This Month at Council: The Budget, Heritage, and Accessory Apartments

Four meetings of city council took place this month, and there was a lot of action on a lot of different files. The big one was the 2021 budget, and there’s always lots of friction around those issues, but there were also some contentious debates on heritage matters and accessory apartment policy too. So let’s look back at what happened this past month at city council, and the last batch of council meetings for 2020.

Budget Meeting of City Council – December 1

If you’re not interested in knowing the intricate details of how it all happened at the meeting, the bottom line is that the levy increase for 2021 is 2.25 per cent. To get there, several initiatives were paused for next year, and more than a couple of bucks were handed out from the tax operating reserve. As briefly as possible (but still not that brief), here’s the recap of the eight-hour meeting.

The meeting began with a motion coming out of closed session to freeze the salaries and wages for non-union, management exempt (NUME) staff, which includes the mayor, councillors, and the exec team. The motion passed 8-5 and it had the effect of decreasing the levy for 2021 by $831,800.

Next, Councillor Mike Salisbury brought forward a motion for the construction of the bike skills facility at Eastview Park to begin in 2022, and complete planning in 2021. Staff expressed concern about the deadline and pointed out that there were a lot of moving parts with Eastview including the construction of a splash pad. DCAO Colleen Clack-Bush said 2022 was doable, but 2023 was more likely. With the change of completion date, and a budget commitment, the motion was passed 9-4.

Council then undertook a lengthy and contentious debate about additional one-time funding for the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition. Councillor Cathy Downer’s original motion asked for $70,000 for anti-racism and inclusion programming and $100,000 for community support and food programs. Some on council wanted to fund the emergency support but not the other programming, while others wanted to give the GNSC a lump sum and not dictate what they should spend the money on. After a motion to pass a straight $100,000 transfer to the GNSC failed 5-8, council passed the entire $170,000 unanimously.

Downer’s next motion was for $300,000 to help Community Benefit organizations continue to recover from COVID-19 and it passed unanimously with much less debate, but council did not endorse a motion from Councillor Dan Gibson asking for $305,000 to cut facility rentals by 25 per cent for youth non-profit rec groups for 2021. The motion ended up failing due to the apparent concern about setting an expectation that the cut is permanent and not just for one year, the motion failed 6-7.

After a brief break, Councillor Rodrigo Goller brought forward a motion asking for $150,000 for contract staffing to implement the Affordable Housing Assistance Program assuming the County of Wellington doesn’t want to take on that responsibility. CAO Scott Stewart tried to allay council concern saying that if council is going to be in the game and collect funds for affordable housing, then they should be prepared to hire the expertise to administrate it if the County doesn’t want to take it on. The motion passed 12-1.

A second Goller motion that passed unanimously asked for $25,000 to explore a more holistic tax deferral program to help people in need and may be temporarily struggling to cover their tax bills.

Mayor Cam Guthrie then put forward a motion to use funding made available from the Province, plus $300,000 from the reserve, to be put toward an internal service rationalization review. There was a lot of debate about how this would fit in with the staff plan, and whether or not a pandemic was a good time to look at the “normal” operations of city hall. It was noted though that the money is on the table from the Government of Ontario if council was interested in taking it and the motion passed 7-6.

Next, council passed a motion to renew its commitment to Welcoming Streets and the Addictions Court Support Worker again for another year to the tune of $152,200. Mayor Guthrie said that there was some discussion about finding permanent funding for Welcoming Streets from the Province, but COVID’s arrival wiped all progress off the map.

After that, Councillor Christine Billings brought forward a couple of motions to reduce the levy further, one to pay for the $465,300 one-time funding request for the Elliott from tax operating reserves, and another to have the $500,000 for 100 per cent Renewable initiatives be taken from the Redevelopment Incentive Reserve, and they both passed. Another motion to postpone the new planner position one year failed 6-7.

After the dinner break, Mayor Guthrie looked to move quickly through the remaining motions. A request from Councillor Leanne Caron for $90,350 to hire a constituency assistant failed, but a motion to fund police checks for volunteers for one-year up to $150,000 passed with near unanimous consent.

Councillor Mark MacKinnon then brought forward a complex motion to address parking fees downtown saying that presently everyone in the city was subsidizing those spaces. There was a lot of debate about the severity of the increase on monthly passes, and how this seemed to come up without any input or feedback from downtown residents, business owners, or the Downtown Guelph Business Association, not to mention the limited notice in proposing these changes just 30 days before when they would go into effect on January 1. While council did pass a clause raising the hourly rate 25 cents, and another clause increasing street permit fees two per cent (both by a narrow 7-6 margin), the clause looking to increase monthly permit fees for lots and parkades to $150 failed handily.

Next Councillor Dominique O’Rourke brought forward a motion to cover two years worth of the levy for the main library from the aforementioned Redevelopment Incentive Reserve, which is meant to fund brownfield projects and to improve the facades of heritage buildings downtown. It passed 11-2. Billings then asked to pause the special $750,000 levy for the hospital renovations for one year. Mayor Guthrie said this motion was already cleared though Guelph General Hospital since their fiscal year ends in March; so long as they get their funding by March 31, 2022, they won’t miss a year. That motion passed 8-5.

Gibson then brought forward a motion to give staff the authority to implement micro transit options, and to use any cost savings to implement the Hanlon Creek Business Park route, which passed unanimously. And while another Billings motion to cancel the phase-in of operating funds for the Baker district this year failed 6-7, a Gibson motion to cut it from $525,000 to $300,000 passed 7-6.

A motion originated by Mayor Guthrie asked council to reduce business license fees for one year, and this is where the united front of COVID relief started breaking as some councillors became concerned about the strain on reserves. The motion eventually passed 11-2.

The final motion was Gibson’s annual attempt to roll back the contribution to the dedicated infrastructure levy by 0.5 per cent noting that there’s been a lot of progressing shaving millions of dollars off the infrastructure tab through asset management. Even the prospect of getting the levy below two per cent wasn’t enticing enough to get the majority of council to side with him, and the motion failed 4-9.

With the completion of that final motion, the budget was done. The levy was set at 2.25 per cent, and the hit against the tax contingency reserve was around $1.4 million. The budget was passed 10-3 with Councillors Allt, Bell, and Billings voting against.

You can read through the full recap of the meeting here.

Committee of the Whole Meeting – December 7

Appropriately enough, the first item for this final Committee of the Whole meeting for 2020 was about the City of Guelph’s management of COVID-19. Chris Beveridge from Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health covered the science, while CAO Scott Stewart (who was celebrating five years at the City on Monday) covered the support for local groups and businesses, and the economic impacts on the 2020 budget.

In terms of the science, Beveridge said that according to his reading of the numbers and infection rates locally it was surprising to him that Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph had not gone into red level already two weeks ago. Beveridge also said that it seems likely Pfizer’s COVID vaccine will likely be the first one to be available to the public, but that comes with some complications because it has to be kept really cold at all times, and it does not move well. Those facts will make vaccine distribution more difficult and so shots will likely have to be given out at a centralized location as opposed to setting up clinics.

Councillors also asked questions about the potential pressure on Guelph General Hospital, which Beveridge says still has capacity in the ICU despite outbreaks in other area hospitals. DCAO Colleen Clack-Bush was asked about masking on Guelph Transit buses and concerns about crowding, and she said that supervisors had done a blitz at Guelph Central Station and the University Centre a few weeks ago and handed out masks as opposed to citations. In terms of warming centres, Clack-Bush explained that the reason the City was planning to keep rec centres and libraries open in the event of Guelph moving to level red is so that they can continue to act as de facto warming centres.

After a brief break, committee ran through the rest of the agenda starting with the Intergovernmental Relations Strategic Framework (which hasn’t been updated since 2013), and the 2021 Advocacy Plan where the Top 3 goals are assistance for local economic recovery, further financial support for the pandemic, and more infrastructure funding. The plan was passed unanimously as was the one consent item, the latest report on the transition of the Blue Box program to producer responsibility.

After that, there was one last item, which was the Real Estate Asset Update. These were the same items discussed last year at a special meeting of council, but this time there was a bit more direction about the potential future for some of the properties concerned.

There was a lot of discussion specifically about the 341 Forestell Road building, which might have a future use as a pumphouse, but the main heritage feature, the porch, is falling apart. Staff were recommending that that the porch be dismantled and preserved for potential future use, but Councillor Leanne Caron raised a question about whether or not such a motion would put the City in violation of 341 Forestell’s Heritage designation under the Province of Ontario. Caron moved that the clause ordering direction on 341 Forestell be referred to next week’s council meeting to get confirmation about the potential planning implications.

Council was also interested about the potential fate of the Drill Hall at 72 Farquhar Street. Perhaps presaging a fight to come later about the potential use of the old building, some councillors tried to get assurances that explorations about the fate of the Drill Hall will be explored as enthusiastically with community groups as it will with potential buyers in the private sector. There was also some handwringing about how so many City assets were allowed to get to such a state, but staff suggested that committee should focus on what can be done in the future instead of what wasn’t done in the past. The remaining recommendations were passed unanimously.

You can read through the full recap of the meeting here.

Regular Meeting of City Council – December 14

The meeting started swiftly with the approval of the new Community Grant Allocation Panel, and the performance evaluation of the Chief Administrative Officer.

After that, Councillor Rodrigo Goller had a question about the appointment of the new integrity commissioner, Jason Mascarin of Aird & Berlis LLP. Referring to a Toronto Star article about a tax fraud scheme involving gold medal willing Olympic runner Donovan Bailey and others, who were all advised by a lawyer with Aird & Berlis, there was some concern about the ethical character of the law firm. Both City Clerk Stephen O’Brien and Mascarin himself assured council that the work of the firm’s municipal department is siloed from the their other work, and is above reproach in its conduct. The recommendation was approved.

Next, Councillor Dominique O’Rourke successfully added a recommendation to the 2021 advocacy plan for the intergovernmental team to make the protection of ground water a priority in the new year.

The main motion though was a request from Councillors Leanne Caron and James Gordon to join other municipalities in encouraging the Provincial government to phase out gas fire plants by 2030 and to post an interim cap on emissions of 2.5 megatonnes per year. There were a dozen delegates that spoke in favour of the motion, and half of them were local high school kids.

In the council debate, Councillor Mark MacKinnon proposed a less specific recommendation to ask the Province to develop a plan to phase out “carbon generating electricity generation”, but the proponents of the original motion wanted the specificity and the amendment failed 4-8. A separate amendment from Councillor Christine Billings separated the 2.5 megatonne goal and added a deadline of “as soon as possible” from the recommendation to phase out gas plants by 2030, and the motion passed 11-1.

The final item was the Real Estate Asset Update. A few people on council were concerned about selling 65 Delhi Street for straight profit without also considering community benefit, but DCAO Kealy Dedman said all options will come back to council. Caron also added a line to the recommendation for 341 Forestell Road requesting that the porch repair cost be added to the 2022 capital budget. The report was passed 12-1. Councillor Cathy Downer also asked staff to prepare a report by Q3 2021 that outlines the status on all of Guelph’s heritage assets in real estate, which passed.

You can read through the full recap of the meeting here.

Planning Meeting of City Council – December 14

Because of the unintended length of the regular meeting, the planning meeting started about an hour late, but the meeting’s two pressing matters were dealt with after a brief in-camera discussion to receive information concerning an LPAT appeal.

When senior heritage planner Stephen Robinson couldn’t be raised on Webx, council moved on to the other subject, which was the final draft and decision report on the Additional Residential Unit review. After looking at the changes that were made to the proposed Official Plan Amendment after July’s statutory public meeting, council heard from the one delegate, which was Linda Davis on behalf of the McElderry Community. Davis was still not pleased about the changes proposed and expressed concern that all these measures would do is invite absentee landlords to pack more students onto a single property.

Councillor Cathy Downer began proposed a couple of amendments that would hopefully address the overarching concerns of people in her ward, and the old university neighbourhood. The first amendment proposed capping the number of bedrooms in a basement apartment to two instead of three, which prompted a lot of back and forth between councillors and staff about the myriad of ways landlords use loopholes to get around what rooms are strictly defined as “bedrooms.” The amendment passed by a slim 7-6 margin.

A second amendment from Downer asked staff to cut off the height limit for an additional unit at five metres, but some on council thought that this measure would be prohibitive to someone that wanted to build an accessory apartment above a garage, so an exemption was added with the feedback of staff. This amendment passed with a more leisurely 11-2 vote.

From here, things went a little off the rails. Mayor Cam Guthrie quickly moved forward to a vote on the whole amended motion before at least one member of council knew what happened. Councillor Leanne Caron had additional motions she wanted to be considered, so council had to suspend the Procedural Bylaw so that the mayor could take back the vote and hear Caron’s motions.

In the end, Caron’s two proposed amendments, one to create a universal limit on the size of accessory units and a minimum three-metre setback, both failed, but the main motion passed again, officially, with a vote of 8-5. After that, two additional motions were passed to refer the issue of tree protection and preservation while creating additional residential units to the Private Tree Bylaw review in 2022, and to review the effectiveness of the alternative to rental housing licensing that council passed in 2013.

The last item of the year was a potential heritage designation for the old Crawley farmhouse in the south end. The property owner brought a demolition request to the City in October, and the lawyer for the owner, Eileen Costello, said that it was out of frustration about having a lack of options about what to do with the property; they can’t find a buyer for the house, they can’t find somewhere to move the house, and they can’t even hook it up to municipal sanitation or install their own septic tank.

Heritage Guelph put the kibosh on the demolish request and referred the motion to designate the house to council, and the 60-day period to ratify was running out. Many on council were convinced that there are options for the farmhouse that have not yet been explored, and Councillor Caron spoke passionately about the dwindling number of cultural heritage features in this part of the city, which Guelph expropriated from Puslinch with the promise of protecting these farmhouses, some of which were 150 years old or older.

The motion to designate the house as a heritage property under section 29, Part IV was approved in a vote of 9-4, and council directed staff to work with the property owner to find a future use for the farmhouse.

You can read through the full recap of the meeting here.

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