By Paul Dreossi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
During the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA) budget meeting and AGM of February 20, 2020 held at the Watershed Conservation Centre in London, delegations from the municipality of Perth South and the Town of St. Marys were on hand to object to the increases in levies paid to the Conservation Authority. Members of both delegations are reluctant to remit increase payments to the UTRCA due to what they call a lack of clarity in spending, a lack of responsible Conservation Authority (CA) program expansion, and finally, due to the fact that the UTRCA is acting in contrivance to a letter from Minister of the Environment. Mr. Jeff Yurek that specifically states that there are to be no increases in levies during 2020. In this letter of August 16, 2019, Yurek advises CA’s that legislative changes require that conservation authorities refocus their efforts on the delivery of programs and services related to their core mandates, that “these changes will give greater control to individual municipalities on conservation authority programs and budgets” and, that “I request that you review and consider your own conservation authorities’ activities and begin preparations and planning to wind down those activities that fall outside the scope of your mandate.” He goes on to conclude that “I ask that while we are undergoing this review and updating the legislation and regulations that you do not proceed with any increases to your fees or levies.”
During her address to the UTRCA’s board of directors, Perth South administrator Rebecca Clothier made it clear that Perth South does not agree to the continued expansion and programing and services and the costs associated with these services that the UTRCA is planning. Clothier stated “Perth South is hopeful that the ability to choose services that residents want and opt-out of services they don’t want is a huge step towards eliminating the ability of the urban areas to set service levels that pertain to their own mandates,” continuing that Perth South Major Bob Wilehelm and council request an independent third party to “determine if programs are achieving the objectives and goals intended.” Such value for money audits, asserts Clothier, will “improve performance” of UTRCA programing and associated spending.
Town of St. Marys Mayor Mr. Al Strathdee initiated his address to the UTRCA Board of Directors by reminding those present that on August 14, 1947 a meeting attended by representatives of municipalities from within the Thames River watershed was held at the St. Marys Town hall, thus creating the UTRCA by order of council on Sept 18th of that year. Strathdee asserted “It is my belief that members of the rural community are some of the greatest stewards of the environment,” continuing “however, my feeling is that the authority of the UTRCA has overgrown its original mandate and its jurisdiction is far too broad.” Strathdee underscored that the UTRCA budget has increased 57% in the last 5 years, from $3 650 000 in 2016 to a 2020 budget of nearly $21.5 million, stating the CA is “growing at a rate of two to three times the rate of its peer organizations and has downloaded the cost of this growth to municipalities at several times the rate of inflation.” Both Wilhelm and Strathdee made references to the most recent sewage bypass in the City of London during January of this year that involved 68 million liters of untreated and unfiltered sewage being released into the Thames River, posing the question if municipal levies might be better applied to the rebuilding the failing sewage treatment infrastructure in London in order to have a greater environmental impact on water quality rather than spending on efforts made by the UTRCA. Given that the City of London will require $285 million over the next twenty years to address the sewage issues, Strathdee asks “how can environmental targets ever be achieved with such serious infrastructure deficits within the watershed?” Clearly, both delegations challenged the UTRCA’s proposed levy increases on the grounds of lack of clarity in mandate and spending, and both delegations pointed to that fact that by increasing municipal levies in the 2020 budget, the UTRCA are acting in contrivance of Minister Yurek’s letter of August 16, 2019.
Following the presentations made by the delegations from Perth South and St. Marys, UTRCA Board of Directors debated for approximately five minutes before calling an in-camera session to attain legal advice. Upon commencing the meeting, UTRCA board chair Sandy Levin called upon the Board of Directors to vote on the approval of the UTRCA 2020 budget. Before passing a motion, several members of the board spoke to concerns raised by the delegation’s presentations. Board member and City of London Councillor Mrs. Anna Hopkins remarked that the sewage bypass issue is the responsibility of the City of London, not the UTRCA, and that Provincial funding is being secured to address the sewage treatment facility issues. Board member and Ingersoll Councillor Brian Petrie underscored that the majority of municipalities support the levy increases, acknowledging regret that not all municipalities within the watershed feel their needs are met by UTRCA programming. Petrie acknowledged that statements made by Minister Yurek in the letter of August 16, 2019 are pertinent but are not legally binding, and that the legislation, passed from the Provincial government to the UTRCA, is a legal obligation that the Board of Directors must adhere to. Several board members spoke to the lack of clarity in provincial legislation as to what might be a core mandate, noting the passing down of the responsibility of flood control to the UTRCA while at the same time cutting the flood control budget by 50%. UTRCA General Manager Ian Wilcox spoke describing a “state of confusion” created by the vagueness of Bill 108, underscoring that there will be further debate on what are core or non-mandatory responsibilities of the UTRCA, and that Minister Yurek has promised detailed directives that will be communicated to the municipalities and the UTRCA in the spring. Wilcox continued, stating that he anticipates there will be a transition period of 12-14 months once the minister decrees specific programing, allowing municipalities time to budget for costs associated with the programs, and that further public input will be required at that point. Wilcox reminded those present that much of the costs associated with the provincial offloading in 2019 were covered by UTRCA reserves, and that an increase in budget is the only way to proceed for the UTRCA. Interestingly, the UTRCA’s levy to St. Marys in 2019 was $190,756, and the 2020 levy is $143,885, the decrease of $46,871, according to Wilcox, is due to the completion of the flood wall repairs in St. Marys last year. Sandy Levine concluded the remarks, asserting that the process for passing the UTRCA 2020 budget is a “reasonably open process” while at the same time acknowledging that the decision is “unfortunately not unanimous” and is subject to a “considerable lack of clarity” from the provincial government. The UTRCA voted to pass the 2020 budget, with a majority 14 of 18 votes from the Board of Directors.
By Paul Dreossi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter