Cathy Downer successfully returned to city council in 2014 after a break in her long tenure as a counillor. And she’s not done yet…
1) In 100 words or less, what’s your main reason to run for council?
Community service is second nature to me! Being engaged and connected to the community has always been my passion. On council, I have taken a leadership role and have been influential on many issues with positive outcomes such as getting the new main library back on track, working in collaboration with the community to find alternative solutions to the clear cutting of the hydro corridor in Silvercreek Park and advocating locally and provincially for significant changes to the Ontario Municipal Board. I want to continue to provide reasoned and balanced leadership that makes a difference.
2) What, in your opinion, was the most consequential decision on council last term?
I don’t believe there was just one consequential decision this past term. There were a number of big issues that will have a significant impact on the community like the Baker Street redevelopment with the new main library, downtown parking, and the updated Community Energy Initiative. One major step was the development of Guelph’s first Asset Management Plan along with a 1% dedicated infrastructure levy. While many of us think of roads and sidewalks when we hear the word infrastructure, it actually encompasses much more. Cultural and recreational facilities, buses, and technology are a few of the other ‘infrastructure assets’. Like most other communities in Ontario, there is a significant backlog of work that needs to be done. Guelph’s is close to a $500 million shortfall. While some of this will be financed through funds from other levels of government and fees like water and wastewater, we need to continue to support sustainable budgeting to close the gap.
3) What is *your* issue? What is the one thing you want to accomplish during your term at council?
I have talked to many people about what they would like to see as priorities for the next term of Council. A common theme is sustaining Guelph as a livable city. We all want to live, work, study, and play in a city that is attractive, safe, accessible, and affordable that supports the wellbeing of everyone. There are many challenges to achieving this – growth, poverty, competing budget priorities and the list could go on. Being a livable community means we find a balance between the environmental, economic, cultural and social pillars of sustainability. The Community Plan public consultation process will show us where we need to put our focus to create that balance. We need to pay attention to this feedback and follow through with ACTIONS that sustain and enhance Guelph’s livability. Moving from plan to reality will be a priority for me next term.
4) What is your understanding of affordable housing versus social housing? How can Guelph develop both?
The term ‘social housing’ covers a range of rental housing including supportive housing, government-funded subsidies and rent geared to income housing. Provincial policy defines affordable as a 30% of gross annual income threshold for rent or housing ownership. However, affordability is quite subjective depending on your circumstances and the term ‘affordable housing’ has become quite controversial. ‘Social housing’ is harder for us to get at which is addressed in my answer to question #8. It is administered by Wellington County. We currently transfer $16 million to the county to have social housing programs administered without control over decisions and very little influence. We do need to have a much better advocacy role in this area. Council approved an Affordable Housing Strategy and a Financial Incentive Program in 2017. I support the recommendations. We need to set targets and monitor outcomes, make changes in our planning regulations during the upcoming zoning bylaw review, recognize accessory apartments as part of our strategy, walk the talk at budget time to invest in financial incentive housing reserves and collaborate with the community to build more affordable housing. When Wellington County is selecting affordable housing projects with funds from other levels of government we have to be at the table and insist those selections are shovel ready – not projects that need to go through extensive planning processes. In addition, the Federal Government has approved a National Housing Strategy and has a bilateral agreement with the province to implement the strategy with 4.2 billion of investments over 10 years to protect, renew, and expand social and community housing. Our community needs to be ready to receive our share of that funding.
5) Guelph is required by provincial mandate to accept thousands of new residents by the middle of this century. How is the City presently managing growth? What should we be doing differently?
Guelph has many documents that guide growth in the City including the directives from the Province through the Places to Grow Plan. The Official Plan and Development Priorities Plan are policy documents intended to help us manage growth. How are we doing? We are a fast growing community but we are not exceeding the numbers in our plans. However, the provinces new targets could present a lot of challenges for Guelph with increased intensification if implemented. We need to ensure the rate of growth stays in check and consistently insist on quality development that protects our natural areas, offers complete, livable communities and delivers excellence in urban design. The 5 year delay in implementing our updated Official Plan due to OMB appeals was detrimental to our City in its ability to fully realize the plan for our community. The OMB is now gone and our community will have much more control over how we grow our community. Growth does not pay for itself. Development charges are regulated by the province so municipalities can only recover approximately 80 % of costs thereby placing a burden on existing taxpayers. In our review of Development Charges and the Parkland Dedication By-law, we need to maximize the funds we are able to collect from development to ensure we can more adequately pay for the costs associated with growth
6) Transit. First, what is your experience using transit? Second, do you think council and staff presently understand issues with transit? And third, what is one specific thing you would suggest to improve Guelph Transit service?
I currently do not use public transit as I live close to the Downtown and can easily walk downtown or take my vehicle for trips further afield. However, there have been times in my life where I have relied on transit with kids in tow. When my children were teenagers, they always had bus passes.
I don’t believe we have a complete understanding of the transit issues though I do know reliability is probably on the top of the list. We will have a better picture of the current situation once the Transit Service Review is complete early next year.
The reliability issue will be partially resolved in September when we bring new drivers on Board. The success of the 99 Mainline along Gordon/Norfolk/Woolwich has shown us a formula to implement more bus frequency along main arterial roads. This change in September 2017 was a large part of the 44% increase we saw in ridership at that time. We need to look to other main roads like Speedvale, Stone and Edinburgh and also consider express routes like Kingston.
7) What needs to be done to improve Regional Transit? (This includes intercity buses, two-way all-day GO trains, and high-speed rail?
I am quite optimistic about the two-way all-day Go rail service from Toronto to Waterloo by 2024. The new Provincial Government appears to be committed and Guelph will continue to strongly advocate for this as we have in the past. This improved GO service is needed to help facilitate the current and future aspirations of the Toronto – Waterloo Innovation Corridor which is a major economic driver both locally in Guelph and in the Waterloo Region. This may partially resolve some of the traffic issues between Guelph and KW. While I would love to see us enter into agreements for intercity transit, I think our focus for the next few years should be to improve transit in our own community. I am supportive of high speed rail and pleased that we were able to advocate for Guelph to be identified as a stop along the Toronto-Windsor corridor. We need to continue to lobby along with the Chamber of Commerce and the University of Guelph to ensure the high speed rail plans move forward. All of these initiatives are important to promote economic development and improve interconnectivity to Toronto and the Waterloo Region.
8) If there’s one power that’s currently the jurisdiction of the province or the federal governments, but should be transferred to municipalities, what would it be and why?
Actually my choice would not be with transferring the powers of provincial or federal government. It would be with our Shared Services that is under the jurisdiction of Wellington County as they administer the City’s Social Service programs. Guelph contributes $22 million to Shared Services – social housing, child care and social services- which is approximately 75% of the total costs. However, through an agreement made many years ago, the City does not have control over this budget and has very limited influence on decision making. This is problematic as there are many people in Guelph who are struggling to find adequate housing, food and social services. Council needs to find ways to play a much better advocacy role in this area in order to properly serve and be accountable to our citizens.
9) How do you define a taxpayer? What is the responsibility of a councillor when it comes to budgeting?
Taxpayers are residents and businesses owners who pay taxes directly or indirectly through rent to the City so that we can all benefit from services like policing, garbage pickup, road maintenance and enjoy public spaces like parks and recreational facilities. Nine cents out of every dollar that we pay in total taxes are paid municipally. At budget time we need to balance the needs and reality of today with a vision to the future. We benefit today from taxes paid by past generations and hopefully taxes we pay today will benefit future generations. Budgets should reflect and be closely aligned with the vision of the community. Councillors need to do their homework at Budget time and take their oversight responsibility very seriously. They need to take the time to understand the documents, ask questions and make balanced decisions regarding how to best invest the funds the city receives from property taxes. Councillors also need to reach out to constituents to hear about their priorities for the community.
10) Hypothetical: The City’s in a budget crunch, and a substantial tax increase is cost prohibitive for the average Guelphite, so a cut *has* to be made. What City of Guelph service do you look at and why?
I understand that this is a ‘hypothetical’ question but Council would never be in a position to look at one service. I believe it would actually be irresponsible to do so. Municipal budgets are complex. We would need to look at all of our programs in collaboration with our staff. We would have to consider what funds were being transferred into reserves and whether we should make those investments. Do we use our funds from our Rate Stabilization Reserve? Other items to look at would be City projects in the capital budget that are tax supported – perhaps some could be delayed and we would then reduce the funds transferred. Like a household budget, Council would have to identify a number of areas where we could reduce the tax increase for that year. Council would also have to put in place more comprehensive processes to ensure the City is not in the same positon the next year. Our Service Review program has found significant savings over the past few years. We will be switching to a four year Operating Budget cycle and a fully funded ten year Capital Budget in the next term of Council which will create greater certainty for our residents and businesses when it comes to Budget increases.
11) Describe a time you had to make a tough decision, and the thought process you went through in order to reach that decision? (Doesn’t have to be political)
I would say that the decision whether to continue with online voting was one of my toughest decisions though there are many. The issue played out with community and academic ‘security expects’ being pitted against ‘municipal security experts’ and accessibility vs security. There was no common ground to be found. In the end I supported online voting for ONLY the advance polls as was done in 2014. I agree Federal and Provincial elections are a long way from online voting. Municipal online voting has been used since 2003 without any security breaches. 97 municipalities used online voting in 2014 and it is projected that 200 municipalities will in 2018. The City’s Accessibility Advisory Committee passionately delegated before Council reminding us of the ‘human right’ for everyone to vote independently. Council can only approve ‘voting methods’ and cannot direct the City Clerk/Returning Officer to implement programs like home visits for municipal elections. Candidates receive a list of people with their addresses who have voted in the Advance Polls before Election Day. Any irregularities would be farily evident. I asked the City Clerk to produce a report about online voting security that was also presented to Council. I don’t deny the concern about security risks in online voting as there are with the online voters list as well. There are risks in all types of voting. I read, listened to and talked with many people. I respect the views of others on this issue and the final decision of Council to move back to using tabulators and an online voters list. I am sure this issue will be debated again next term and I again will consider all aspects of the issue before making a decision.
12) Is there a municipal issue that you don’t think gets enough attention? What is it and why should it get more attention?
It think we should take a relook at how we do public engagement. Through the current Community Plan engagement process we have heard that 50% of people “think their voices shape municipal decisions.” We can and should do better. Guelph has a robust community engagement framework but we clearly have to look at where we are falling short and what are the barriers. I think we should consider more innovative ways of engaging our residents. Recently, I have heard suggestions of putting a Community Engagement Office on the main floor of City Hall. Citizens would have an opportunity to access information on all of the ongoing consultation processes and provide feedback. Another idea is to start engagement processes with an educational event that would include speakers or a panel on the subject. Also, we could create a Civics 101 series of workshops as I have seen in other communities. I like these ideas. We need to invite our citizens to tell us how they would like to be involved in civic processes.
13) Where can people learn more about you, or your campaign, and how can they get in touch with you?