By Kirk Winter

I sat down with City of Kawartha Lakes Mayor Andy Letham for almost 90 minutes recently and spoke about the budget, councillor workloads, fire hall construction, policing costs, culture funding, and many other issues of interest to the local tax payers.

Are you happy with the budget that Council has just passed, and what do you think will be priorities over the next 90 days?

Letham was very happy with the budget, and pleased that the new Council has survived the First Quarter of 2019. Letham shared that the First Quarter of each year is always the most intense with the budgeting process front and center, and for a new Council the learning curve can be very steep.

Mayor Letham was satisfied that the levy was kept under 3 percent, and that there was an “intelligent readjustment” of many City policies and services all within the framework of the CKL's Long Term Plan. As Letham shared, both Mayor and Council “know where the City is going.”

Priorities for the next 90 days included some interesting teases from the Mayor.

Broadband and High-speed Internet

Both the federal and provincial governments have promised to partner with the City on rural broadband expansion and closing the cell phone gap in CKL. The City has committed $600,000 to this goal over the next four years.

On April 4, Bell Canada is rolling out its new program for high-speed internet and cable television in CKL starting with Little Britain. Bell is pioneering their expansion into rural high speed internet starting with CKL.

Both cable television and broadband will be available through this expansion at what Bell calls “affordable rates.”

Road Maintenance

No one in the City should be surprised that road maintenance is high on the City’s list of priorities. The City was informed that with a higher than usual snowpack preparing to melt in Algonquin Park, the likelihood of flooding with more road damage is very high. The City’s plan to rebuild many of its gravel roads is on target for a spring start.

Economic Development

While Letham could not be more specific, he did strongly suggest that there will be a number of commercial and economic announcements. He was hopeful that these announcements would transition the City out of what has been “a tough winter” and would hopefully get “people out of their homes and shopping again.”

What did you think of the budgeting process with only an eight member Council?

Letham said that veteran Councillors found this year’s process much improved, with better and more meaningful discussion. For the new Councillors, the First Quarter with multiple meetings was “challenging” and a “real learning curve.”

Some Councillors are privately sharing that they are finding the City workload and their real jobs an onerous combination. Is this a fair comment?

Letham empathized with those trying to balance full- time work with their Council responsibilities. He said those individuals had “everything hit them at once” with the budget first. Letham added that it would certainly be “a challenge” to balance full-time work and Councillors’ duties.

Is there still any significant opposition in Mariposa Township to the creation of the new fire hall?

Mayor Letham acknowledged that the merging of the two fire halls into one “would be a change for the people, and that volunteer fire halls have deep roots in rural communities.” Despite that, he suggested that “long term this move made sense.” He said the City “had done its homework and that this was going to be a smart move for both communities.”

When asked if there was a plan for the current Oakwood Hall, the Mayor shared that the City is looking at a variety of options but no one option has been selected as of yet.

Letham concluded this part of the discussion by saying “change is tough” and he felt that in the long run the decision to build the one new hall would be seen as the right decision.

As OPP costs in places like Trent Lakes skyrocket, is Lindsay happy with the service and cost of policing that they are getting from the CKL Police service?

Letham shared that at least in CKL, OPP costing barely went up over previous years. The Mayor said during the Core Services Review the City calculated that they saved between $3 million and $4 million going with the hybrid model of policing that currently exists here. Letham said the OPP and the CKL Police service work well together, and when one has the expertise or equipment that the other does not, they freely share back and forth. He also believes that the presence of the other force benefits the City at budget time with both sides trying to provide the most competitive bid for services. Letham believes that the City benefits from that ongoing competition.

What do you think are the chances of a “Cultural Hub” being built in the next two to three years in CKL?

Letham is very happy that the City has a Cultural Master Plan in place that has brought many diverse groups together, and has them planning for the future.

He isn’t sure what the future will look like, and one single cultural hub may not be the route to go. Letham can see a possible model where City funds go to a number of smaller centers besides just Lindsay, like Fenelon Falls and Bobcaygeon.

He believes that the ongoing meetings are allowing for organization, and are “going in a good direction.”

Letham is very excited by the growth in interest of the CKL Arts Trail which is gaining popularity with both artists and visitors to the City. Letham hopes that this kind of tourism will encourage “people to take a day and travel the City, stopping somewhere to have a meal.”

Why has the City been so hesitant to take over and run the Victoria County Old Gaol Museum as a municipal facility like almost every other museum in Central Ontario?

Letham said “that was a really good question that he really didn’t have an answer for.” He said the first priority for the museum is a new lease where “the City helps with the bills.”

The Mayor shared that the City owns the building and really doesn’t know what to do with it. The Core Services Review determined that the use of the facility as a museum is a good one. He admitted “that the City is going to have to step up to assist culture and heritage”, and that the work Deborah Soles has been doing on behalf of the City will help determine what kind of cultural and heritage model the City moves forward with.

Where is the City in its negotiations with the province about the widening of Highway 35?

Letham said they had heard nothing since Christmas, and likely they would have a better idea of provincial priorities once the budget is brought down in April.

In the past, the province has claimed that traffic on Highway 35 does not warrant improvements. The province now admits that those traffic numbers might be artificially low caused by drivers abandoning the highway, and looking for faster and safer routes elsewhere to the GTA.

Has this winter been as hard on the roads in CKL as it seems it has?

Letham said the weather this winter has been a challenge because of its variety and severity. A difficult combination of snow, freezing rain, wind, and flooding that has just begun has run City road crews ragged.

Letham shared that the City has to adjust to the current weather patterns and assume they are going to be the new normal. Letham gave a big shout out to the City road crews who try their best to keep the roads in CKL safe and passable. He concluded by saying that “this winter has been very hard on staff.”

When will the satellite town hall meetings begin?

Letham has dates already penned in for the late spring and summer. The plan is to have a combination of Mayor’s Town Hall meetings supported by a skeleton crew of Councillors, and come budget time next fall full Council meetings in non-traditional locations. Letham would also like to run some evening meetings in the hopes of allowing more public participation and consultation.

Has having a deputy mayor made your life easier?

Letham says there is still “a feeling out process going on” regarding the duties and responsibilities of the new position. He very much hopes that Deputy Mayor Doug Elmslie will lead some of the Community Round Tables coming up later this year, and will take on some of the summer “meet and greet” functions at public events.

The Deputy Mayor has financial signing authority when the Mayor is away, and Letham said jokingly that Doug Elmslie will be the “guinea pig” deputy mayor as everything is tried for the first time during his one year renewable term in the position.

Does the City expect the province to download services to the municipalities in the upcoming April budget?

Letham shared that, at least initially, that hasn’t happened, with transfers to the municipalities increased for this operating year. He doesn’t expect this to stay this way and expects that there will be some provincial cutbacks and downloading. Letham is not afraid of that because he said, “municipalities need to be more viable and less reliant on the province.” Steve Clark, the provincial Municipal Affairs minister, is a former Mayor. Letham says, “he gets it”, and understands how far the province can go in shifting service responsibilities to the municipalities.