Energy for the future

Energy for the future

If you look at your latest power bill, you’ll see a new logo at the top: GrandBridge Energy.

GrandBridge is a new company, created through the merger of Brantford Power, which was owned by the City of Brantford, and a company called Energy Plus, which was owned by the City of Cambridge and the Township of North Dumfries.

Both companies operate the local distribution systems that deliver electricity supplied by Ontario Power Generation.

Brantford Power had an independent board of directors. A few years ago, the board came to city council and said they had some concerns about the company’s future.

They told us the energy industry is undergoing a substantial transformation. More people are plugging in electric cars. More people are installing solar panels and want a two-way connection to the power grid.

Those kinds of changes would need a big upgrade in the distribution network and other equipment, the directors told us. The problem was, Brantford Power didn’t generate enough revenue to make the investments.

Some other local power companies in Ontario facing similar problems fixed it by putting themselves up for sale. They were bought out by private companies based in Toronto or Alberta. We didn’t want to do that.

So, Brantford Power started discussions with Energy Plus and quickly learned they were in the same position.

We moved into serious negotiations. It took about two years and involved hundreds of hours of work on my part, by Brantford CAO Brian Hutchings and other staff.

The result is GrandBridge, and the merger is already paying big dividends – literally.

The new company is expected to rationalize operating costs by consolidating staff, offices and operations. It can deliver the level of service that customers want. It is big enough to make the investments that are needed.

Cutting costs means GrandBridge will be more profitable, so over the next decade it will pay millions of dollars of dividends to its shareholders – the municipalities of Brantford, Cambridge and North Dumfries. That’s more money available to the municipalities to spend on local services without raising property taxes.

On top of that, hydro rates will be more stable for the next 10 years or so. The amount people will pay for power will be less than had Brantford Power remained on its own.

Stable electricity prices. More revenue for the city. A stronger power distribution system. All delivered by a locally owned and managed company.

That’s a powerful deal for the people of Brantford.

Traffic Problems

Traffic Problems

In the 2018 campaign we put up a billboard in West Brant that read: “If I were mayor, you’d be home by now.”

It was aimed at the traffic problems in the area and on Brant Avenue, a result of growth in West Brant. People from West Brant trying to get to work, shopping or Highway 403 hit bottlenecks at the Lorne Bridge-Brant Avenue intersection and another at Dalhousie-Colborne-Clarence. With more growth coming, it’s going to get worse.

Back in the 1980s, the planned solution was to build a new road from Colborne Street West, heading north across the Grand River and then connecting to Oak Park Road, leading to the 403.

The city bought most of the property, but little else was done. So, our council started an environmental assessment study to see what it would take to finish the project.

The study raised some big red flags: sensitive environmental areas, archeological issues around historical First Nations communities, the high cost of the bridge and the fact that a whole neighbourhood had grown up around the route. Plus, it goes past a cemetery that didn’t exist in the 1980s.

Council decided to not proceed further with the Oak Park Road project.

We also ruled out completing the Brantford Southern Access Road (BSAR) connecting Veterans Memorial Parkway to the Gretzky Parkway. Almost half the route was supposed to go across the Six Nations Glebe property but, understandably, that’s something Six Nations doesn’t want to see happen.

So, we knew what we weren’t going to do. Next, we had to figure out what we were going to do.

Traffic experts told us to improve what we already have. That includes twinning the Veteran’s Memorial Parkway Bridge, fixing the pinch point at Clarence-Colborne-Dalhousie and trying to improve traffic flow on Brant Avenue.

But we still have to do more for the Shellard Lane area, which will soon reach 25,000 people.

A promising possibility is to work with Brant County on a solution that involves improving the Colborne Street West and Rest Acres Road corridors.

Brant County has its own traffic issues, especially in Paris. We talked to Brant County, and they showed an interest in developing a robust regional transportation plan that will help both municipalities. A win-win.

That will also fit in with another goal to improve the links with Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo. They are powerhouses of economic development, and it would be good for us to have better connections.

That also includes transit. We recently talked to the provincial government about setting up a GO Bus link to Waterloo Region and Guelph.

We’re now focused on what we need to do in the next four years to deal with our transportation problems.

I believe that, at the end of the next four-year council term, we’ll be well on the way to saying: “The billboard was right.”

A New Hospital

A New Hospital

The best piece of good news in many years came in March when the Ontario government announced it is committed to rebuilding Brantford General Hospital.
We’ve known for years we needed a new hospital, but when the current government took power in 2018, we weren’t on the list to get one.
Over the last few years, there was an intense effort to make it happen. This was a real community endeavor, led by the Brant Community Healthcare System. MPP Will Bouma did stellar work lobbying at Queen’s Park. Brant County Mayor David Bailey, Six Nations Elected Chief Mark Hill and I put the pressure on provincial officials. I brought it up at every meeting I had with cabinet ministers and even the premier.
We made a strong case. One compelling argument was that the province wants to see our region grow to 160,000 residents, but we didn’t have a hospital that could handle all those people.
We’ll start to see some changes soon. A new emergency department will be built in a year or two. Then the mental health wing will be replaced.
Eventually, a new, eight-story, 450-bed tower will be built on St. Paul Avenue, on the site of the old fire hall and parking lot. It will connect across Terrace Hill Street to the new emergency department and the high-rise D Wing, which was built just 15 years ago at a cost of $250 million. When the new building is ready, older buildings will be knocked down.
The new BGH will mean much better care for patients in a modern facility with state-of-the-art equipment. Staff will have a better working environment allowing them to supply the level of care they’re trained for. It will make it easier to recruit new doctors, nurses and other staff. It will make Brantford, Brant and surrounding areas more attractive to businesses that want to expand or locate here.
We are, though, at the first stage of a complex project. It will be about 10 years before everything is finished.
It will also be an expensive project, worth about $1.3 billion.
For any new hospital in Ontario, the province pays 90 per cent of the cost. It insists that the community contribute the remaining 10 per cent. The community also has to pay for furnishings and equipment upgrades.
That means we, as a community, may have to raise as much as $200 million.
It won’t be easy, and everyone will have to pitch in, but I know we can do it. Whenever we’ve faced a challenge in the past, we’ve risen to the occasion.
The BCHS Foundation will lead the fundraising effort, but they will be turning to individuals, businesses, community groups and local governments to help.
At city hall, I want to set up a special account where we can start putting money away now, so we’ll have what we need in seven or eight years. I would like to do it without imposing a burden on property taxpayers.
So, in the future, if we sell a piece of land or have an operating surplus, we can put some of that money into the BGH account. There may be other revenues we can put into the fund, too. The city will also be donating the land for the new tower.
When the new BGH rises, we’ll finally have the hospital we need and deserve.

Safe Streets

Safe Streets

Most people want to live in neighbourhoods that are quiet and safe.

But what I’m hearing at the door is that a lot of people don’t like what they’re hearing and seeing on their streets.

When I’m talking to residents on major streets, many say they’re concerned about speeding, traffic violations and vehicle noise.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You have to do several things.

For example, in new subdivisions there will be a spot on the street where the boulevard juts out and narrows the road. Lots of studies show that causes people to slow down.

Speed bumps are another tool and they can be effective, too. But opinions on those vary and you have to be careful how you build them because they can make it difficult for buses and trucks. Another thing I like to see are “Slow down” signs that people put on their lawns.

Installing bike lanes can also help. It’s easy to speed along on a four-way street but when it’s cut down to two lanes plus bike lanes, drivers naturally start to slow down.

We’re also developing some new technology-based programs that other cities have been using for a while.

We’re installing red light cameras at busy intersections. The camera takes a picture of an offending vehicle and a ticket is sent to the owner. There’s a fine, but no demerit points.

We’re also looking at automated speed enforcement. Basically, a camera takes a picture of a speeding car and the owner is fined.

We did tests in May on Colborne Street East and Wayne Gretzky Parkway. The one on Colborne showed thousands of violations. One vehicle even hit a speed of 151 km/h.

Right now, city staff are looking at the best places for the cameras. There are a lot of criteria to consider – school zones, the number of violations, the number of accidents, and so on.

City staff will report in the fall on the best locations and then we’ll install them next year. They can be rotated from one safety zone to the next.

Street noise is harder to deal with. The police are the only people who can enforce it; city bylaw officers can’t issue tickets.

What we’re doing is blitzes. The police pull over vehicles over that are excessively loud, examine them and if they’re found to be in violation of standards, they’re ticketed.

In the past we usually did one each summer but this year we’re doing three. Hopefully, this will help.

In the future, it might be possible to do what California is testing right now: a system that records a vehicle’s noise level so a ticket can be issued automatically, like with the red light and speed cameras.

We want safe streets, not mean streets.

An automated speed enforcement camera keeps an unblinking eye on traffic. PHOTO BY JACK BOLAND /Toronto Sun

For a link to the expositor article talking about speed enforcement, click here.

Affordable Housing

Affordable Housing

When I was elected in 2018, we really didn’t have a coherent plan to develop affordable (rent-geared-to-income) housing. Brant County’s new mayor, David Bailey, had a similar concern.

It’s a serious problem in Brantford and Brant. At that time, there were 1,700 clients on the waiting list. For some people it can take 10 years to get to the top of the list.

We set up a Mayors Housing Task Force. The members produced an Affordable Housing Action Plan to create 500 affordable housing units over the next 10 years. Other units may also be built in partnership with community groups, charities and service clubs.

The total cost of the 500 municipal units will be about $110 million. The city will pay about $40 million, the county about $15 million. Ottawa and Queen’s Park will contribute, too.

What does “affordable housing” mean? In some cases, the rent for an affordable unit is set at about 30 per cent of the tenant’s income. The federal government says an affordable unit is one where the rent is less than 80 per cent of the average market rent.

The candidates for affordable housing are a cross-section of the community. It might be a family where both parents work, but at minimum wage. Seniors on fixed incomes can qualify. Some are people whose income comes from Ontario Works or disability payments. There are people in a homeless shelter or on the street who need a home and some counselling to get their lives in order.

The first project we did was 30 studio units at 5 Marlene Avenue. Some of the residents came from homeless encampments. In June, five residents who were about to “graduate” into regular housing told city council that living at Marlene Avenue transformed their lives.

There’s an exciting new project underway at 177 Colborne Street West. It will be a three-story building of 26 modular units built by a local company, ANC. Basically, they are tiny houses stacked on top of each other.

The city is buying about 26 former university residence units in Lucy Marco Place (the former YM-YWCA).

Brant County is building a 49-unit building on Trillium Way in Paris. In Brantford, we’re going to put up a 70-unit building on Shellard Lane. Both will be a mix of rent-geared-to-income and market rentals.

A lot of the money for the Shellard Lane building – close to $14 million – will come from the sale of 32-acres of the former Arrowdale golf course.

The Arrowdale land itself will be developed like any other neighbourhood with regular units such as townhouses or single-family homes. The property taxes collected on those units will be invested in future affordable housing projects elsewhere in the city. We estimate the revenue at $2 million to $3 million a year.

Using the money from Arrowdale means we can finance a large part of our housing plan without increasing property taxes.

Will it solve the problem? You can always do more. But we will be a lot further ahead than we were a few years ago when we set up the task force.

And hundreds more singles, seniors and families will have a place to call home.

Talking to voters

Talking to voters

When I campaign, I put a lot of emphasis on personal contact, meeting as many residents as I can and talking to them about their issues.

When you’re talking to somebody at their doorstep, you don’t get a lot of negativity. What you do get is a lot of very good questions.

You hear what’s happening in their lives, on their streets and in their neighbourhoods. And it’s unfiltered. It’s extremely valuable for any elected official to get a heavy dose of that.

I like to say I’m an active campaigner. I want to be on the street every day, anywhere from four to seven hours, knocking on as many doors as I can.

One new wrinkle is the way we’re getting around this year. I’m using an electric scooter and some of my team members are riding bicycles. It allows you get to a lot more houses and meet a lot more people. It also saves your back and legs, which can take a real pounding during a campaign.

I’m finding some other differences compared to my first mayoralty campaign in 2018.

The last election, I spent a lot of time explaining who I was, my goals for the city and so on. This time, most of the people already know who I am, and they want to talk issues.

That means I’m doing a lot less talking and a lot more listening. When you’re the incumbent, voters mention issues that concern them because they want an informative answer or some action.

Recently we’ve been canvassing on main streets, so some of the big issues with these residents are speeding, vehicle noise and traffic safety.

I’m hearing about a lot of other issues too: drug addiction, homelessness, the cost of housing, the economy, transportation and growth.

So that’s why I’m starting this blog. Over the course of the election, I’ll be talking about these issues and more. I’ll discuss what we’ve been doing about them over the last term of council, and where we’re going.

In a city of 100,000 it’s not possible to talk to every voter, even if you have a scooter. But I hope this blog will involve more people in the conversation.