In the waning days of 2020, the Napanee Beaver spoke with Greater Napanee mayor Marg Isbester on a wide range of topics.
The conversation started with a brief look back at the previous 12 months, followed by a look ahead to 2021.
“2020 certainly gave us lots of challenges,” said Isbester. “You could see the fear (of COVID-19) starting actually even in January. There was some preparation then in terms of where things might be going, but like every other municipality, we were not prepared for this long of a shutdown. How do we help people? How long are we going to be in it? But we learned from that so that even though we don’t look at this, in a cavalier way as this shutdown is just one more time, we were ready. Our plan was in place. We knew what we would be trying to shift around to make it work.”
Despite all the uncertainty that came with a worldwide pandemic, Isbester said town council was tasked with planning for the future.
“We as a municipality have to keep moving forward,” said Isbester. “You can’t stand still, you sure can’t go back. Budgeting had been done with a whole different outlook as to a 10-year plan…being more aggressive with our reserves. Being more aggressive with our development fees and so on to where they can be used. It’s an odd year. I think the hardest part of the shutdown was probably how it affected council itself. It was hard for all levels of government to get used to being in a state of emergency, operating under a state of emergency. We have a wonderful council that was so involved in their committees, so involved with the day-to-day operations, as they should be. All of a sudden, March 27, that stops.”
Following the original lockdown in late March, things returned to somewhat of a normalcy by summer. Most services had resumed, albeit with strict modifications. Council meetings, which were held via the online platform known as Zoom for much of the year, moved to in-person meetings in early October. The traditional site of Town Hall deemed too small to properly social distance, Selby Community Hall was chosen to host the meetings.
“You tend to lose touch,” Isbester said of one of the biggest challenges to not meeting in person on a regular basis. “One thing we have learned with this one is with this next shutdown, council, even though last time they were in on every important decision, they now need to be apprised to be what goes on in our MECG, which is our Municipal Emergency Control Group. They attend as listening and then we have a breakout education session that they can have their input.”
Isbester noted one benefit of the pandemic was it left no option but to stream meetings online. Long a goal of the town, with no other way to allow residents to attend a meeting, streaming on YouTube became a necessity.
“If you could have Christmas dinner by Zoom, you could live stream a meeting. And we get lots and lots of good compliments about people being able to watch. At the same time it’s a good device by council to go back and really hear what was said by someone else,” said Isbester.
Though the last municipal election took place October of 2018, Isbester noted council wasn’t officially sworn in until the following December. In that sense, she looked at December 2020 as the halfway mark of the term.
She says council plans to meet in the coming weeks to examine where they stand, what they’ve started this term and what they can reasonably expect to achieve over the latter half of the term.
“One if the biggest things that we’re looking forward to is updating online services,” said Isbester. “We discovered that we need to be ready to supply as many services as possible online. Whether it’s getting documents, whether it’s paying bills, whether it’s finding out what your tax bill or your water bill or anything else might be, without interaction with an actual person. That’s always going to be there to help, but we need to bring our billing systems and so on into line with what’s going on.”
She says they need to cut down on the costs associated with mailing a paper bill as well.
Council will also have to pass any by-law related to the 2022 municipal election no later than December 2021. Among the topics that are expected to be discussed is a by-law relating to signs-whether to put a cap on the number of signs a candidate can place around town, or perhaps ban them altogether.
Isbester says they plan to look at their administrative building setup as well. Currently town staff is spread out at different offices in different buildings. There has been talk of the pros and cons of consolidating offices to be all under one roof.
In the more immediate future, council will also have to address any recommendations made by KPMG, the firm that has been tasked with reviewing the town’s property sales over the last 10 years.
Isbester says they will also need to continue to be aggressive when dealing with back taxes that are owed to the town.
“It’s funny to say that when you’re looking at a pandemic but we have been much more aggressive and much more successful with collecting back taxes,” said Isbester. “There’s always a reason behind leniency but we need to draw a line and say this has got to be looked after because it helps us with our revenues, it helps us with collecting more taxes when the property becomes more useful and operational again.”
As the cloud of uncertainty relating to COVID-19 continues to loom over the province, Isbester says council plans to continue to stay on top of ongoing developments such as Gibbard’s, the Selkirk-Millhouse Yards and the Richmond Development. The town was also given the responsibility of maintaining cemeteries in the last year as well.
“Aquatics is not going to end, there’s still a big push for that,” said Isbester. “That’ll have to be a decision and a regroup with council to see ‘Do we want to spend the money on plans? Do we want to make sure it’s shovel ready?’ Nobody can really have that crystal ball to tell us with all the help the provincial and federal governments have been putting out there, is there going to be any left over money? Is there going to be any grant money that will be available?”
Also on the horizon is the upcoming contract that needs to be signed with the Ontario Provincial Police. Before that happens, council is insisting on more data from the province regarding fees associated with Quinte Detention. The town maintains it is due money coming back after being overcharged for years paying for staff to deal with criminals housed at the centre, many of which coming from outside the municipality.
“Will we remain in contract with them?” Isbester said. “How long will we sign the contract for? That’s not going to be short-term and something that will have to be decided fairly quickly in 2021. This council is not happy with what the OPP have come back to us with and if we don’t get the answers at ROMA….we’ve been asking for three years in a row that we’ve had delegations with them and nobody gets back to us.”
Despite the challenges of 2020, and those that will arise this year, Isbester says the main focus remains the same.
“Got a little dicey by times because everybody’s getting tired,” Isbester said of serving on council during a pandemic. “Whose responsibility is what, should we be spending our money on that, shouldn’t it be coming from somewhere else? But always in the end, it was looking at how do we do the best for our residents and every single time that seemed to be coming to the forefront.”