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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Monday, November 7, 2011

On tonight's agenda: Clinics, cameras and clubs

Tonight’s council meeting should be relatively light. There are few controversial issues on which everyone is likely to want to speak although you can never tell.

From the Built and Natural Environment Committee, which is first to report, only the report on methadone clinics is likely to elicit much comment, especially from Councillor Steve Orser.  Staff has asked for an extension to the Interim Control By-law passed last November which placed a moratorium on any new methadone clinics in the city until a staff report on licensing of clinics has been completed. Although the Interim Control By-law was challenged, it was upheld by the Ontario Municipal Board.

The staff report recommends using a licensing system rather than zoning regulations to control methadone pharmacies and clinics. The recommended licensing by-law would include regulation of the hours of operation, inside seating space for clients/patients, security cameras, regular inspections, visits by appointment only and physical locations of such pharmacies and clinics.

Although the recommendations were merely received at committee, it was not without significant debate as members expressed concern over maintaining a balance between the needs of persons with addictions, many of whom became addicted during the course of legitimate medical treatment, and the impact of methadone clinics on the community, especially when concentrated in vulnerable areas.

Unless council recommends otherwise, the draft licensing by-law will go to a public participation meeting on November 10th. The extension of time is needed for incorporating the public feedback and addressing any possible legal concerns. Also, before any by-law can be implemented, a fee schedule must be established. This will require an additional public meeting.

Next in line will be the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee (CNC) report. There are a number of items on this one which should stimulate some discussion.

Probably the item capturing the most attention will be recommendation to give the River Road Golf Club another year’s grace despite the fact that it continues to lose money. On behalf of the taskforce that was established last year to address the financial problems of the location, Parks and Recreation Manager Bill Coxhead pointed out that the wet spring had cut into business; the second half of the season had been much better with the aggressive goals of the taskforce almost being met.

A dozen or so males, mostly middle-aged or seniors, who were observing the debate from the gallery seemed relieved that a year’s reprieve was likely. The taskforce had wanted two more years, but half a loaf is better than none. Whether the full council will be as generous as the committee remains to be seen. Budget time is looming ever closer, and the list of items wanted but not budgeted for is increasing. For background on the golf debate, click here.

Also likely generating some comment will be the items on security cameras discussed in the previous blog, Getting the picture. I will be interested to see if issues such as privacy or efficacy will be raised or if cost will be the focus of debate. Since the matter is being recommended to be referred to staff for a report back on the technical feasibility and the cost, council is not likely to see a decision as imminent, but, as was pointed out to the committee, any additions to the budget has to go to Service Review first and “the clock is ticking.”

The item that may not get a lot of attention, but which should, is the proposed change in the Access to Childcare policy.

During its last term, the provincial government expanded the eligibility criteria for subsidized child care spaces but did not provide any additional funding to accommodate the expanded waitlist that resulted. Currently, 625 parents are waiting to be approved. The spaces are available but the funding to support them is not.

The system that the city has been using has focussed primarily on income; the lower the income, the greater the perceived need. The result has been that, given the shortage of funding, only parents with incomes under $20,000 per year effectively have access to child care, leaving many working poor with no child care option.

The city is proposing to address this inequity by using the Low Income Cut-off (LICO) as the dividing line. Preference would be given to families that do not exceed LICO, which takes into account family size as well as income. Thus, a family of 4 with an income of less than $30,000 per year would be given priority over those with higher incomes. It doesn’t make more money available but is fairer to more low income parents and children.

The other change proposed is to toughen up on absenteeism. Currently, a child may miss up to 40 days for illness and/or vacation without losing his subsidized space; staff is recommending that this be lessened to 25 days, a change which could save as much as $300,000 per year to provide subsidies to other children on the waitlist.

The final item that may get some interest is the recommendations regarding violations of accessible parking spots. While the city and police can enforce the restrictions on parking in dedicated stalls on public property, they have no authority to do so on private businesses, including rental buildings. That’s up to the owner. CNC is recommending that staff report back on the legal options available; in the meantime, it is asking the police and the city do hold a public awareness campaign.

Last is the report of the Finance and Administration committee. Its issues are usually more contentious, especially for a council committed to freezing taxes, since it deals with spending.

The main expenditure on the minds of the committee is that envisioned for the 2013 skating championships. We want to look our best and make a good impression. Company’s coming and all the world is watching.

Staff has come forward with a proposal, yet to be fine-tuned, that would cost the city just short of $4M. That’s equivalent to almost 1% on the tax levy, although it appears that the amount can be covered by the surplus from this year’s budget.

Many of the improvements being proposed are ones that would have been done in any case at a later date or which can be enjoyed by the community for years to come: trees planted, streets resurfaced, street furniture added. Most members of the committee had no problem with those. Other ideas, some are not so thrilled about. Light shows and fireworks, for example. And ice bars and expensive receptions. In the end, all recommendations were supported; but the ones that have not been budgeted for nor have a lasting benefit for the community received some opposition. There may be fireworks at council, if not at the World Figure Skating Championships.

Another issue that captured the attention of the committee was the recommendation from the city treasurer to phase in an undifferentiated tax policy, one that treats all classes, residential, industrial and commercial, alike. To do so would cost an additional 1.3% on the residential tax levy, a suggestion that didn’t get much support from the committee. Nancy Branscombe pointed out that council had asked for a report on all of the tax breaks and subsidies being provided to the non-residential classes. Where was it? she wanted to know. Apparently, the report is coming forward to Committee of the Whole tomorrow. In the meantime, there are no plans to tamper with the existing tax ratios if the recommendation of the committee is accepted by council.

Finally, there are a couple of issues affecting the members personally: more staff to support councillors and more councillors getting an opportunity to be acting mayor.

For some councillors, those items are the most likely to grab their attention.

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