stanley has been discovered.

“If we can improve, we will, but on the other hand, we probably saved you $300 on your taxes,” he added. Marks suggested buying a $100 parking pass and putting “the other $200 in your pocket.”

Kyle Cronk, President of the Lake Erie North Shore Landowners Association (LENSLA), asked Mayor and Deputy Mayor candidates whether it’s the politicians or the bureaucrats who are in charge at CE. And he wondered how ratepayers should deal with “arrogant” CE staff who “bully citizens.”

“Staff is given directions by Council and the rules are set up by Council,” said Crevits. “We made the rules and unfortunately some people don’t like to hear the answer that they receive … but it’s something that is in my opinion doing their job.”

Marks said: “Sometimes people just have to agree to disagree.”

Sloan added: “It’s a fair question. It’s council’s responsibility to lead the staff. Not the other way around.”

Mayor and Deputy Mayor candidates were also asked about accountability and transparency.

Crevits said CE’s online offerings, including Let’s Talk and the new Council Highlights, invite citizen participation and places that opportunity at their fingertips.

“I campaigned on live streaming of Council meetings, and it took the pandemic to achieve that,” said Marks. “Now you can go home, look up last year’s meeting, and see who said what.

“That to me is communications, accessibility and accountability,” he added. “We’re improving. The public needs to listen as well. You have to access to find out.”

The Councilor candidates spent a considerable amount of time discussing whether the Lynhurst and Eastwood communities should be annexed to the City of St. Thomas.

“Yes, we are elected by the ward and of course I take that very seriously … also we do represent the rest of CE and I want you to know that I took that seriously too … I think I represent all of the people in CE well,” said Bill Fehr, the incumbent in Ward 4, who is now running in Ward 3. “I believe we should explore the possibility of links between Wards 3 and 4 because we wrap right around St. Thomas.

“We get our utilities from St. Thomas. We get our power from St. Thomas, our sewage. We just pay exorbitant rates to subsidize all the rest of CE when it comes to water, sewer, taxes, so yes, I want to explore joining St. Thomas, or being annexed by St. Thomas.”

Ward 2 candidate and incumbent Mayor Sally Martyn said: “When you become a council member … you have to take an oath of office. Your oath of office says you have to represent what is best for all of Central Elgin. You can bring the issues your ward has … You can argue what you want for your own (ward) and you should, but you also need to think how will that affect all the rest of the ratepayers.

“One of the reasons water rates and sewage rates are as high as they are is because we have a great deal of debt from when we fixed up Eastwood,” added Martyn. “That is a debt that the whole of Belmont and Port Stanley are helping to carry. It’s not the reverse.”

Area resident Ron Casier asked how Councilor candidates will protect rural communities.

“I don’t believe the rural people are stuck aside,” said Ward 5 candidate Bill Sporbeck . “The fact that each ward has rural constituents makes them part of the community.

“You travel through Belmont or any of the other wards and talk to the people in those communities, and they all know who the farmers are. Those issues that are important to the people who live in the towns are also important to those who live in the rural communities.”

Ward 4 candidate Harold Winkworth said: “I have a huge issue with the farmland that’s being eaten up. Every time you turn around there’s something being built behind you, beside you, on top of you.

“More focus has to be put on putting the brakes on all this building,” added Winkworth. “Why are we building so much?”

Ward 2 candidate Morgaine Halpin said: “The good news about that is that four of our five wards do have some agricultural areas, which means we do have good representation.

Halpin said many rural residents are surprised when she brings her campaign to their doors. “They say, ‘no one has come up this driveway’ because it’s easy to leave a note in the mailbox. Coming up the driveway takes work and patience and a willingness to sit down and have those conversations.”

Martyn said: “The agricultural land is vital. Our food source is vital. Port Stanley is virtually built out, in our official land. There’s a little more around the water tower. That’s it. Port Stanley for the next 20 years won’t be growing anymore.”

Ward 3 candidate Dan Carter said: “We need new homes to be built. We need new ratepayers to come into our community. We just don’t need to do it at a gallop pace. It needs to be controlled, sustainable, manageable.”

Fehr said: “You have to remember, all of us urbanites, living on the edge of town, we do drastically support farmers financially by allowing them to have a 25 per cent tax rate as opposed to the rest of us who pay 100 per cent. I don’t think it’s fair they’re saying CE and Elgin County don’t support farmers. We support them financially and we support them with services that we give them. Let’s take Eastwood for example, five houses on Eastwood pay more property taxes than a 200- or 300-acre farm.”

Ward 3 councilor candidate Norm Watson said: “I don’t see too many sewers in the back 40 there, Bill. When we pay 25 per cent taxes on land, that’s not serviced at all. That’s where the food comes from.  I am a farmer, so that’s why I want to save as much (farmland) as I can. Let’s make sure the decisions we’re making now aren’t mistakes in 30 years. Urban sprawl is real, but let’s slow it down a little bit. We’re got to do it all together.”

Councilor candidates were asked about Kettle Creek and its tourism potential.

Ward 1 councilor candidate Michelle Graham said: “The creek is a huge concern. We have sewage that flows down our creek from St. Thomas. How is that not being addressed? And the blob, how is that not being addressed? These are issues I’m concerned about. This is work that we need to do. We need to hold St. Thomas accountable.”