One week ago, Mayor Cam Guthrie delivered his annual State of the City address before the membership of the Guelph Chamber of Commerce. On Thursday morning, the mayor took the show down the road to Breezy Corners for the weekly breakfast meeting organized by Councillors Phil Allt and James Gordon.
Instead of reading the full State of the City address that was delivered at the exact same time one week earlier at the Delta Hotel and Conference Centre, Guthrie used a more free-style approach, and took more questions from the 30-some odd people in attendance.
Guthrie went right to the various initiatives he’s seeking funding for coming out of his Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness and Community Safety. Many of these initiatives, he said, started as pilot programs funded by upper levels of government that worked very well, but couldn’t be continued because the funding wasn’t there.
“It’s a form of downloading that the province, or sometimes the federal government, does to cities when they give you money for programs, and the programs work amazingly, they make a huge impact for people, and then, after one year, they’re taken away,” he explained.
Among the funds Guthrie is looking for is $100,000 for a court support worker, and between $400,000 and $600,000 for a support recovery room.
“The burden rests on the council of the day because they see the results, and we’re going to have to take up that space where the funding used to come from,” Guthrie said.
Another successful program for which funding might soon be an issue is the community health van. The mayor spent a few hours volunteering with the van last week to see first-hand its impact..
“I will say that since the van started, and since the overdose prevention site has opened up, I can tell you personally that I have seen a drastic reduction in people emailing me and my office about discarded needles in the downtown and the parks,” Guthrie said, adding that the van picked up over 10,000 needles in the last year.
The community health van is presently funded through a Trillium grant from the Province of Ontario.
“The big ask” according to Guthrie is supportive housing, and the price tag he put to that, brand new, was $4.5 million in capital costs, plus $800,000 to $1 million per year in operating costs.
“I’ve been meeting with potential funders so that before March 5, when the council budget is set, I can try and exhaust my efforts in trying to find funding elsewhere before I bring it to the community at large and ask for some of the funding for these things I just outlined,” Guthrie explained.
The mayor said that he’s trying to take as much of the burden as he can off the shoulders of the taxpayers by working with other agencies, but he’s also trying to be flexible.
“If it comes down to it, where it’s just one-time funding as a stop-gap, if we can at least get the funding until the end of this coming year, it will at least give us a runway to sustainable funding,” he said.
“I can no longer point the finger and say it’s someone else’s problem because I’ve been doing that for four years, and for four years the same people aren’t getting help,” Guthrie said repeating a line he used during the State of the City at the Delta.
On these issues, which are affecting many municipalities in the province, Guthrie said that he hopes to use his new position as the chair of the Large Urban Mayors Caucus of Ontario (LUMCO) to put up a united front.
“I’m trying to rally the troops,” Guthrie said. “I’m trying to rally our city, who are also, hopefully, agreeing with the statement that it can no longer be someone else’s problem.”
Questions from the crowd covered a wide variety of tops including the gap in funding available for growth between what can be raised through development charges, and the amount really needed. Guthrie said that a lot of those decisions might be outside of municipal control and what happens with Bill 66.
“The gap is real, it’s absolutely real, but a lot of it rests with legislation from the Province, and it’s a difficult nut to crack,” he said.
On infrastructure, Guthrie said he’s been disappointed with the rollout of the second phase of infrastructure funding from the Federal government. So far, the mayor said only about $3 million in funding has been made available to the City, and their shovels are ready.
“It takes way too long, and then we miss the construction season,” Guthrie said. “We have no idea when [the money] is coming, and we’re very, very concerned that we’ll miss the 2019 construction season.”
On the recent cold snap, and whether or not Guelph’s shelter resources are being taxed, Guthrie said the City does not have a capacity issue at the shelters.
“Obviously, when the cold comes, I get lots of social media [posts] asking ‘Why aren’t you helping people?'” Guthrie said. “We are, our shelter system is not at capacity, and if it ever was, there’s a line item at the County [of Wellington] that puts people in hotel rooms.”
“We cannot force people either, and that’s a difficult conversation to have,” he added. “You or I can find someone at night that obviously, in our minds, shouldn’t be sleeping in a tent or sleeping in an alleyway, and we can tell them we can get them a warm place to sleep, but they do not want to go.”
On a different topic, Guthrie was asked about the relationship between staff and council, and whether the former is giving the best possible advice to the latter.
“Our staff are professional people in their field, and they’re offering the best advice they possibly can in the reports. It’s then our job as a council, and as a community, to poke and prod the reports,” said Guthrie.
The mayor did have an alternative criticism. “My personal opinion is that when it comes to bylaws and updates to certain procedures in the city, I feel that we are very slow, and it’s been a pet peeve of mine for quite some time,” he said.
Pointing to food trucks as an example, Guthrie said that a neighbouring municipality was able to set up the licensing for food trucks in about eight months, where as it took the City of Guelph almost two years.
Along those lines, Guthrie pivoted to one of the priorities he mentioned in his speech to the Chamber, improving customer service at the City for citizens. “Why can’t we make getting a permit for a neighbourhood want to shut down their street for a street party just as easy?” he asked.
Finally, Guthrie said he’d like to see the City engage better. “I think engagement has drastically changed in the ways we need to make sure we’re engaging, like we are right now,” Guthrie said. “Technology has changed greatly when it comes to engagement, and we need to have an update because I feel our engagement is just going though the motions a bit, and it’s not to the speed I’d like to see it go.”