Niagara Region, in partnership with the 12 local municipalities, continues to advocate to the provincial and federal government to secure additional funds for our local business community. Rest assured that we will continue to stand with you and advocate where we can.
Despite all of our struggles, there are also signs of light at the end of Niagara’s economic tunnel. For example, investment in building construction remained strong across the Region despite the pandemic. 2020 saw the second highest year on record of investment values totalling more than $1.6 billion. This indicates that businesses continue to have strong confidence in Niagara and felt safe to continue investing in projects. I am pleased to report that 2021 has seen this trend continue.
In terms of permit values, 2020 actually surpassed 2019 by about $50 million, indicating that investment in building construction will continue well into this year.
Yes, it is true that Niagara’s Gross Domestic Product has declined by $1.2 billion. However, this is a direct result of the pandemic restrictions and models suggest that our GDP is expected to rebound rapidly once the economy is reopened. Many economists have suggested that pent-up demand for hospitality and tourism will benefit regions like ours once the worst of the pandemic has subsided.
It is important to remember that municipalities were not immune to the financial pressures of the pandemic. The Region, in partnership with the 12 area municipalities, participated in lobbying efforts with other communities across Ontario to secure critical financial relief from the provincial government. Ultimately, tens of millions of dollars have been provided to Niagara through provincial and federal programs, ensuring both sustainable program delivery and limiting the impact on your property tax bills.
As Regional Chair, I have maintained a strong and cooperative relationship with Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark who has been responsive to the needs of Niagara, and indeed, all municipalities. I also keep in close contact with our local Members of Provincial and Federal Parliament who have proven to be effective advocates and willing partners with the Niagara Region.
In reflecting on the Region’s response to the pandemic, I have to mention how honoured I am to represent an organization of professionals that collectively rolled up their sleeves and continued to provide world-class service during one of the most challenging times in our 50-year history. A recent study found that 96 per cent of our staff are tasked with providing what KPMG deemed to be mandatory or essential public services. During a pandemic, the importance of these services is heightened and I have witnessed first hand our staff making sacrifices to ensure Regional services continue to be provided to residents and businesses.
It has also been a privilege to work with members of Regional Council who have the best interest of the people of Niagara in mind at all times. I am truly fortunate to work with such a dedicated group of individuals.
My last thought on the pandemic is one of optimism: when I delivered last year’s state of the region address I did not imagine that we would have not only one, but four effective vaccines to combat COVID-19. To date, we have administered well over 100,000 shots, including 100 per cent of all residents living in long-term care homes, and other high-risk settings. With our partners at Niagara Health and our local pharmacies, the vaccine is available in all of our communities. Yes, there are times that the provincial booking system gets overwhelmed, or other logistical issues may cause delay, but if supply continues, we anticipate that every eligible adult will have received their first dose by the end of June. This is much welcomed news and a positive step in our fight against COVID-19.
While Council’s response to the pandemic remained our top priority, it was also necessary to ensure the business of the Region moved forward.
Although it may seem like a lifetime ago, the Region’s new waste collection contract started in October of last year. Thinking of the previous few years, late collection was all too frequent and service levels were not where the residents of Niagara deserved them to be. Since October, collections have nearly always been on time and I believe residents are seeing a better value for their tax dollars. I am also pleased to reiterate that every person working to collect our curbside waste is earning a living wage – this decision helps to ensure higher quality services for residents, while providing reasonable compensation for these hard working individuals.
This term of Council also made the courageous decision to follow the science and help protect our environment by moving to every-other-week collection of garbage. By making this policy decision, we reinforced the use of the Green Bins, increasing our diversion rates and avoiding more methane being put into the environment. Let me highlight some impressive statistics: since moving to every-other-week collection, we have seen a 16 per cent decrease in garbage set out at the curb, while at the same time seeing a 34 per cent increase in green bin usage and a 12 per cent increase in blue and grey box usage. In raw numbers, nearly 5,000 tonnes of waste has been diverted from our landfills, helping to protect our natural environment.
Looking back at 2020, the year could be best defined by the COVID-19 pandemic and the collective movement to focus on equity and inclusivity. Here in Niagara we started that process by having the Region and 12 municipalities collectively sign a declaration to join the Coalition of Inclusive municipalities, committing us to a higher standard going forward. The Region also made an investment in hiring our first project manager of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity to take a hard look at our practices to ensure everyone is being treated fairly. And through the work of the Women’s Advisory Committee, Regional council continues to make sure more diverse viewpoints are considered when creating policy.
This term of council has also taken progressive strides to address housing and homelessness in Niagara. We demonstrated leadership by voting to better integrate Niagara Regional Housing with our community services department, streamlining service delivery for residents and making better use of taxpayer resources. Most recently, the pandemic allowed Regional staff to implement more effective forms of housing supports that far surpass what is found in a typical shelter. By professionally delivering services based on best practice, 24 Niagara residents who have been homeless for years now have a permanent place to call home. Through our effective advocacy with the provincial government, and in partnership with the City of Niagara Falls, the Region successfully secured the capital funding required to make this program, and others, permanent. We will continue to tackle this issue for the remainder of this term through both advocacy with the provincial and federal governments and by making local investments.
Niagara is also ready to host the nation with the 2022 Canada Summer Games. The pandemic-related delay is allowing us to ensure Niagara’s games will be like no other. With over $100 million of legacy infrastructure being invested in our region, the summer games will not only play an important role in our COVID-19 economic recovery, it will also provide incredible community assets that will be utilized for generations.
This term of council continued to build on our past successes by connecting all 12 municipalities through expanded inter-municipal transit. To accomplish this welcome expansion, the Region utilized an innovative on-demand transit model that makes use of passenger vans instead of conventional bus routes that require a 40-foot bus. This service is scalable and cost-efficient, providing the ideal balance between service provision and cost effectiveness. These expansions will play an important role in ensuring seamless connections between the highly anticipated GO train stations, and our local service.
A vision of the future
While it goes without saying that pandemic recovery will remain our top priority, I wanted to highlight some other items that I believe are worthy of council’s attention during the balance of this term.
As many of you know, work is already well underway to hire a permanent Chief Administrative Officer for the organization. Prior to the pandemic, council collectively agreed this decision would be one of their most important. I remain committed to ensuring this hiring process is conducted in a fully ethical and transparent manner. I look forward to announcing the successful candidate later this summer, and then getting to work right away.
Significant progress is being made on efforts to amalgamate public transit across the Region. Improved public transit is good for our passengers as well as our local economy as it makes our region more competitive to potential site selectors. Getting people to and from work is crucial and I support any reasonable effort that improves our ability to attract and retain new private sector investment in Niagara.
As we move into the second half of this term, I will continue to champion the need for balance in regards to development and our natural environment. Niagara’s natural heritage was recently recognized with the recent TVO documentary, Tripping the Niagara. Almost three hours in length, it highlights the natural attributes that make Niagara both unique and attractive to visitors and investors alike. I believe the Region’s upcoming Official Plan should strive to find a fair mix between the promotion of responsible growth and development, while protecting this natural heritage. I believe it is the diversity of our Region - the green space and the urban areas - that make us such a desirable location. I would also argue that we must take steps to protect the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority from legislation that may undermine its effectiveness.
This term will also see us work towards an updated Development Charges By-law. It is my desire to see a by-law that ensures we continue to be a competitive location for investment, while also making sure that growth is paying for growth. Our local businesses and homeowners cannot afford to subsidize new development, and I look forward to seeing a by-law that positions Niagara to be competitive among our peers.
As many of you know, the province’s governance review ended with no changes being made, but with a challenge being put forward to municipalities to find efficiencies. Through service reviews, in part paid for by money made available by the Province of Ontario, we have identified a list of areas that would be prime candidates for shared service agreements between the Region and 12 area municipalities. While this work was sidetracked due to the pandemic, I look forward to seeing expedited progress in the coming months as we look for ways to be more cost effective for our taxpayers.
When I ran for Regional Council in 2018, a global pandemic was the last thing on my mind. While no one will dispute the negative effects of the last 13 months, we have also seen some of the best our community has to offer.
When I think of Niagara, I think of the immensely positive impact that a single resident, business or non-profit organization can have on our community. To this end, I am pleased to announce that nominations are now open for the new Regional Chair’s Niagara Impact Awards. I am calling on all Niagarians to consider nominating those in your community who have made a real difference over the last 13 months - I look forward to reviewing your submissions in the coming weeks and selecting those that went above and beyond to make Niagara a better place in which to live.
In closing, I want to thank all of you again for spending your precious time with us today. I hope that these remarks have provided you with some insight into the current state of the Niagara Region, and where I hope we can go together as a community. As we continue to recover and rebuild, it is my intent to do so in the spirit of partnership and collaboration.