Saugeen Shores Probus Club hosts Bruce County Warden as keynote speaker

Saugeen Shores Men’s Probus Club continues despite a pandemic.  The monthly in-person meetings that were held at the Port Elgin Legion Branch 340 have now moved to a virtual format but still feature a variety of keynote speakers.

This month’s guest speaker was re-elected Bruce County Warden and South Bruce Peninsula Mayor, Janice Jackson, who explained the intricacies of Bruce County Council and its relationship with municipalities.

Jackson first defeated then-incumbent Warden, Mitch Twolan, Mayor of Huron-Kinloss who had been re-elected several times, and she was then re-elected for her second term for 2022. The Warden’s position is elected for a one-year term.

Bruce County Council is made up of the mayors of the eight municipalities within Bruce County each representing his or her community.

Warden Jackson pointed out that Grey County has a large council consisting of Mayors, Deputy Mayors and some Councillors.  “I believe there are approximately 17 who sit on Grey County Council.  I think that the larger the Council the more difficult or longer it takes to arrive at decisions.  In Bruce County, the eight Council members work very well together.”

Jackson went on to say that the Municipality of Kincardine’s Mayor Anne Eadie stepped down last year and that she “… misses her terribly.  I am now the only gal at the table and I have tried to step into Anne’s shoes when it comes to nuclear.  The nuclear portfolio is massive as we have the largest nuclear power plant (Bruce Power) in the world and it is an incredibly steep learning curve.  The whole nuclear industry is a monster but we are so lucky to have Bruce Power in our region and in our County.  The amount that they give back to the community is insurmountable.  They seem to be everywhere.”

She pointed out that Bruce Power has been very involved with the Covid pandemic with their vaccination hubs and rapid testing units.  “Chapman’s Ice Cream has also been amazing and gone well and beyond as a community partner.”

Jackson said that she also sits on the Canadian Community Host Association and travels to Ottawa for various nuclear summits.

“These are only a few of things that have been on my very steep learning curve,” Jackson told Probus members at their virtual meeting on January 11th.

She explained that the difference between the municipalities and the County is that the County oversees long-term care, handles EMS and deals with library services.  In addition, the province has downloaded areas that include social services, affordable housing and day care services to the County.

“The most intricate from the County perspective is long-term care as it is the most regulated in Ontario, as it should be,” added Jackson. “Our long-term care facilities are beautiful and, although we had some compliance issues not addressed in the past, given the time span set out by the province and our Council did not even realize what was going on, we set about to make some very rapid changes.  We brought in one of Ontario’s top consultants and … turned one of our homes in question around.”

Jackson pointed out that there are staffing issues similar to those across the province. “When Covid started we tried to increase the pay rate for PSWs as it was a critical gap. We gave them a pay raise and, then, the province followed suit.  We also got a lot of ‘pushback’ as it was felt that other municipalities and the province would have to follow but, we have to look after our own people.”

She explained that one of the major issues for County Council is to identify and manage the needs and wants of eight different municipalities.  “Each municipality pays a different amount of money each year to the County.   South Bruce Peninsula pays $7Million each year and each of Saugeen Shores and the Municipality of Kincardine pay more at around $8 to $9Million toward the County’s $45M budget. The smaller communities pay less such as North Bruce Peninsula that pays around $900,000.  It’s a lot of money for each community and is what they lose right off the top from their tax base and each municipality wants to see that what they pay comes back to the community.  There is no question that there are competing interests.”

Warden Jackson explained that County Council has to look at who or what has the greatest need.  “For instance, Teeswater bridge, in the municipality of Arran-Elderslie, is on its way out and it’s very expensive to repair.  The problem is do you remove that bridge like they did in Owen Sound? The Teeswater bridge connects the whole town so a by-pass would be 10-15kilometers.  Arran-Elderslie’s Mayor Hammel came to County Council and  suggested putting in a temporary bridge. Council Transportation Department did a cost estimate that it would cost almost one million dollars but the option of not doing that would be to cut the community in half.  Therefore, County Council supported the temporary bridge.  We have to do what’s best for the County regardless of who pays what.”

“We are the gatekeepers for all the municipalities in Bruce County.  We look at all the problems County wide and deal with them,” said Jackson. “If we are struggling to find the money, we have to find it somehow.”

Jackson said she also finds it strange that people not only do not know about County Council but also that they do not pay attention to the County level.  “When the County sets the budget no one has ever complained about a County tax increase but, as a Mayor, do we ever hear it!  People are very vocal about municipal tax increases and, while municipalities such as South Bruce Peninsula try to keep the increase at around three per cent, the County usually comes in at five per cent.  I find it very interesting that the County flies right under the radar.  I’m not sure what the solution is but I am not happy about it.”

“People need to be more educated about it and what is being doing with the money,” added Jackson. “It is all your tax dollars that are automatically being levied by the County through each municipality.  I’m always fighting at the County budget table to keep that number down.”

Jackson admitted to being a ‘penny pincher’ whether sitting at the municipal or the County table.  “It’s all the same pocket that this money is coming from and it’s very critical.”

According to Jackson, in 2022, the County is focusing on affordable housing.  “We just completed an affordable housing build in Kincardine and we are very proud of it and how beautiful it is.  We will be building another but haven’t chosen the area yet.  The locations are chosen by a few different ways.  First, the municipality has to donate the land to the County and then the County completes the construction and runs the building.  Also, there is a list of affordable housing needs based on waiting lists. The biggest waiting list is in the Town of Saugeen Shores followed by Kincardine and South Bruce Peninsula. After completing Kincardine, Saugeen Shores and South Bruce Peninsula are now at the top of the list.”

According to Jackson, grants are also being considered for those wanting to build ‘granny’ suites to try to stimulate additional housing.  She said that South Bruce Peninsula is also one of the first to pass a ‘tiny homes’ By-law.  “Every municipality has a minimum square footage for a building permit.  Ours in South Bruce Peninsula was 1,000 sq. ft. but we have eliminated that as long as a home adheres to the building codes. This will open up for people to come in and build what they can afford.  There are seniors for instance who do not need more than 700 or 800 square feet.”

“These are all things we are looking at from a County perspective,” said Jackson, “and affordable housing is very high up on our County radar.”

Jackson also brought to light, the recent DGR issue that is taking place in South Bruce.  “I would not want to be in Mayor Buckle’s shoes right now with the opposition to it.  This is a municipal issue right now that they are dealing with but the County has not set out any position on the issue until the community makes it clear.”

She pointed out that the studies required will not be completed by the next election and, therefore, will not be going to a public plebiscite until after the election.  “Once the municipality takes a stand on the issue, then the County will weigh in.  It’s very sensitive.”

“We are also always looking at transportation and alternative things for the future,” said Jackson.  “We recently partnered with Grey County for a pilot bus transportation system in the summertime because of tourism.  It went from Owen Sound to Wiarton to Sauble Beach and back to Owen Sound and it worked well.  We also have a lot of interest in tourism and hiking trail and therefore are spending a lot of money in maintaining the trails.”

“It’s very interesting being at the County level and we have talked about having an independent County election and not just having the eight mayors automatically at the table. Perhaps the next County Council will talk about that and it’s worth considering and we may be ahead if we do that,” expressed Jackson. “It’s a very busy portfolio and we are all busy with our mayoral duties.”

Probus member Jamie Stiles asked how the relationship works between the County staff and County Council.  “Do issues come to Council through the staff?”  Jackson confirmed that it is similar to a municipality where everything comes through the CAO or chief of staff with Directors of each department.  “We are however, recruiting right now for a new CAO.  There is however, a real staffing shortage everywhere and a lot of CAOs are retiring right now.  Hopefully, by March, we’ll have someone new in place.”

Probarian Dick Verrips, former County Commissioner said that in the past there had been a lot of media coverage as agendas were sent out prior to meetings so that if there was something of interest the ‘press’ would attend.  “I think the County has to promote itself in the media more than it does.”

“People just don’t seem to react to County politics they way that do to municipal and I don’t know what the answer is to that,” said Jackson. “When we met in person, media did attend but with Covid we have had to go virtual.  I would like the public to be more engaged. While many mayors and/or politicians have facebook pages, they do not seem to interact with those who comment. I do.  I’m very much in tune with my constituents and what they want and really value that communication back and forth.  We work for the taxpayers so how do you know what they want if you don’t communicate with them.”

Julian Glowacki pointed out that he follows Saugeen Shores website and asked if the County does the same thing.  Jackson said that all meetings are on You Tube.

Probarian Bill Streeter then asked about the relationship between the County and the First Nations.  Jackson explained that there is a good working relationship.  “Bruce County collaborates in the best possible way with the two First Nations communities.  The County has settled the land claim with First Nations with donations of land and Georgian Bluff and Saugeen Shores are in the process of settling.”

Jackson then went on to say that the Board of Health for Grey Bruce, made up of three representatives from each County and two provincial appointees, all work together intensely and collaboratively through Dr. Arra of Public Health in trying to overcome the pandemic.  “There is a task force working together.”

When asked about the plovers on Sauble Beach, Jackson said, “We want as a community to share the beach with the plovers and we all feel very protective.  The problem is the Ministry has tied our hands for doing any maintenance on the beach.  We get one and a half million visitors each summer and we feel discriminated against.  Other beaches, such as Port Elgin, are able to groom their beaches but Sauble cannot.  Willow bushes took over and we had no north beach.  We went in with heavy machinery and cleaned it right out and brought the beach back.  The next summer we had the largest recovery of plovers in the history of Sauble Beach. It’s unfortunate we were charged with damaging habitat but we had a Justice of the Peace who was a retired police officer and who had no education in law and found us guilty.  We are taking this to an appeal that will be a one-day appeal on February 22nd.  The Ministry has left us no choice but to appeal. They have said that any human contact with the beach destroys habitat so that we can be charged with simply walking on the beach.  It’s been a horribly expensive ordeal, should never have happened and I am stunned that the province attacked our municipality. I hope we win the appeal and can put this whole thing to bed.”

Jackson added that after the last plover leaves, habitat is deemed protected for 10 years. “If we don’t see a plover until the ninth year, the clock starts again,” says Jackson. “Our hands are not only tied, we are in a straight jacket.  We want to co-habitate with the plovers and share the beach.  The more we are getting beat up by the province, the more our residents are despising the plovers and that’s a shame.”

Warden Jackson also went on to say that the costs to run the County and municipalities increase every year.  She pointed out that, while people say they do not want tax increases, it is not realistic. “The costs for things such as different service providers and utilities increase every year.  If we don’t at least have the taxes to meet that increase, then we’ll run at a deficit … and it’s illegal to run a municipality at a deficit.  That’s something a lot of people don’t know. The province can run at a deficit and the country certainly does, but a municipality cannot.  A zero per cent tax increase is not sustainable.  Meaford did it for several years and got into a heap of trouble that took 10 years to come out of.  We have to deal with inflation and then new initiatives on top that we want to bring forward.”

Jackson told the Probus member that she enjoys talking with people and explaining how things take place in politics.