Central Elgin (CE) candidates in the October 24, 2022 municipal election were queried this week about how much development is enough in Port Stanley, and how local politicians intend to preserve the village’s character and charm.
Questions at Wednesday’s Port Stanley Village Association’s (PSVA’s) all-candidates meeting probed local politicians’ strategies to manage the cost of living here, with a focus on high municipal taxes and water rates.
The largest field of municipal candidates in CE history – 22 including four mayoral challengers – were also asked about short-term rental accommodations and Airbnb, as well as downtown parking fees.
It was the village’s first public meeting on municipal issues since the start of the pandemic more than two years ago. There was standing room only as more than 200 people crowded into the second-floor auditorium at the Port Stanley Arena and Community Centre.
“This is a bit of a loaded question,” said Deputy Mayor candidate Colleen Row, “but I do believe Port Stanley is currently charming and I really would like to keep it that way.”
However, considering that the Government of Ontario’s Housing Affordability Task Force Report recommends building 1.5 million homes over the next 10 years, Row explained “they are looking to intensify different areas, so that your parents, your children, are able to live closer to you, whenever you need them to be.
“Part of the next step of the next council – whoever they may be – would be to update the zoning bylaws and also to consider urban design guidelines within those bylaws so that we can actually help to maintain the character of each community, not just Port Stanley.
“It could be Belmont,” added Row, the incumbent Ward 1 Councillor. “It could be Sparta, it could be Lynhurst, it could be anywhere, but we need those urban design guidelines … ”.
Port Stanley businessman and mayoral candidate Andrew Sloan said he would encourage local development companies to help address concerns about urban growth.
“They’re using our services and they should pay for it. Growth should pay for growth,” said Sloan. “We need a long-term plan to manage it. Every time there’s a new build, every time there’s a new subdivision, we (need) a cohesive and holistic plan to … deal with all the new people. We need growth that honors our past.”
Another mayoral candidate, Dennis Crevits, the incumbent Ward 2 Councillor, said there are only two sites left for development in Port Stanley: 14 acres under the water tower, on East Road and five acres adjacent to Kettle Creek Golf and Country Club, on Carlow Road.
“Our official plan does designate a growth area within Port Stanley and we are at the limits right now,” said Crevits. “Once that development is done, that leaves the berm question.
“That is the part where we need developers to fully fund any development that occurs in that area,” he added. “As far as the character of the village, what we need to maintain the character of our village, we need to restrict building heights, and it’s a bylaw that’s easily put in place. In consultation with the builders, we can (also) ask that the buildings that are built in Port Stanley are more in character with the area they’re built in.”
Local businessman and mayoral candidate Casey Siebenmorgen said the new council will have few options for development.
“There’s only so much we can do,” said Siebenmorgen. “Nobody wants to go higher than three storeys, so we’re limited there for more growth. The berm is our last question. What are we going to do with it? Are we going to allow people to go higher to allow more people?”
Ward 2 candidate Sally Martyn said CE’s official plan limits growth in Port Stanley for 20 years. “As far as keeping the character of the community,” she added, “we did look at a heritage conservation district. You (electors) didn’t want it. We took the guidelines from that and made them guidelines for developers. So developers are given those guidelines and they’re asked … ‘these are what we want you to use,’ but we can’t force them to, because they’re just guidelines, and the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT) will override us.”
Candidates butted heads over cost-of-living issues. Row and Crevits took issue with statistics that Sloan used to make a point. But other candidates said the varying takes on the matter simply illustrated the need for better CE communications with constituents.
“Our residential tax rate is 1.59,” said Sloan. “That’s top three in the province of Ontario.
“Our water, as everyone in this room knows, is not just unfair but it can’t continue the way it is,” he added. “St. Thomas pays $8 in, $8 out. We pay 400 per cent more.
“So, what’s the solution,” he continued. “Number one, we have to refinance the debt. Secondly, we need transparency, and I’ll tell you what transparency means folks. It means on your bill, telling you what the debt is.
“Our debt service charges are approximately $4 million a year,” said Sloan. “No one talks about this. So, we talk about all these great ideas that we want to do, but there are things we have to do, and number one, let’s look at the $31.6 million spend and look at the $4 million we spend servicing our debt.”
First to question Sloan’s numbers was Crevits.
“ … Back in January of 2021, there was a rates study done that shows where the water rates are,” said Crevits. “The money has been spent getting our water system in place and now we have to maintain the infrastructure. It’s almost illegal to freeze the water rates or charge less.
“I’d like to also say that we are not the highest water rates,” added Crevits. “Bayham and Malahide … are higher water rates than we pay in Central Elgin.
“As far as taxes go, Central Elgin taxes is a $15 million budget, not $33 million,” he said. “The residential taxes in Aylmer and Dutton-Dunwich are higher than they are in Central Elgin.” Someone in the audience said “no.” Then Crevits continued, “Yes they are. They’re .832 in Aylmer and .815 in Dutton-Dunwich, and .805 in Central Elgin.”
Deputy Mayor Tom Marks, a mayoral candidate, sided with Crevits.
“Dennis is right,” he said. “We have a duty of care.
“The previous council started these water rates,” added Marks. “I don’t pretend to have the best financial director at the time. I am worried, but there is a care of duty. I promise I will give an explanation that people can understand because I don’t think that’s been accomplished yet, and it’s very necessary.
“In my opening remarks, I said I would look for a committee comprised of the public to thoroughly examine our finances and water rates,” said Marks. “I don’t think that message has got through. The public needs a better understanding.”
Ward 2 candidate Karen Cook said: “After going through Ward 2, they don’t have a lot of water issues, and I’ve never heard anybody say so much and so often how happy they are to be on a well. Water is a big issue … There has to be an option out there. I’m sure if we put our heads together, and have a cohesive council who works together, I am sure we can find something that can help.”
Bill Fehr, the incumbent in Ward 4, who is now running in Ward 3, said: “I know the water rates and the sewage rates are wild.
“When the study happened, I was cautiously optimistic that we might even get it reduced, but … provincially we have to have a $1 million reserve, and that’s mandated, and we had zero reserve, so we’re building that up right now,” added Fehr. “ … Also for the water, we found that our prior finance person had been in arrears $400,000 to the City of St. Thomas. We had to add that in.
“So we started with $1.4 million on top of what was recommended,” he said. “That’s what messed us up terribly. We can’t take money from taxes to put in. Water and sewer have to be self-sufficient.”
Martyn added more details.
“When Central Elgin was formed, it took in Belmont, Port Stanley and Yarmouth Township,” she said. “We inherited two old water systems. That’s one reason your water rates are so high.
“We had to replace the tower in Belmont. We had to replace 35 kms of lines, some right under the creek here in Port Stanley,” Martyn said. “We have no control over that.
“The Provincial government mandates that we have a study done by a qualified company … and they tell us how much we have to pay each year to get out of debt,” added Martyn. “So we can’t control water rates.”
Retired Ontario Provincial Police officer Bill Harrington, who is running for Deputy Mayor, expressed some frustration with the debate.
“That’s one of my pet peeves right now, is to actually dissect what’s happening with the water and what’s happening with the taxes,” said Harrington. “We have different responses coming back from everyone who’s spoken so far, some of it good, some of it not so good, some of it whatever.
“Why not put it in black and white in the Elgin paper that we get once a month, what it is, in black and white, so that we all know what it is, instead ‘he said’, ‘she said’. Well, I’m not too sure what it is now. Let’s put it out there and get transparency, as much as we can.”
Parking issues have been following many candidates throughout the campaign.
Ward 1 candidate Mike Derrough said: “I know business downtown have been hurt. We need to get paid parking in the downtown removed. Either we go to the old-style paid parking cylinders where it cost you a buck and a half for an hour, to help out the businesses down there. It works in Stratford, why can’t it work here. We’ve got to get back to basics. The whole ward should get a free pass.”
Added Row: “Personally, I paid the $100 season pass, which if you buy it at the beginning of the season, costs you 60 cents a day. I don’t know of any other better bargain.”
Crevits said: “For paid parking, this year alone, we generated $650,000, which is a two per cent levy on the taxes.
“If we were to eliminate paid parking, it would be a two per cent levy across the board for taxes,” he added. “Paid parking is a necessary evil. It pays for lifeguards, the beach cleaning and we’re able to put some money in reserves for parking.”
He said the new council could consider licensing certain areas in the village to allow residents’ parking in front of their properties. Other options include discounts for Port Stanley residents who provide proof of residency. It may also be feasible to remove fees from the pharmacy and visitor centre parking lots, added Crevits.
“It’s encouraging to see the amount of revenue we brought in,” said Marks. “What I don’t like about parking is the things I hear: people can’t read the machines in the bright sunshine, things like that. We need to make it easy.
“The roll out was not perfect. It got very confusing,” Marks continued. “I think we can tweak it, (but) it is necessary. People north of here do not want to pay for the beach cleanup.”
Added Sloan: “Talk about transparency. Sauble Beach gets $989,000 last year – it cost them $840,000 to collect it.
“Here’s the question,” Sloan continued. “How much did (CE’s) $650,000 cost to collect? That’s where it comes to an issue of transparency. Put it on the website folks. Tell us what it is.
“We have a car that drives around with two or three people in it, that takes pictures of your license plate and charges you. That’s harassment.
“If you have a Central Elgin address, I’d take your name off any possibility of your getting a parking charge, because you’re already paying 1.59 residential tax – as per centralelgin.org – which is the top four in the province.”
Most candidates favored controlling short-term rental accommodations and Airbnb in Central Elgin.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of licensing them, or taxing them,” said Row. “I don’t think that’s going to stop the Airbnbs and the problems we’re having from Airbnbs in town.
“I’m not saying I’m against licensing them and taxing them if that’s what the majority of residents want, to try and make some money for the municipality there,” Row added. “The problem is it’s not going to stop people from coming and doing things to the town.
“So it has to be some other type of control,” she continued. “We have to work with other communities, other municipalities, and see what has worked for them, so that we’re not getting the crime, some of the vandalism, we’ve had from these situations, or the problems that neighbours are encountering with all the partying. Maybe minimum amount stays, so that it’s not just weekend stays. I just think we need to look to other communities that are being successful, and still allowing people to come in and enjoy the beach.”
Sloan said: “If you’re renting nightly, you’re competing with the inns and people who pay commercial taxes, and I would level that playing field. So if you’re renting by the night, I’d charge you a commercial tax.
“We can’t stop people wanting to come here folks,” added Sloan. “Many in this room have used Airbnb. Absolutely there has to be a change because … its not fair. If I own a hotel, I have to pay tax, I have to have the health regulators in, but it’s not fair that one person can say I’m going to rent my house out.”
Crevits suggested: “The license should include the number of residents that are allowed to stay in the Airbnbs, so there are not large groups that are renting these places and causing the noise and disturbing the neighbours next door. Another thing that should be licensed is the amount of Airbnbs. The Airbnbs do create a housing shortage in Port Stanley for affordable housing.”
Marks added: “I would support licensing of Airbnbs. If they’re licensed, we can check for safety. We want to make sure building codes are met. You don’t want to have a fire trap. It has got out of hand. People have rented cottages in Port Stanley forever and ever, weekly, monthly, I don’t want to interfere with that. But the partying on the one nights … the neighbours need some respect.”
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