January 25, 2012

Sewer study back on its bumpy track

As published in The Erin Advocate

After more than a year of no news, Erin's Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) got back on track last week, as Town Council received a presentation on a Background Report that is expected to lead to a public meeting in March.

Project Manager Matt Pearson, of the B.M. Ross consulting firm, explained to councillors and residents who filled the council chamber that the environmental assessment, which started in 2009, has finished its information-gathering phase.

The actual Background Report, with extensive information on the infrastructure, economy, housing, environment and social fabric of Hillsburgh and Erin village, will be available in a few weeks on the Town website.

It will not include any recommendations, or discuss the costs of new infrastructure. The consultant is not advocating any one solution, but the report does assemble evidence that would support construction of a sewage system, if the community decides that it needs the benefits that such a system would bring.

"If you want affordable housing, or seniors housing, you won't get it on septics," said Pearson. Erin is reputed to be the largest town in Ontario without sewers. Instead of septic beds, downtown businesses must use holding tanks which are expensive to pump out regularly.

"There's an elephant in the room – something happened before, and it didn't work," he said, referring to the 1991-1995 environmental assessment and plan to build a $25 million sewage treatment plant in Erin village. It failed due to lack of provincial funding and concern about hook-up costs.

Late last year, Mayor Lou Maieron gave notice of a motion to discontinue the SSMP and refer all development issues to the Ontario Municipal Board, but later deferred the motion before it came up for debate. He said he does not plan to re-introduce the motion for now, while people read the new report.

The next step is writing a "Problem/Opportunity Statement", with input from the citizen-based Liaison Committee and the agency-based Core Management Committee. It will have to be approved by council before the study can proceed. The statement will be a basis for discussion at a public meeting in March.

That meeting was originally expected in March 2010, but there has been a series of delays. Residents can comment on the study and get more information on the town website, www.erin.ca/definingerin, though it has not been updated since late 2010.

The next phase will involve engineering work and agency input to develop several options and stages of possible construction of sewer and water supply improvements. There would then be another public meeting. To complete the study, council will have to choose an option. Pearson says all this could happen within one year. Actual construction of a sewage system would be a separate decision at a later date.

The SSMP is being done at the insistence of Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), freezing proposed new subdivisions for the past five years. The Ministry of the Environment has told Erin that a sewage system is "required" to serve urban areas and handle the septage pumped from rural septic tanks, and that the Town must demonstrate on ongoing commitment and progress towards that goal.

The first phase of the current study has tried to capture the community's vision for the next 25 years, though Pearson said it has been difficult to keep the process on track. He said various other communities have attempted SSMP studies, only to have them "derailed" and left incomplete.

"It's a chance to do it right. It's an opportunity to get the whole picture, not just one person's agenda or somebody else's agenda. It's a chance to try to bring together the community's agenda and put it into practice," he said.

"It's going to give you something concrete, to shop around for senior government money. That's always the problem for whatever you decide to do. How are we going to afford that? If you want to get government money (and it comes and goes like the wind), you have to have a plan. I have been in this business a long time, and I have seen many communities just like yours get grants for this kind of stuff."

Maieron remains skeptical of the process, which he fears could lead to sharp population increases and the need for expensive new services for those people. He questions the wisdom of spending money working towards a sewer system, when the CVC has not been able to say for certain whether the Credit River has sufficient water flow to handle the discharge from a sewage treatment plant.

He also says that if Town Council did not have the political will recently to force a small number of residents to hook up to the Town water system, it is unrealistic to think it would ever be willing to force large numbers of residents to hook up to sewers.

"We're frozen. We have planning costs, but we're not doing a lot of planning. We're not pulling in much in development charges because nothing major is happening," he said to Pearson. "Yet developers say, 'If we were to develop the servicing to the provincial standards, drilled a well and put in sewage, and grew to the capacity that the county official plan suggests, of six and a half homes an acre, minimum, why can't we go ahead?'...

"It's a tough puzzle, because it will come back to those with the newer houses saying, 'I've just invested a lot of money in a tertiary [septic] system that works; why do I want to replace it?' And those with older houses that are limited because of lot size, as came up in the water discussion, saying, 'I may not be able to afford it'.

"If I had my way, I would leave the villages of Erin and Hillsburgh alone, and go build something outside the Green Belt, and start from new, where you could put in all the infrastructure you wanted."

Festival film promotes practical energy ideas

As published in The Erin Advocate

Going for green alternatives does not require a belief in climate change theories or certainty about the causes of global warming, but simply a desire to keep more money in your pocket.

Carbon Nation, the first offering in Erin's Fast Forward 2012 Film Festival, delivered that optimistic message, and a series of practical strategies, at the Legion Hall last week. Sponsored by Rob's Automotive Service, it kicked off the third season of the festival before an enthusiastic audience.

With the damaging effects of climate change becoming more obvious, governments and corporations are focusing efforts on how we can adapt to control costs, keep the economy functioning and avoid widespread war, famine and environmental destruction.

Unlike the cure for cancer, for example, an effective response to climate change does not require major breakthroughs in science. We have everything that is required, except of course for the change in attitude that will eventually make it the planet's top priority. How bad will things have to get before that happens?

Carbon Nation presents ideas that stress the potential of good old American ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit – very powerful forces that could be focused on short notice. Half of all Americans, though, don't believe climate change is being caused by human activity.

Regardless of the causes, there are numerous changes that should be supported for purely economic reasons. Above all, it makes sense to wean ourselves from dependence on coal, oil and natural gas. Which means promotion of solar and wind power, development of non-gasoline cars and the retrofitting of buildings (which use twice as much energy as transportation).

For a fascinating look at the latest in home energy technology, take the Home Alive Tour during the Seedy Saturday event at Everdale Farm near Hillsburgh, on April 28. The straw bale house features a computer to track types of power use, special water, waste and solar systems, recycled building materials and a permaculture garden. Go to www.everdale.org/events/seedy-saturday/.

For more ideas on saving money while saving the planet, go to www.carbonnationmovie.com. Things like using video conferences instead of air travel, using a push lawn mower, or raising your kids' allowance if they help reduce utility bills.

How about Meatless Mondays? Less beef consumption means less need to create pasture land by destroying rain forests, which are needed to absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
If long-haul truckers could use auxiliary power sources (instead of their large engines) to power air conditioning while they are asleep during stopovers, 1,000,000,000 gallons of diesel fuel could be saved annually.

Polluting cannot be stopped quickly, but it should have a known cost in the marketplace, whether it is through a carbon tax or the trading of carbon credits. Only then will green technologies achieve their full value.

After the film, Upper Grand School Trustee Kathryn Cooper reported that there is a current proposal to install revenue-producing solar panels at all district schools.

"I'm hopeful that the rest of the trustees will support that," she said. "I certainly will and I've got a good feeling about it, so I'm pretty excited."

On her blog (www.cooper4trustee.wordpress.com) she urges parents to support this investment: "Do we want to model the new green energy path for our children? Are we interested in creating future revenue streams to protect our children's education?"

The next showing in the Fast Forward Film Festival is Water On The Table, a portrait of Canadian activist Maude Barlow, and her mission to have water declared an international human right. It is on Wednesday, February 15, at 7 pm, at the Erin Legion Hall, 12 Dundas Street East, sponsored by Credit Valley Conservation.

Liz Armstrong of CCAGE said water will be a local issue this year, since Nestlé will be seeking renewal of its license to take millions of gallons of water from its Hillsburgh well.

"Start thinking about what kind of demands we want to make to the Nestlé company," she said. "The Ontario government charges the magnificent sum of $3.74 per million litres of water. Tanker trucks travel almost constantly from Hillsburgh over to Aberfoyle, and with the exception of those tanker truck jobs, there is absolutely nothing in it for the community."

Nestlé of course does pay taxes, and has made substantial donations towards public facilities in Erin and elsewhere, but the core issue of water as a public resource remains a serious concern. More information is available at www.wellingtonwaterwatchers.ca.

January 18, 2012

Mayor urges more community involvement

As published in The Erin Advocate

The mayor says Erin could have a better sense of community, and be more successful in achieving its political goals, if more residents got involved in public affairs.

"You elected me to represent you, but that does not absolve you of the right to participate in a democracy," said Lou Maieron, in a speech last Thursday to the Rotary Club of Erin.

"Because a lot of people don't participate, you get the government you get. And I'll tell you, it is the government you deserve. So get involved – it's your town. If you want to change it, to make it better, you have a mechanism to do so."

There is a dynamic split, he said, between the communities in south Wellington (Erin and Rockwood) and those in the central and northern areas of the county. It is not only that southern residents pay a much higher share of county taxes, since their real estate values are higher.

"In Erin particularly, we have the highest migratory commuting rate, 60 to 75 per cent of people come in and out of this town, they don't work in this town, they don't shop in this town as much as they should.

"We also have, and don't take this the wrong way, not as much of a sense of community. In the north, you have a 5 to 10 per cent commuting rate, and the sense of community is much stronger.

"I would say that that's why the north is much more successful at county politics, in achieving more, because they are more unified. Everyone's in the canoe, paddling in the same direction more or less. They avoid the icebergs or the waterfalls, more so than sometimes we do, because we are disconnected, the pillars are not talking to each other.

"I would like to try to strengthen the town by having groups work together for common good and a common purpose."

He said if people feel certain expenditures are not a good use of taxpayer dollars, they should contact their elected councillors. But he pointed out that for a project like the $100,000 improvement to the library at Centre 2000, if the money is not spent in Erin, it will be spent somewhere else in the county.

In the next three years, he hopes to "move the ball forward" on economic development. Erin does have an Economic Development Committee, but its budget and scope are limited, and there are no staff specifically allocated to that area.

Instead of it being a citizen-based advisory group, Maieron hopes to create a council committee, with the clout and budget to undertake more aggressive marketing of the Town. A staff review of all aspects of economic development is being done.

"In the north, where they have a greater sense of community, they invest heavily in economic development. It is usually a committee of council and residents, chaired by the mayor, with a directive to encourage business and welcome business to the town...we don't have the best reputation for that – I hear about it quite regularly.

"We need jobs. It balances out the commuting population. We have a town that was built on bringing in people with some affluence that built what I call mini-mansions, starter castles starting at $800,000. We brought in a lot of that, which is good because they are people with money that want to do business.

"We didn't build a lot in between, because we didn't have servicing, and then we have the older part of town. So we have the rich, a little middle class and the poor – the poorer.

"It is reflected in opening a Tim Hortons and 450 people applying for part-time work. We need to create more opportunities. From a tax base perspective, having most of your taxes coming from the residential core is not sustainable, because your commercial-industrial properties create a higher tax ratio, and they also create jobs.

"We can be a place where our growth is sort of frozen outside of what we have in the urban boundary. That could attract a lot of people to come into Erin, spend the day, spend the weekend. Spend your money and go home. So we can become a net cash cow. We have a wonderful Main Street, the envy of most of the municipalities in the county, but we can build on that."

January 11, 2012

Talented writer/designer seeks exciting new job

As published in The Erin Advocate

When you sit down for a meeting with your boss, and she starts off with, "This is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," you know it is going to be a bumpy roller coaster ride kind of a day.

I was expecting a reduction of hours, but instead am laid off from my job as a graphic designer. Sympathy is absolutely unnecessary – people endure far greater hardships every day. I was under no illusion that 20 years of dedicated service would count for much if my employer needed to drastically reduce costs.

Opportunities are looming. Expectations are being adjusted. Full-time chicken catchers are urgently needed in Woodstock. I could make $11.30 an hour in a "fast-paced environment". No education or experience is required, just hand-eye co-ordination, physical stamina and a willingness to travel for extended periods.

I was dreading my visit to the unemployment office, but the staff there were very friendly and efficient. I found it strange, though, when one advisor told me I would be allowed to earn extra money, up to 25 per cent of my weekly benefit, without any penalty. I told her their website said the level had been changed to 40 per cent back in 2008. She said, "I don't go to the website very often."

My first UI premium was paid in 1973. I have now contributed $24,000 to the system, with employers kicking in an additional $33,000 on my behalf. It has been my good fortune to have little need of the benefits, but I feel no guilt now about taking a bounce in the social safety net. Of course, there is that annoying two-week waiting period. They have to make sure it hurts before they help you out.

The great thing about not going to work is that I get a chance to do other work for the newspaper. It is interesting, but not exactly a get-rich-quick scenario. I will be a little richer if my temporary layoff runs to 13 weeks and becomes permanent. Only then would I qualify for severance and termination pay. I wonder if the bank would consider that possibility as collateral?

Maybe I could become a nationally syndicated columnist. I will keep a close eye on the help wanted classified ads in the Erin Advocate. My grammar is not bad, and I am willing to engage in shameless self-promotion when necessary. As for content, I am sure that people across Canada (and beyond) would be fascinated by my stimulating accounts of life in Erin, ON. Local property values and tourism revenue could well be enhanced.

Prospective employers, however, should be aware that I have certain reasonable requirements. First of all, the coffee machine has to be top notch. I will no longer tolerate bland beverages, even when they are free.

The workplace must have no harassment. That means no loud, incompetent salespeople, bitchy drama queens, robotic administrative assistants, gossipy know-it-alls or power hungry middle managers. I could put up with some ego-maniacal techno-nerds, if it meant that my computer would work fast and flawlessly, every day.

A nice desk, an expense account, a pension and a full benefit plan would all be appreciated, but I have been doing without these for so long, I'm not sure I could make the adjustment.
I also will insist on convivial colleagues, and a variety of interesting tasks that do not force me to pull out my hair or utter profanities.

It is not a lot to ask, since I can offer the employer such a wide array of talents. For example, I am highly organized. A co-worker once suggested that as a child, I probably kept my toy cars filed under transportation. I am not sure how she knew. Anyhow, I now keep my important junk in special piles on my desk, so it is always available.

I can sense the needs of the most cantankerous clients, decipher the most hastily scribbled instructions, repair the most preposterous of PDFs and work minor miracles in Photoshop. As for writing, I avoid clichés like the plague.

I also show up on time, only check my email once an hour, and generally work so hard that smoke is often seen arising from my keyboard.

It sounds old fashioned, I know, but there must still be good jobs out there for modest, middle-aged guys who know what they're doing. Maybe I should shave off the grey beard, though. There is really no advantage to looking my own age.

Mayor says Erin overcharged for waste services

As published in The Erin Advocate

Mayor Lou Maieron has renewed a dispute with Wellington County, saying that Erin taxpayers are being overcharged $587,000 annually since the closure of the Hillsburgh Transfer Station.

Maieron said he has been told by county officials that Erin should be happy to be receiving "Cadillac service", since the county now provides both urban and rural pickup of garbage and recyclables.

Many people were unhappy, however, with the closure of the Hillsburgh Transfer Station in May 2010. As a county councillor, Maieron advocated a new facility for Erin-Rockwood to handle bulky garbage, metal, wood, tires, reusable items and household hazardous waste, which would cost far less than a full transfer station.

Instead, Erin residents have to drive to the Belwood Transfer Station for these services. Maieron argues that it is unfair and inefficient for the county to provide other communities in central and northern Wellington with both urban pickup and nearby transfer stations, especially since Erin taxpayers pay a higher share of the costs.

"We have to look at the whole equation," he said in an interview. "We don't have Cadillac service when others have two or three options."

He says the county provides costly duplicate service and is competing with itself by allowing many residents the choice of garbage pick-up, or the option of driving bagged garbage to a transfer station for a lower fee.

"I would suggest that the rest of the County be weaned off the current Rolls Royce level of Solid Waste service and move to this more efficient and less costly 'Cadillac level of service' provided to Erin and Guelph-Eramosa," he said in a recent letter to the warden and members of the Solid Waste Services Committee. Councillors are willing to consider the issue, but no immediate changes are expected.

The core problem for Erin is the province's property tax system. Because Erin property values are relatively high in the current real estate market, residents here must pay a higher share of the taxes required to provide county services.

Wellington County gets about $11.5 million from Erin annually, and since solid waste represents seven per cent of the county budget, Maieron identifies $802,000 as Erin's contribution to the county waste system. It only costs the county $215,000, however, to provide waste pickup in Erin, leaving a difference of $587,000. (This calculation does not include the cost of landfilling the waste, or of the one-day Household Hazardous Waste event.)

"What are Erin residents receiving for this significant additional contribution?" Maieron asks in his letter. "It appears very little. Are we subsidizing everyone else's level of SWS service? Perhaps. For such generosity, Erin residents are provided with the opportunity to drive 40 plus kilometers to the Belwood Transfer Station to dispose of bulky waste etc. ... These services currently exist in almost every other municipality in Wellington County - excepting Guelph-Eramosa.

"I cannot in good faith continue to have my residents over-contribute for services they do not locally receive.

"When we look at average residential cost in the treasurer's report - based on 3,960 Erin households, the cost to provide curbside collection is approximately $54.33 per household per year. What is charged in taxes is $202.51 per household per year, resulting in a difference of $148.18, which is almost 3 times more than what the curbside collection service costs to deliver."

Closing the Hillsburgh station saved the County more than $600,000 in annual operating costs, but Maieron says, "None of these savings were translated in any additional services for Erin residents/taxpayers".

Erin Auto Recyclers does allow Erin residents to avoid the drive to Belwood for some bulky, hazardous and electronic waste. Maieron said efforts by the company to work with the county to expand disposal have met with excessive red tape, and that county staff "have discouraged Erin Auto Recyclers from proceeding any further".

Fence sparks anger over dirt bikes

As published in The Erin Advocate

The new fence recently erected by Wellington County on the border of the old Erin Village landfill site has prompted a hostile response from residents who consider it a "huge scar" on a beautiful landscape and an unwelcome obstacle to hikers and wildlife.

Others consider the fence an unfortunate necessity, designed in part to discourage dirt bike and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) traffic, which has caused serious damage on Erin's drumlin – the long, glacier-deposited hill west of the village.

“We’ve always had this scheduled to have fencing put up at some point,” said Doug Konrad, manager of solid waste for Wellington County, which took over responsibility for the old landfill site ten years ago. They have had trouble with off-road vehicles using the site and causing erosion.

“We decided to move the plans forward a little bit and at least do one section of the site with chain link, the side that gave us most problems," said Konrad, explaining that the Ministry of Environment requires these types of sites to be fenced in to make sure monitor wells are not damaged. "This is the only thing we could reasonably do.”

The six-foot fence, with two cross-beams welded between each post, starts at the mill pond, across the river from Church St. W. It runs up the hill along the south-east border of the landfill, and down the other side. It is clearly visible from McMillan Park downtown.

"I am so upset to see this huge scar cutting into the beautiful emerald backdrop in Erin," said Melissa Livingston-Staples. "Those hills give our village a unique character. Why weren't we consulted about this change to our landscape?"

John Denison owns the property next to the landfill at the hilltop. Last May he wrote a letter to the Town of Erin regarding damage to his land by dirt bikes and ATVs. Town Council passed the matter to the County and wrote a letter requesting the OPP to increase their presence at the site. Mayor Lou Maieron is confident that the matter was handled properly.

The County had a legal obligation, a plan in place and money allocated in their budget, so the fence was erected. Konrad said more fencing can be expected to meet provincial standards.

Emma Bramma Smith walks the hilltop trail regularly and was shocked when she first discovered the fence. She says the dog-walkers and hikers who use the hills actually help to keep the off-road vehicles off the trails.

“We feel violated, and when you look at it, you can understand why,” she said. “It’s not just inconveniencing a bunch of dog walkers. Wildlife has even more right to that land than we do.”

Denison has worked hard to discourage dirt bikes and ATVs, but his fences have often been cut or removed. He says the machines cause noise and pollution, and have turned trails into slippery mud and boulders.

"This is my backyard. I walk there nearly every day. I enjoy the quiet and the view. If that new fence cuts down the machine traffic, I'm all for it," he said.

"I'm okay with hikers. I leave openings in the fence so people can come through without damaging the fence. They're walking on their own two legs getting exercise and fresh air. They mostly pick-up after themselves and their dogs. They're respectful of private property and I appreciate that."

Smaller animals can still get past the fence though gaps at the bottom, and hikers can still use the area by altering their routes. Machine riders are still accessing the landfill property by driving around the end of the fence on the frozen edge of the mill pond.

Livingston-Staples is unhappy with the mess left by the fence builders: trees uprooted, leftover pipe ends, fence materials and aerosol cans of metallic paint. She would also like to see the site put to better use in the future.

"If houses are not going to be built on the dump, why can't the gorgeous views be enjoyed by the residents and tourists and wildlife?" she asked. "Why can't the dump be recycled by nature and people, rather than closing it up and throwing it away, like it never existed?

"We love the hills and have always felt a closeness to nature up on the hill. It affects your soul when you are up there. It is a special place I hate to lose and I would like future generations to be able to enjoy it also. Walking is the oldest exercise and is still the best. Let's protect the trails of Erin."

Steve Revell leads the Town's Trails Committee, which is making trail improvements on public land with the help of the Rotary Club, and hopes to create a better network of trails in the future.

"We have to recognize the generosity of the landowners who have long allowed walkers to use this [hilltop] trail by providing narrow gateways," he said. "The big problem has always been the motorized vehicles which have ripped up the hillsides and made the trail surface prone to erosion. I can indeed sympathize with the landowners on this issue."

Bill Dinwoody, who chairs the Town's Recreation and Culture Committee, believes the fence should be viewed as environmental protection rather than a barrier. He is concerned, however, that the fence may intrude too close to the river.

"The key issue here is that these properties are private and people using these unsanctioned trails are in fact trespassing," he said. "Hikers are resilient and will follow other routes. Most people who hike do so because they love the environment and conservation and take it upon themselves to preserve the trail.

"Unfortunately, it is the 'few' who take it upon themselves to tear up landscape with motorized vehicles which in a way has caused this action. If ATV's and dirt bikes continue to use private lands, I foresee numerous fences and obstacles installed in the hills to curtail them.

"Maybe it is time for someone to develop trails for motorized vehicles, to give them a place away from private property."

January 04, 2012

Employment services help job seekers build skills

As published in The Erin Advocate

I have been lucky when it comes to employment. I've only had to search for a job twice in the last 30 years. Job security is a good thing, but it does leave you a bit rusty when it comes time to scramble for something new.

For 20 years, I've been doing graphic design and pre-press work at a commercial printer. I had hoped that the job might last until I reach the age of 60 (just five more years) when I might be able to slide into semi-retirement.

That may still happen, but with the business of putting ink on paper in turmoil and decline, the future is quite uncertain. For the short term at least, instead of layoffs, my colleagues and I are facing a significant reduction in hours. Those of us wanting to maintain something close to full-time work are now looking for other sources of income or new jobs.

With that in mind, I browsed with interest through some information from the Wellington County Employment Resource Centre, located on Wyndham Street North in downtown Guelph. The services are free for all county residents.

Free, of course, meaning no extra fee. We all contribute to county services through our property taxes and rent payments, including a pay increase for county staff (2.75 per cent for unionized, 3 per cent for non-union). That last time raises came around where I work was 2003, and most of the staff have stayed on.

At the Resource Centre, there are workshops on job search strategies, resumés, communication skills, word processing, cover letters and interviews. What caught my attention, though, are topics that deal with the traumatic effects of job loss.

For example, next Tuesday, there is a morning session on Handling Stress Through Meditation. During a time of distress, it could be quite valuable to learn new methods of increasing concentration, self-confidence and inner peace.

The full calendar and other information is available at www.county.wellington.on.ca, in the Ontario Works section under Social Services, though you don't have to be an Ontario Works client to use the services.

There is a workshop on Healthy Lifestyles, which can be difficult to achieve during a prolonged job search. It covers eating well on a budget, exercise tips and strategies for creating balance. Participants will leave with an action plan, some fresh ideas and knowledge of community resources that can help them meet their goals.

In addition to workshops, there is personalized help to identify employment barriers and access community services. Computers are available with internet access and Microsoft Office programs. There are local job postings, phones and an answering service, photocopying, printing and faxing services, and how-to booklets.

Job seekers may also want to check out similar services at Second Chance Employment Counselling, a separate agency that has been providing employment, retraining and educational support in Guelph and Wellington communities for over 35 years. They provide one-to-one counselling and access to job search resources in Erin through EWCS (East Wellington Community Services).

They have offices in Guelph and Fergus, plus the Youth Resource Centre on the second floor at Stone Road Mall. They can provide guidance on apprenticeships, entrepreneurship and upgrading qualifications. You can get more information and on-line job search links at www.2ndchance.ca.