Well, here we are in 2021 — I hope everyone has had a wonderful Christmas and, to all, a very Happy New Year.

I don’t like making understatements, but in this case, I think it is appropriate — 2020 certainly was a year for the books.  And as the elected Councillor for Lincoln at Niagara Region, it has certainly provided its share of challenges.

Some of the issues we have dealt with have generated a lot of discussion — I think I received more emails this past year on topics we have had to deal with than my entire previous 20 years in politics.

I provided an outline for Town of Lincoln Council at their December 7th Council meeting regarding my views of the first two years of Regional Council.  I am providing it for you here as well.

But first …

Niagara West Councillors Town Hall

On December 16, Councillors Diana Huson from Pelham, Albert Witteveen from West Lincoln, Wayne Fertich from Grimsby and myself did an online Town Hall meeting in conjunction with the West Niagara Chambers of Commerce.

The intention of this meeting was to help bring information to our residents about what has been happening at Niagara Region, particularly areas that have not been discussed too well in the media.

As a group, we were happy with the attendance and it is our plan to do these on a quarterly basis, with the next happening shortly after budget is completed at the Region.

It was recorded by the Chambers and put on YouTube — the following is the link if you are interested in listening to the meeting:

West Niagara Regional Councillors Meeting December 16 2020

Thoughts on Niagara Region / 2 years into my role

Often times we hear commentary about the various levels of government and strong opinions on how Niagara should be organized – but there is some method in the current organizational structure.

In the division of responsibilities, the Region takes on and funds services that are critically important to all the lower tier municipalities across Niagara, which includes Public Health, Long Term Care, Social Services, Regional Housing, Police Services, EMS Services, Waste Management, Water and Wastewater treatment, and Transportation.  Other areas include Planning, Economic Development (including a wide variety of grants), and funding for the NPCA.

The Region is also the funding source (along with federal and provincial governments) with the Canada Games commitment, which has now been shifted to 2022.

Each one of these services outlined by individually have a significant price tag and it is through the combined taxation across Niagara that these costs are spread out somewhat evenly.

As an example of major price tags regarding capital development, one of the key items required for Niagara Region and future economic growth is the Niagara Falls Waste Water Treatment Plant, which has a price tag of $320 million – this is an intergenerational asset required for billions of investment.  It is also something that affects multiple municipalities and certainly is a significant price tag that might not be easily borne by just one city/town.

Points worth noting

  • The current COVID pandemic has taxed many areas of the Region, but adjusting has been done to ensure the services requiring help have the resources needed
  • The federal and provincial governments have been able to provide funding to help mitigate some areas of concern
  • Certainly there is some positivity that vaccines will be available in the not too distant future, but in the meantime, steps are already being taken with health care across Niagara to for eventual rollouts – this will be an important part of Public Health for the next few years
  • New contract for Waste Management now in place – there were a number of things that were important in the contracts, including living wages for staff, options that were available to municipalities, and a focus on the improvement of recycling
  • Road safety continues to be a priority for Lincoln Council and myself – the Town, Police Services, MTO, Region and others have been undertaking vehicle inspection blitzes
  • Community Safety Zone on Victoria, speed reductions on some key roads, improved markings on roadways, downtown Beamsville traffic study
  • Although somewhat delayed due to pandemic and priorities, photo radar cameras and red light cameras are coming and are an important part of the current 2021 budget
  • Have taken several cost reduction steps at Niagara Region, based on an analysis by KPMG and suggested areas of financial improvement, with more to come in 2021
  • In combination with the Town of Lincoln and other communities, NRT On Demand Transit is now in place – early numbers are showing the new solution to be working (Lincoln has seen a small uptick in use compared to ULinc) and it further is finding that a pent up demand for some type of transit in Grimsby is now being serviced —

Budget 2021

  • (approx.) $1.4 billion, with capital over $500 million
  • There are rate increases in Waste Management – based on the draft budget figures approved at November’s budget meeting, the average homeowner will see an increase from $159.96 paid in 2020 to $162.30 in 2021.
  • Water and Wastewater treatment – it should be noted that for Water and Wastewater rates, there was a program introduced in 2019 with regards to long term increases – for 2021, mitigations and safe restart funding are to be put in place, resulting in an overall increase of 2%
  • Police Services came in with a 4.3% increase — by far the largest portion of operational expenses at the Region goes to the funding of Police Services, but the rules associated with their governance are a bit cumbersome
  • Unclear at present where the overall rate increase will be, but it is my expectation that it will be approximately 2% (the Police Services above that figure will put pressure onto the final figure)
  • It will be interesting to see if some of the Economic Development items (such as subsidies towards local area municipality CIP programs) are capped, reduced or increased – expected to be a topic of discussion in operational budget

Hospital “Fairness / Formula” Policy for Niagara Region

  • I brought forward a motion in September for the Region to develop a fairness / funding policy when it comes to hospitals in Niagara, with of course the West Lincoln Memorial Hospital in mind
  • At our last Council meeting, a motion was passed to create the policy and to develop the policy based on a hybrid version of other hospital funding methods across Ontario
  • This is again an intergenerational policy and motion that will set the course and direction of hospital funding in Niagara for years to come
  • Looking for additional information coming forward to budget meetings in January

My Areas of Focus in 2021

  • First and foremost will be the WLMH funding and a commitment from Niagara Region – this is going to require a fair bit of work by the West Niagara Councillors, but I am hopeful that we will be able to garner the funding needed to help make our new hospital build successful and ensure a fairness when it comes to costs
  • As part of the Region’s role in Public Health, ensure appropriate game plans for vaccine rollout have been well thought out for Niagara
  • Road and traffic safety – will be supporting the funding in the budget around “Vision Zero”, measures for Lincoln including photo radar, and working with staff at both the Region and Town to upgrade safety as required by our municipality
  • Ensure regional commitments through the budget in key areas of infrastructure, particularly for Jordan area and west of Beamsville along highway 81, are followed through
  • Rollout of SWIFT (Internet/fiber) funding in Niagara – the RFPs are going through the review processes and it is expected contracts will be happening in soon – on a personal level, am going to be actively involved with the “where do we go from here” next steps
  • Continue to work with AMO to ensure legislative changes being made by the province are well thought out and in common interest between the levels of government
  • Continue with my roll at the NPCA, completing our governance overhaul and, if required, figuring out how other legislation will be affecting our Conservation Authority

And finally …

I don’t have an official budget for things like promotion — however, I have created the following to help get messaging out:

https://politicsniagara.ca
https://facebook.com/robertfosterniagara
https://twitter.com/rjfoster7777

Please visit these and like or follow.

You can also click here for my Niagara Region website page.

I look forward to continuing with you on this journey.

Thank you.