The Month at Council: No Tower, COVID Update, and a Budget for the Future

This was a jam-packed July at city council even while everyone was physically distant. Along with the usual meetings, there was a shareholder meeting for two City-held companies, and a workshop on multiyear budgeting, which added a lot on the plates of councillors who already saw full slates on a myriad of different issues. Here’s the recap of this past month’s activities in the virtual horseshoe.

Planning Meeting of Council – July 13

After quickly approving the heritage designation for 120 Huron Street, council heard the presentation for the Statutory Public Meeting Report Additional Residential Unit Review. The ultimate goal is to create a new Official Plan and Zoning Bylaw Amendment for what’s commonly known as accessory apartments, like a basement apartment or a cottage house. Among the proposed changes is the allowance of up to three bedrooms in an accessory unit, and a maximum height of two storeys. Naturally, there were some concerns.

Many of the delegates, some representing neighbourhood groups in Wards 5 and 6, were concerned about how these changes might allow for more students to be crammed into a single property by absentee landlords looking purely to make more profit. Others suggested that landlords should be licensed like any other business, or that only select areas of the city could be allowed to have accessory apartments.

When it became council’s turn to ask questions, they focused on concerns about potentially lost trees and greenspaces if accessory apartments are allowed to be built as big as proposed, and the potential fiscal impacts since these units don’t count as separate units and aren’t covered by the collection of development charges, while still having to be serviced. Multiple councillors also expressed concerns about for-profit rentals, and not just so-called “student slums” but AirBnBs and other short-term rentals, but bylaw is apparently in the process of coming up with new regulations on that specific issue. In his comments, Mayor Cam Guthrie referenced a Toronto Star article that said it was finally time for city councils to engage in the creation of more accessory apartments in their municipalities, which has long been a proverbial third rail in local politics.

The report was received unanimously, and staff is free to continue to prepare for the final report by the end of the year.

After a brief break, council discussed the decision report for 70 Fountain Street East, a proposed 25-storey tower at the corner of Fountain and Wyndham that was to have commercial, office, and residential space. Staff recommended turning the application down flat because of the height and the incompatibility with the Downtown Secondary Plan, and it seemed like there was more than enough community support to make that decision a reality.

Most delegates were against the development, but Shakiba Shayani, the president and CEO of the Guelph Chamber of Commerce, tried to make a case for the tower by discussing how the developer Skyline as a good corporate citizen and the importance of keeping those jobs in the Guelph. She also said that the Downtown Secondary Plan was perhaps a bit antiquated considering the current move to mixed-use developments, but there was some pushback by council on that point later. Robert Mullin, the counsel for Skyline, tried to sell the project to council as a downtown revitalization project, but it was clear that no one on council was really looking for anyone to play devil’s advocate in favour of the tower.

Council asked no questions of staff, and after some brief comments, they ratified the staff decision unanimously.

COVID-19 Response Meeting of Council

There was not much in the way of new policy at this month’s COVID-19 response meeting, but there was a lot of work to remind the people of Guelph that there’s still a lot of work left to be done before things get back to normal. Mayor Cam Guthrie opened the meeting saying that while things seem to be returning to something resembling regular life, there’s still “a long road to recovery.”

In terms of actions, Guthrie said that he is continuing his advocacy work through the Large Urban Mayors Caucus of Ontario (LUMCO) to secure emergency operating funds from the Federal and Provincial government, and that the Task Force on Economic Recovery will now meet less frequently as the new programs they’ve developed are enacted. Chief Administrative Officer Scott Stewart began discussion of the corporate response by pointing out that the waiver period for late fees and interest is still scheduled to end on August 1, and that the Province has allowed municipalities like Guelph to have greater flexibility delivering City services.

In terms of new directions, DCAO Kealy Dedman announced that the release of the new digital service GuelphShops, which is designed to help people find locally-owned stores, restaurants and services, would be launching a few days early. DCAO Colleen Clack noted that Stage 3 would mean the re-opening of playground equipment, the removal of fencing at Market Square, increased capacity of local sports fields, and the future, albeit limited, re-opening of the Guelph Civic Museum and the indoor portion of the Farmers’ Market before the end of summer.

In terms of the functioning of the City of Guelph, DCAO Trevor Lee said nearly all furloughed staff members have been recalled, and that council will be moving to a more conventional schedule in September even though all meetings will remain virtual until the end of the year. A deficit of between $2 and $4 million is expected for the 2020 fiscal year.

In terms of delegations, council heard from representatives of Innovation Guelph and the Business Centre of Guelph Wellington to discuss how they will spend between them $300,000 from the Tax Operating Contingency Reserve on supporting local small businesses. Council passed all four of the staff recommendations, including the funding although Councillor Dominque O’Rourke recused herself from the vote because of a pre-existing business relationship with Innovation Guelph.

Council also passed updated guidelines for the Temporary Patio Program, which really had no effect on how the patios and dining district are currently being administrated. Still, Councillor Leanne Piper expressed concern about expanding the dining district for the whole summer after just a two-day pilot over one weekend, and asked if the program might be amended if challenges arise from running the district seven days a week all summer. Dedman confirmed that the program can be changed and pointed out that businesses can create a dining district in any area of the city pending staff approval.

Mayor Guthrie brought forward an additional motion to direct staff to come back to council with a report in August about waiving lottery fees for charity fundraisers. It was passed unanimously by council.

Regular Meeting of Guelph City Council – July 20

After receiving the Chief Administrative Officer’s performance evaluation, and hearing about the adjusted plans in his office, council swiftly approved the Paramedic Service Response Time Performance Plan 2019-2020, and Procedural By-law Amendments to Allow for Continued Remote Meetings. Council then heard the 2019 Consolidated Financial Statements and External Audit Findings from Matthew Betik, a CPA with KPMG, and what they heard was that the financial statements from last year are in good shape.

The vast majority of the meeting had to do with the Community Road Safety Strategy, which was presented by Liraz Fridman, Transportation Safety Specialist with the City. The CRSS is a high-level road safety plan for *all* road users that focuses on education, engineering and enforcement of road safety, and it is meant to be a living document, favouring scientific and data-driven solutions to road issues like speeding, and distracted driving. Five delegates spoke in favour of the plan, but some, like Marilyn Drake, felt that the recommendations didn’t go far enough to protect seniors along the busy portion of Woolwich Street outside the Evergreen Seniors’ Centre.

When it was council’s turn for questions or comments there was concern about how best to have an education campaign that will inform the public about the installation of red light cameras, and about whether or not Vision Zero principles will be incorporated into the Transportation Master Plan. Almost everyone on council agreed that traffic and speeding is among the immediate priorities of their constituents, including the tendency of people to use residential streets as short cuts.

Councillor Bob Bell proposed a motion that would direct staff to bring a report during the 2021 budget process to reduce the citywide speed limit from 50 kilometres per hour to 40, and to expedite a speed limit review. Many of his colleagues were favourable about the idea but opted to let the staff process with the CRSS work and voted against the amendment 2-10. Councillor Dominique O’Rourke proposed an amendment to explicitly ask for a review of the Traffic Calming Policy in 2025 with public consultation as a way to enshrine concerns raised by Dr. Hugh Whiteley about the lack of public consultation on this round of improvements, which was 14 years in the making. The amendment passed 9-4.

The amended recommendations were then passed unanimously by council.

Before wrapping up the meeting, Mayor Cam Guthrie offered a supplemental motion asking council to send message to Canadian National (CN) Rail about the shunting delays along their tracks in Guelph, which are repeatedly causing traffic congestion and scheduling issues for Guelph Transit. The motion also asked staff to return to council with information and expected timelines on what actions might be taken. The motion passed unanimously.

Finally, Mayor Guthrie publicly thanked City workers who responded to the damage done by this weekend’s storm, and paid tribute to former City Councillor Anne Godfrey for all her years of community service.

City Council as Shareholder of GHMI/Guelph Junction Railway – July 22

Although the open portion of the meeting was delayed by about 35 minutes, the annual report of both Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc. and Guelph Junction Railway proceeded without much questioning or controversy.

Guelph City Council Workshop on Multiyear Budgeting – July 27

In a short, straightforward council meeting before the workshop, council unanimously approved a bylaw that would allow them to keep meeting remotely through to December in case the Province lifts the emergency order. The latest legislation from the Ontario government does give council some additional options like proxies, but Clerk Stephen O’Brien will be bringing forward his own recommendations on that with the midterm governance review later this year.

As for the main point of Monday’s meeting, the workshop on multiyear budgeting, council peppered staff with questions about their expectations with this new initiative, and what challenges this first three-year budget will present thanks to the pandemic. To begin with though, staff went over what the budget process is going to look like in the fall, a streamlined process where the budget will not be organized by department, or service area, but by the goals of the Strategic Plan. Instead of multiple budget presentations over several nights, there will be one all-day presentation on the entire budget followed by a delegation night one week later.

In the meantime, council discussed concerns about affordability in terms of budget priorities in the immediate future, and a couple of councillors made the note that there needs to be more emphasis in the Strategic Plan goals about the fundamentals like good roads and other basic infrastructure, and well-staffed and maintained emergency services.

The general manager of finance Tara Baker then outlined some rather specific and concerning numbers to frame a more formal discussion about affordability. So far, because of COVID-19, the City has lost about $20 million in revenue and has had to spend $4 million in additional, emergency costs. While the Government of Ontario did announce emergency funds Monday (see above), the City has no idea how much they’ll be getting and what conditions they’ll need to meet in order to receive it.

At the same time, Chief Administrative Officer Scott Stewart said that staff is hoping to find efficiencies and cost savings internally and have been empowered to take that innovative. There are other options too. Stewart said that the City needs to look at options like privatization, selling underused assets, changing service delivery models, and the continued use of service reviews. Stewart said some of those items aren’t meant to be “provocative” but are part of the discussion because all options have to be on the table.

When it came time for council to ask some more probing questions there were some concerns about the appearance that they’re delegating too much authority on budget matters to staff. It was also noted that they’re going to have to make tough decisions on postponing (or scaling back) on big infrastructure projects like the new main library. A few councillors also wanted staff to come up with a communications plan for councillors to discuss the new budget process in layman’s terms. A couple of councillors remarked on their concerns about moving ahead with any kind of privatization proposal, and others made the note that while it’s easy to get seven people to agree on adding items to the budget, it’s so much hard to get consensus on cutting it.

Before the end of the meeting, Mayor Cam Guthrie said that he wants to focus on health and safety along with provincially-mandated services with this budget, and he also wants to keep the budget increase to zero, or close it, for the next fiscal year. Guthrie also announced that the August 24 meeting of council will include an information report about the budget, and he wants councillors to come to the August 12 meeting of council with their planned intentions for that meeting so that there’s lots of time for staff questions and community response before voting.

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