May 24, 2018

Erin council backs off pit decision

An overflow crowd and a petition with 772 names have forced Erin councillors to delay a controversial gravel pit vote, with the town now seeking a better deal with the pit operator. 
Council decided on Tuesday to defer a decision on whether to recommend that the county allow Halton Crushed Stone (HCS) to expand its existing gravel pit north to County Road 52.
Mayor Allan Alls said CAO Nathan Hyde will meet with the company to explore ways to reduce the impact of the expansion, across the road from the BelErin subdivision. He said the process could take until this fall.
Residents are concerned about noise, dust, traffic and visual appearance, and want a 300-metre setback. Various studies and concessions by HCS have not been sufficient to move the project forward, and the company says it is open to further discussions.
Resident Robyn Johnstone presented a petition urging a No vote, saying the expansion “threatens our families, Erin’s natural appeal and future prosperity.” It says property values would decrease by up to 30 per cent, and that recycling asphalt would release toxic dust. 
“We are not willing to roll the dice when it comes to the health of our children,” said Johnstone.
The expansion would allow gravel extraction above the water table on 150 acres of agricultural land, and storage of up to 60,000 tonnes of recycled asphalt.
County Planning Director Aldo Salis recommended approval, saying the proposal is “in the public interest” and that concerns have been adequately addressed.
The approval process requires an Official Plan change by the county and a further zoning decision by the town. The outcome could be appealed by either side.
Coun. Matt Sammut declared a conflict of interest since his home is near the pit, and he could not vote or participate in the debate.

May 10, 2018

Water decision deserved public discussion

Erin town councillors could have shown some courtesy by at least pretending to have a public discussion about getting rid of the water department.
Instead, after a lengthy closed session on April 24 and a brief public slide show by a consultant, they voted 3-2 to negotiate a contract with the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) to take over water operations.
One of the most important decisions in the town’s history was taken without public notice, and without a public discussion of the strategy by councillors or staff.
With OCWA promising to save urban ratepayers $200,000 a year, it could be an excellent decision. It comes with risks, however, and with many ancient water pipes to replace and more wells needed, the savings could be a drop in the bucket. 
Normally, councillors and the public get a chance to consider major proposals well in advance. In this case, the matter was a single line on the agenda. The town had commissioned an independent cost-benefit analysis, comparing the existing operations to two outside bids.
Normally a consultant’s presentation is printed in the agenda, so people have at least two days to think and react. In this case there was nothing.
Normally there is a staff report analyzing the pros and cons – something that had been promised on this issue – but again there was nothing. The explanation from communications officer Jessica Spina is that a recommendation from CAO Nathan Hyde would “eliminate the objectivity” of the consultant’s report.
Water superintendent Joe Babin was not allowed to speak during or after the meeting. Maybe he has some advice for council that the public should hear.
A complex matter like outsourcing water requires discussion. When did that discussion take place? Council never saw the request for proposals that went out in February.
A section of the April 24 meeting was legitimately closed to the public for matters of labour relations, employee negotiations or litigation. Other possible exemptions for confidential information and outside negotiations were not claimed. The Municipal Act limits discussion to specified topics.
Spina said that in closed session, the consultant “provided an objective view regarding the water department’s operation”, with an “overview of the department’s financial records which included proprietary information”, and that questions were asked about the analysis “as it pertains to staffing and department finances”. 
Any new strategy might be construed as impacting labour relations. There will be grey areas, but it would be advisable (though perhaps not convenient) to deal with sensitive personnel and negotiation issues in closed session, while discussing others in public.
These would include the concept of outsourcing, water quality monitoring, response to emergencies, criteria for extra costs, dispute resolution, performance in other municipalities and the option to have OCWA manage future wastewater.
In 2016, closed meeting investigator John Maddox urged Erin to keep meetings open to the public whenever possible.
“If in doubt, you should probably err on the side of caution and stay open,” he said. Councillors must limit discussion to the announced reason for the closed session, and not “wander off-topic”.
Some councillors were clearly uncomfortable when they returned from the recent closed session, having been warned not to reveal details. Councillors Jeff Duncan and John Brennan voted against starting OCWA negotiations, with concern that the mayor and CAO would be authorized to sign the contract without council seeing it.
Coun. Matt Sammut, a vocal critic of water costs, voted Yes, but had concerns about “impacting a number of lives”. He had second thoughts about his vote, but could not change it. He said if negotiators see “holes” in the deal, it should still come back to council. Mayor Al Alls told councillors to forward concerns privately to the negotiating team.
The mayor and CAO may have got their way, but at what cost? Considering that they recently promised to improve communications with the public, the meeting was still a disaster.

May 03, 2018

New efforts to reduce gravel pit impact

New efforts are being made to reduce the impact of Halton Crushed Stone’s proposed gravel pit expansion south of Erin village.
At an April 17 meeting, County Planner Aldo Salis supported the expansion, and HCS offered changes to appease opponents, but council’s debate was cut short when the vote was delayed until May 15.
Councillor Jeff Duncan, who is opposed to the proposal as it now stands, did not get to speak. He says a gravel trade could move the pit farther from nearby homes.
“I propose a significant amount of the gravel deposit that the Town of Erin has under the TenthLine that is part of the application be assigned/traded to HCS as a concession for a significant setback,” he said. He wants no extraction in a triangle measured 300 metres along the roadways.
Possible closure of the Tenth Line in about 20 years to extract town-owned gravel has been discussed, but it would require an additional agreement between the town and the pit operator.
Roy Val, who received a Town of Erin Volunteer Award recently for his research into this and other local growth issues, said he was pleased that HCS had recognized the environmental concerns related to asphalt recycling on the site by agreeing to groundwater monitoring.
“HCS still fails to recognize the impact of a pit across the street from an established subdivision,” he said. “I would hope those residents, in particular, are ready to engage councillors head-on to address the issue of a larger setback prior to the next council meeting.”
HCS has doubled the minimum 30-metre setback, promising not to mine the first 60 metres from the northwest corner of their lands. They also committed to mine the next 95 metres in a two-year period, starting whenever they decide to strip the topsoil.
Duncan’s proposal suggests a two-year limit on a larger area, comprising 50 per cent of the land parcel closest to the subdivision. He also wants the operator to set up a Community Liaison Committee.
The proposal is for mining above the water table, but Duncan wants tighter restrictions, saying HCS could too easily get approval for mining below the water table.
He would also like to see asphalt recycling removed from the land use, or at least temporarily restricted while the Ontario government is developing new policies on this land use.
“Placing 60,000 tonnes of a hazardous material on the floor of a gravel pit could be one of the worst places to put it,” he said. HCS and Salis say the asphalt poses no risk to human health.

Erin to outsource water operations

After years of concern about the cost of running the Erin water department, town council has finally pulled the plug – deciding to contract the job to an outside agency.
The town expects to save over $200,000 per year in a five-year deal with the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA), a crown corporation that operates water and wastewater systems for more than 180 clients.
Council voted 3-2 at a special meeting April 24 to begin negotiations with OCWA. They delegated full authority to Mayor Allan Alls and CAO Nathan Hyde to sign a contract without bringing it back to council. 
Councillors John Brennan and Jeff Duncan voted against the motion. They both support contracting out, but said they wanted more information.
“Negotiations will involve a dialogue about the possibility of the Town’s water department staff transitioning into new positions,” said Communications Officer Jessica Spina. “It is anticipated that OCWA will begin operating the town’s water system by August 1st of this year.”
The town will retain ownership of the system, and hopes to use the savings to reduce future water rate increases. More money will go into reserves needed for replacing antiquated parts of the system.
In February, CAO Nathan Hyde issued a Request for Proposal, and received two bids. Town council was not involved in the process, which included hiring an independent consultant, Public Sector Digest (PSD), to compare the bids to the existing costs of running the water department (about $1 million annually).
In closed session, PSD provided council with analysis, and then gave the public an abridged version. Measured in 2018 dollars with inflation at 2 per cent, a bid from H2O Systems would save the town $347,723 over 5.5 years. The OCWA bid would save $1,112,839.
Coun. Matt Sammut asked, “Do you feel a good analysis has been done from a qualitative perspective.” Tyler Sutton and Saramad Mahbouba of PSD said their only reference was the executive summaries of the bidders themselves, who each claimed to have an excellent record of service delivery. The bids were not made public.
“The Town of Erin can expect to benefit from economies of scale and accumulated experience,” the PSD report said. The town is expecting strong technical support, reducing the need for other consultants. 
The mayor said OCWA can do the job with fewer hours and less overtime, since staff service more than one client, and that OCWA will share liability for the system.
OCWA manages 75 per cent of Ontario’s outsourced water treatment facilities, serving 4.5 million people. The agency has already made a pitch to manage Erin’s future sewer system.
Guelph-Eramosa Township used to have OCWA managing Rockwood’s water and wastewater systems, but cancelled the contract 10 years ago, citing unpredictable extra costs. Alls said he has heard positive feedback from other municipalities.
Councillors were warned not to discuss the water service bids in public, because of staff privacy and to avoid harming the town’s negotiating position. Water Superintendent Joe Babin was also barred from speaking.
“The devil is in the details – we would be derelict if we didn’t investigate further, but there are a lot of things to be fleshed out,” said Brennan. “The responsibility regarding quality is on the shoulders of council.”
Mayor Al Alls said councillors should forward any concerns privately to the negotiating team.
Duncan said the decision was “hasty”. He said bringing a tentative deal back to council in closed session would be a normal negotiation process, but the CAO said it would be unfair to OCWA and the negotiating team to have to start the process over again.

Ministry to mediate on wastewater objections

The Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change will mediate between the Town of Erin and any residents who appeal the results of the Wastewater Environmental Assessment (EA).
The culmination of the Master Plan and Municipal Class EA process, which was mandated in 2004 and started in 2009, is publication of an Environmental Study Report (ESR), which is subject to a formal 30-day review period. The completed report is almost 2,000 pages, and will be available at, in libraries and at Town Hall.
On April 24 town council got a report from Joe Mullan, President of Ainley Group that has conducted Phases 3 and 4 of the EA. They agreed that the review period would be May 14 to June 14.
People can make comments to the town, or make a more formal appeal, known as a request for a Part II Order or a “bump-up”. This must be submitted to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change by June 14.
Eventually, Minister Chris Ballard would issue an order binding on all parties. He could require additional investigation or approve the plan, allowing the town to proceed with funding requests, design and construction.
A similar Part II Order process for the Station Street bridge, dam and pond lasted more than a year.
Mullan said his team would hold another meeting of the Public Liaison Committee and meet with others to resolve concerns. He said Part II Order requests should be as specific as possible, so the ministry can ask questions of the town and consultant.
“The ministry becomes a mediator, and then ultimately a decision maker,” said Mullan.
Ainley has already responded individually to 26 letters from residents. Concerns include costs for urban residents, growth of the urban population to 14,559 in the coming decades, possible costs for rural residents and risks to the natural environment.
Mullan says public concerns have been addressed through technical studies and public meetings over the last two years, but some residents say that the answers to their questions have been inadequate.
The preferred alternative includes a gravity collection system with low-pressure pumping in some areas, a forcemain connecting Hillsburgh to Erin village along the Elora-Cataract Trailway, a plant at County Road 52 and Tenth Line using membrane technology and UV treatment, and an outlet to the West Credit River at Winston Churchill Blvd.
“We have had preliminary talks with senior governments and have received positive feedback,” said Mayor Allan Alls. “This critical project will help us build a complete and sustainable community, which will attract new jobs.” 
After major contributions from developers and funding from senior governments, the local share of the eventual $118 million project could be $20 million. If so, each serviced property would pay an average of $7,500 for construction – though the actual amount could vary per property once the allocation formula is decided. It could be financed for up to 15 years.
In addition, individual connection charges paid to a private contractor are expected to be in the range of $4,000 to $8,000, depending on the property.
Once the system is running, yearly wastewater usage fees are estimated at $500 to $600 (based on rates in nearby municipalities).
Available in the wastewater section of the town website is a Frequently Asked Questions document with information on the project. The Town of Erin Facebook page has an animated video about the costs to property owners. 
Also on the site is Mullan’s 38-page presentation to council with the April 24 agenda. It includes a capital cost summary for all elements of the wastewater system and outlines financing options.