Councillor Pellerin says drainage issues not efficiently managed
Re-opening the municipal office in Verner remains a topic of prime interest to Ward 7 Councillor Fern Pellerin. At the last town council meeting August 15, WN CAO Jay Barbeau went over the history of the municipal office in Verner, citing the deterioration of the asset, centralisation of services in Sturgeon Falls following amalgamation, the lack of population density and usage of offices in outlying areas, which resulted in closure of the Field and eventually Verner offices. The Verner office was closed following the retirement of the last Assistant Clerk for rural areas, whose main portfolio consisted of municipal drainage issues, as demand for those services had declined substantially between 2010 – 2015. With new technologies, drainage petitions are handled differently, so visits to the office were calculated at about four per week, not enough to sustain an office, Barbeau explained. In 2018, the municipality also learned that the building had structural issues and was unsafe. Some remedial work was completed to maintain the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) offices at the site.
At the previous July 11 meeting, council had received a petition from residents in wards 5, 6, 7 and 8 and heard a presentation by David Lewington and Robert Desbiens requesting the re-installation of a staffed office in Verner. In response, at the August 15 meeting, Barbeau indicated this would be a budgetary item as he estimated the cost would be about $150K to establish fully integrated connectivity, and clients would still have to be referred to specialists in Sturgeon Falls for any municipal drainage issues. “Perhaps we can explore other ways of decentralizing and serving our public, such as using satellite offices that are quasi municipal,” said Barbeau. Council bounced around some ideas such as partnering with local libraries to ensure better access to items such as drainage maps and Internet services for those areas lacking connectivity.
Fern Pellerin disagreed with some of the conclusions presented, citing accessibility for a large portion of the municipality and saying that he was fielding complaints from the agricultural sector, specifically regarding drainage. He read a shocking segment from a letter written in 2017 from the Environmental Management Branch of OMAFRA, responding to questions from the municipal clerk and reprimanding the municipality in relation to issues surrounding the Brouillette Drain in Verner, indicating the municipality had an obligation to resolve the issue according to the Drainage Act. “It is very apparent that your municipality has neglected its responsibilities to the Drainage Act and have allowed their own bylaws to be disregarded,” Coun. Pellerin read, noting that the drainage issue addressed in the letter remains unresolved to this day – six years later.
The issue concerns continual flooding in the Betty Road area, after the inadvisable removal of culverts or attempted diversion of drainage by residents, which the municipality apparently disregarded. “The taxpayers of Ontario, through OMAFRA, have provided significant investments in the establishment of these drainage systems (2/3 grants towards assessments on agricultural land) and towards the management of these systems (50% grant towards the cost of employing a drainage superintendent). It is concerning to me that even with these financial incentives, this infrastructure has been poorly managed,” the letter reads.
Coun. Pellerin, in a follow up interview, said he was not satisfied with the response of administration to his concerns and those of Wards 5 to 8 residents. He questioned the figure of $150K to set up an office when there is an empty classroom in the Verner municipal building, adding that moving personnel to Verner represents no additional expenditure in wages. Pellerin stressed that Verner is the agricultural hub of West Nipissing, with OMAFRA offices, the Co-Operative régionale, grain elevator, and other infrastructure, so it makes little sense to inconvenience the rather large agricultural sector by requiring extra travel to Sturgeon Falls.
Pellerin told council that at one time, Verner had experts in the field, noting the past employment of a drainage superintendent. With this expertise gone, the town is not staying on top of drainage issues, he fears. Citing the letter from 2017, signed by OMAFRA Drainage Coordinator Sid Vander Veen, Pellerin read: “Over the years, OMAFRA has paid a significant amount of money to your municipality to construct drains and also to assist in their ongoing management. What confidence can you provide us that this money is well-spent? What assurance can you give us that your network of municipal drains will be managed more appropriately in the future?”
Pellerin insisted he is not raising the issue to cause dissension but to assist in resolving concerns that affect people such as those on Betty Road, who experience annual flooding, deterioration of their driveways and blocked ditches. “They are not looking after it… the superintendent is not receiving any more [calls] – it’s Public Works now,” he said, describing conditions where one neighbour built a garage on his property but filled in a drain in the process, causing back-up and flooding. He said the Drainage Act is clear, “[The municipality] has the power to go there and remove whatever you put in… if this was open there’d be no problem. This is what the letter is referring to when it says they weren’t following their own bylaws.” He added that because the issue was “contentious,” the town “went to the engineers and they came up with our own new plan, which is going to cost” considerable sums to property owners. “They’ve got the power to go in there and fix it,” asserts Pellerin.
During the August meeting, Coun. Anne Tessier supported Coun. Pellerin’s position, noting the concentration of farmers outside of Sturgeon Falls, adding that it was onerous for them to travel. “I mean, they work every day from morning to sundown,” are weather dependant, and don’t normally have time to travel the distance. Coun. Jamie Restoule said the matter was not an easy yes or no, that it would come down to an already stressed budget, and he would favour looking at creative options other than full time staff. Coun. Roch St-Louis suggested staff attend the rural areas twice a week at hours convenient for local farmers, utilizing a local library. When it was revealed that all the drainage maps have been digitized, Coun. Dan Gagné said that all farmers were digitally inclined these days as a matter of business, “And what we should be doing is maybe knowing what they actually need and supply that information, maybe without them having to visit an office.”