November 25, 2009

Stronger rural health network needed

As published in The Erin Advocate

Regional health planners are considering new efforts to improve the quality of rural health care for people in areas like Erin.

Recommendations from the current Rural Health Care Review were released at a public meeting at Centre 2000 last week, hosted by the Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network (WWLHIN).

"Rural Canadians are not as healthy in two-thirds of categories," said Jim Whaley, who wrote the draft report. It recommends an array of improvements including fair distribution of community support services, based on need, especially for rural seniors.

The WWLHIN has a budget of $858 million, allocating funding to eight hospitals, plus nursing homes, mental health / addictions agencies, community health centres, home care, and community support services such as those offered by East Wellington Community Services (EWCS). It covers the 750,000 people living in Waterloo Region, Wellington County and South Grey County. Erin residents, including those in built-up village areas, are considered rural for this study.

"We are accountable to the public – it is taxpayers' money we are spending," said WWLHIN CEO Sandra Hanmer. Regarding the efficient coordination of services, she said: "Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we get it wrong."

The study recommends a Rural Health Network, with representatives of the municipality, schools and heath / social service groups, to work on details of how to achieve the study goals, and improved coordination of services.

"Rural health care service delivery is unique due to a variety of factors including location, recruitment and retention of health care professionals, low patient volumes and an aging population," said Hanmer. A good network of services is considered important in attracting doctors to the area.

Compared to city-dwellers, residents of Erin and other rural areas of the WWLHIN have poorer access to health care and lower use of home care service. We have higher rates of premature death, some chronic diseases (like diabetes), hospitalization and long term care institutionalization.

Erin has the lowest population growth and one of the lowest percentages of seniors among the WWLHIN rural communities. No new homes are being built, and few small, affordable ones are available, so many seniors are moving away.

The WWLHIN funds the Seniors Day Program and the Volunteer Transportation Program operated by EWCS.

"We are looking for more services to help seniors age within their homes, with dignity and respect," said EWCS Executive Director Glenyis Betts.

Erin's Primary Care health care organization is the East Wellington Family Health Team (EWFHT), which is now building a clinic in Rockwood. It is expected to announce very soon the details of a new facility for on-staff family physicians and its many other health services, to be built next year in Erin. While EWFHT is not funded through the WWLHIN (it gets its funding  directly from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care), it operates within the regional planning framework.

EWFHT Executive Director Michelle Karker said the renewed focus on rural health is likely to create "opportunities" for better local service. From the new medical clinic in Erin village, they hope to offer satellite services in other centres such as Hillsburgh.

They are also developing a telemedicine service, a concept used extensively in Northern Ontario. Using an internet feed to transmit video and diagnostic information, local clinics are able to link patients with specialists in big-city hospitals. The technology also has the potential to monitor patients at home as they recover from illness or surgery.

The report also says hospitals should be obliged to have "specific provisions for serving rural communities" when it comes to access to specialists and regional centres for cancer and cardiovascular care. The report recommendations have not yet been approved by the WWLHIN board of directors.

November 18, 2009

New website tracks sewer saga

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin finally has a website to help people keep track of what's going on in the Town's quest for a sewer system.

With a link on the home page of the Town website,, you can explore the "Defining Erin" site. It explains the stages of the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) study and has the results of "visioning" sessions, including a public meeting last May with 40 residents attending. Recently, there was a session with 55 local real estate agents and another with 10 members of the Business Improvement Area.

The website also includes comments from Erin students, who wrote 19 letters telling the planners how they would like Erin to look in the future. Comments can still be submitted, and you can provide your email address to receive reports when they are released. Comments so far show that residents do not want Erin to lose its small-town character.

"You like to cheat," said Project Manager Matt Pearson, at a Liaison Committee meeting last month. "You like the proximity to urban centres, but you don't want to be one."

A report is expected soon from Credit Valley Conservation on environmental aspects of the SSMP, and the Town may ask for additional technical studies. Two main public meetings are scheduled, one in March to review the problems, and one next fall to discuss solutions.

"A longer timeframe allows for more understanding of the solutions," said Pearson. "More of a bottom up approach, than a top down imposition."

Since 2007, there has been virtually no growth in the Town's urban areas, and little is expected until sewers and a treatment plant are built. The SSMP study will take until the end of 2010, and it will be at least five years after that before any service is in place.

Population growth would be moderate, even with sewers. By 2031, the County estimates Erin village would grow by 1,300, to a total of 4,400 people; Hillsburgh would grow by 700, to a total of 2,080 and the rural area would grow by 1,040, to a total of 9,050.

The sewer project will mean significant costs and disruption for the Town and property owners in the urban areas, but it also represents an opportunity to build a better community and safeguard the natural environment.

"You will need to chase grants – it's going to be expensive," said Pearson. There is no cost projection yet, but the failed plan from 1995 for Erin village alone was estimated at $25 million. Sewage facilities are prime candidates for infrastructure funding though. Grand Valley and Mount Forest have recently received substantial federal and provincial grants for their systems.

If no sewers are built, there will also be major costs and disruption in Erin. Pearson said it is estimated that 30 per cent of local septic systems are deficient. The average lifespan of a septic system is 25-30 years, but the average system in Erin village is 34 years old. Town records show only 23 systems replaced in a recent 8-year period.

"There are many failed systems in the community," said Pamela Scharfe, of the consulting firm B.M. Ross, making a presentation on septic systems to the Liaison Committee.

The Town has the authority to set up an inspection system that could force property owners to repair or replace deficient septic systems, but it has not done so.

The Ontario Building Code is stricter now than when most local houses were built. About half the septic systems in Erin village and Hillsburgh cannot be replaced with a standard tank and leaching bed, because the lots are less than 15,000 square feet (100' x 150'). They will require smaller systems that include an extra treatment phase, and cost $5,000 to $10,000 extra. Owners must pay for a maintenance contract, and problems may be reported to the health unit.

A 1995 study by the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Health Unit also found that 94 Erin village lots were inaccessible for the equipment needed to replace their septic systems, due to large trees and the houses being too close together. If a system like this failed completely, the house could be declared uninhabitable.

Meetings of the SSMP Liaison Committee, which has representatives from local government, businesses and environment/social service groups, are not formal public meetings, but they are open to the public.

November 11, 2009

A challenge to stimulate Erin's economy

As published in The Erin Advocate

With all the government attempts to stimulate the economy these days, we should not forget that Christmas is an opportunity to give Erin businesses a boost.

Building the local economy by shopping locally is not a new concept, but it often requires a change in shopping habits, especially for people who work in nearby cities that have convenient malls and big-box stores.

Here is a challenge to every employed person in town: try to spend at least $50 at local shops this Christmas season. It is not a lot, and it is money you would be spending anyway.

A small change in shopping strategy could end up having a real impact throughout the year. These are the businesses that employ local people, pay local taxes and create a positive atmosphere and image for the town.

Tourists recognize the value. But we should not have to rely on tourists to drive our economy when we have the means to do it ourselves.

It is not a matter of charity, or feeling sorry for the small business owner. These people have to compete to survive, and they are out there working to earn customers' support. Erin and Hillsburgh have excellent shops that might have what you want. Or they might not. It is a matter of giving them an opportunity to meet your needs.

As an example, when I wanted to buy a guitar, I shopped around, but ended up buying one at The Village Music Store. I gave the store the opportunity to earn my business because it is local, but I bought there because it offered quality products, good service and competitive prices.

There is a campaign gaining popularity in the US and Canada called "The 3/50 Project". It encourages employed people to pick three small businesses and spend a total of $50 at them each month. Started by retail consultant Cinda Baxter of Minneapolis, it is a push to empower consumers and revive communities suffering due to the recession.

"For every $100 spent in locally owned independent stores, $68 returns to the community in taxes, payroll and other expenditures," she says on her website, "If you spend that in a national chain, only $43 stays here. Spend it online and nothing comes home."

When we "invest" with our shopping dollars, we help small businesses prosper, expand, offer more selection and hire more people.

Downtown Erin stores are holding their 7th annual Window Wonderland this Friday, November 13, starting at 6 p.m., to raise their profile for the Christmas shopping season.

Last year's event had a nice party atmosphere despite the rain, and this year's should be even better with the lighting of the Christmas tree at the new park at 109 Main Street. The name of the park will be announced.

BIA shops will unveil their window displays and stay open until 9 p.m. Santa will drop in for a visit. There will be horse and carriage rides, hot dogs, cookies, hot apple cider and hot chocolate to help folks stay warm.

I just got home from a rehearsal of the strolling Christmas carol singers preparing for the event, and we're sounding pretty good. We will be in pseudo-Dickensian attire – my first opportunity to wear a top hat this year.

So come out for some fun, but be on the lookout for investment opportunities.

November 04, 2009

Reconstructed sideroad shows signs of the times

As published in The Erin Advocate

After 24 years of turning left out of my driveway to go to work every morning, it is not easy to get into the habit of turning right. When I do remember to turn right, I am quickly rewarded with a trip on the newly-paved 5 Sideroad.

It means I can get out of town and over to Mississauga Road via Olde Baseline Road, without driving on the bumpy section of Winston Churchill Boulevard near Terra Cotta. The only local road worse than that was 5 Sideroad before it was paved.

Some residents of Terra Cotta have lobbied to keep that section of Winston Churchill unpaved to reduce commuter traffic, despite safety concerns with the current road. It will not be paved for at least four more years, so they are getting their way for now. I do not have to drive through Terra Cotta any more, and that is just fine with me.

The 5.5-kilometre project on 5 Sideroad includes new culverts, and elevation of the surface in low-lying areas. It is a continuation of Wellington Road 50, (the direct route from Rockwood) linking Trafalgar Road to the paved section of Winston Churchill.

Drivers are confronted with an array of signs on the new road. There is the common warning about Slow Moving Vehicles, and the No Trucks symbol – a relief to those who feared 5 Sideroad would become a gravel truck corridor.

There are four-way stops at the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Lines, and the maximum speed is 60 kph. That may seem low for an open stretch of country road, even if many drivers treat it as a suggestion instead of a law.

Caution has become the norm for posted speed limits, and that is not a bad thing for a road like this. It still has a few hills, and there is only a three-foot shoulder of gravel beside some steep embankments. By such standards, the hilly section of Ninth Line just to the north should have a lower speed limit as well, even though its surface is a few inches wider.

Signs from the Road Watch organization are also prominent, urging people to report incidents of aggressive or dangerous driving. The local group has not been active lately, but there are plans to promote the concept throughout Wellington County.

You can file a report on-line at Your name is not revealed to the driver or owner of the vehicle, who will get a stern letter from police. On second report they will get a phone call, and the third time a personal visit from police. It is a way of educating and applying pressure without issuing tickets or laying charges.

The sideroad signs also proclaim the funding sources: "Building Canada: Federal gas tax funds at work in your community", "Creating Jobs, Building Ontario" and "Canada's Economic Action Plan". Last June the project got a boost of about $330,000 from each of the federal and provincial governments, with the Town providing a matching amount, allowing all the work to be done this year, instead of just half of it.

There has a tempest in the Ottawa teapot recently, after Conservatives printed their own logo on some infrastructure cheques. And there are accusations (denied by the prime minister) that Conservative ridings are getting a higher percentage of stimulus money for large projects.

It is hard to know what to believe, since a complete list of projects has not been made public, and not all the money has been doled out yet. The Liberals were accused of similar manipulations when they were in power – it seems like a Canadian tradition.

Still, when MP Michael Chong talks proudly in his fall newsletter about "Delivering Results" in the form of millions of dollars in funding for his riding, it is worth remembering that he has only delivered our money to us. It is not the result of any special skill or generosity on the part of the MP, his party or the government.

Chong says the new, huge federal deficit is "short-term". It will be interesting to see if that turns out to be a realistic assessment. As everyone knows, running up debt is easy. Paying it off is a real test of political skill.