On Friday February 12, the lincoln Chamber of Commerce held the annual Politicians’ Breakfast.
This year, it was a virtual meeting and I must say, I thought it went very well.
Kudos to the Chamber for another successful event.
Our MP Dean Allision, MPP Sam Oosterhoff, Mayor Sandra Easton and I all had an opportunity to give some commentary and answer questions, as appropriate.
The following is the Youtube link, if you would like to listen — length is approx. one hour.
Here is my commentary (check against delivery):
So, what a difference a year makes.
This time last year, we all participated in the politician’s breakfast that turned out to be one of the last in person events that we were able to attend.
Since then, we all seem to be on Hollywood Squares – One of these times at a Region meeting, I am going to yell out something like “Mayor Gibson from Wainfleet for the win”, which will of course have everyone scratching their heads.
But think back a year – had you said to someone you were going on a Zoom, they most likely would have thought you were spun or about to get on an airplane.
Our language and thinking certainly has changed.
But, like so many things, this is a sign that the world has changed. The conditions you are in as businesses have changed.
And as businesses, you have had to adapt – you frankly have had no other choice.
Governments have changed as well, something I will talk about later in my remarks.
To begin, however, I bring greetings on behalf of my fellow Councillors at Niagara Region, and also from our Regional Chair, Jim Bradley.
I want to thank the Chamber, including our new Executive Director Lindsey, and all the executive for putting on this event year after year.
It is always a real privilege to get the opportunity to speak to the business movers and shakers here in Lincoln.
Last year, I talked about the remarkable growth we were seeing in Niagara – Grimsby, Lincoln, West Lincoln, Welland – all had seen significant development growth.
This growth has not abated.
Housing development is up across Niagara Region – the prices for homes are going up dramatically – and there seems to be interest from many who live in Toronto, Mississauga and Oakville to uproot and move here.
These changes have their challenges.
So many people working from home have taxed our internet and broadband providers.
I personally switched this past year to NWIC, a member of our Chamber and a good Lincoln business – and I have seen improvements.
And as a Board member of the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology organization, or SWIFT for short, we have been working in and across the Region with an investment of over $20 million in funding to help internet providers expand their fiber footprints – these projects will be under construction and coming online over the next year.
We also see challenges with roads and road infrastructure – with new subdivisions and continued infill happening here in Lincoln, added stress continues to be reality on all the main streets and highways.
One of the biggest complaints I get as Regional Councillor is around traffic safety – we have not yet solved the problem of truck traffic through our downtowns, and generally there has been some very poor driving practices being followed by many. Unfortunately, this is not unique to Lincoln and has been the norm right across Niagara.
Budget this year includes new strategies – the Region is embracing Vision Zero, with the use of photo radar and red light cameras as new tools to help in the area of traffic.
Community Safety Zones will continue to be put up around schools, and speed limits will be adjusted on regional roads to better reflect safer use. Reality, we all need to do better.
Speaking of budget, let’s talk about property taxes. The region of Niagara came in at a 1.8 percent increase for 2021.
While some reserves were used to moderate the increase, the largest pressure came again this year from police services, an area that makes up the largest portion of the operations budget at Niagara Region.
Lincoln has a significant number of capital projects that are now approved to take place this year, including over $1 million in Campden pumping station improvements, and the reconstruction of King Street west of Beamsville.
We approved the build of the new Niagara Falls Waste Water Treatment Plant, the single largest capital investment ever done by Niagara.
This is critical to the overall future growth of Niagara.
Waste Management seems to have settled, with new contractors and methods in place. We are seeing a dramatic increase in waste diversion, one of the expected outcomes of the changes.
Regional transit changes have been made – on demand is working well and usage in West Niagara has been very positive. The pilot has been renewed for an additional year as we look to next steps in an integrated regional public transit system.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Region coming on board regarding the funding of our West Lincoln Memorial Hospital. It was a pleasure going to bat for our community and achieving our goal of 12.6 million dollars.
So, as I mentioned earlier, Governments too have had to change as the impact of COVID and lockdowns have come into play.
There are some who have suggested the Region simply should cut staff – many businesses in the private sector had to, why not the Region.
But unfortunately this is easier said than done.
The Region is responsible for water treatment, waste water treatment, public health, social services, community services, long term care, transit, EMS, ambulance, major connecting highways and bridges not in provincial control, funding to police services and the conservation authority … the list goes on.
All of these are big ticket items and all require a more regional voice to be successful and, frankly, more palatable to taxpayers. There is very little flexibility in many of these budget items.
For example, the new Waste Water Treatment Plant will cost $320 million but will generate billions in new growth for Thorold, St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Niagara on the Lake.
This is in the interest of Niagara as a whole.
But no company, government or institution is perfect – so, out of the budget process, we have agreed to review various aspects of finances at Niagara Region, a process to be completed before our next budget cycle. This will be undertaken by the Corporate Services Committee, which I was re-elected as Chair in January.
We are also reviewing in more detail the KPMG value for money analysis of Regional departments that was completed in 2019 and be looking to other improvements in services –
In my view, there remains areas where efficiencies can be achieved in partnership with lower tier municipalities like Lincoln.
The COVID crisis forced the Region to shift resources into public health and long term care from other areas – this has meant some projects and programs have taken a back seat, but the focus has been to take care of those areas of deemed import to us a community.
As my last point, public health will continue to play a role in the vaccination programs we are already seeing.
All persons in long term care in Niagara wanting vaccinations have been vaccinated. Plans are coming into play with Niagara Health and stakeholders across the Region for next steps as vaccines are available.
On a personal note, I continue to regularly attend Lincoln Council, where I get an opportunity to listen to the issues being dealt with by the municipality.
The Town of Lincoln is a great place to live.
We all know it.
I look forward to working with Dean, Sam, Sandra, and our Town Council to make the investments in our community that continue to make us the envy of Niagara.
I don’t have an official budget for things like promotion.
So, what I have created is a website (POLITICSNIAGARA.CA), a facebook page (@ROBERTFOSTERNIAGARA) and my twitter account (@RJFOSTER7777) to help me get messaging out.
Please visit these and like or follow.