BY VOICE STAFF
At their meeting last Monday night, February 5, Town Councillors mused about the possibility of sending a bill to the Region for the total costs incurred responding to concerns about Pelham finances. A report from the Corporate Services department asserted that the Town spent $117,078 on the KPMG report, $34,826 on legal costs, and $13,383 on the “Evening with the Experts” event.
“I think we should give some consideration to sending the bill to the Region. We could copy the bills that we’ve received, and respectfully request that they forward us a cheque for $165,287,” said Councillor Gary Accursi.
Councillor Richard Rybiak agreed.
“Is there any legislation that we can hang that one, so that it’s not just a shot? he asked. “That would be great if it could be covered.”
Last autumn the Town rejected an offer to pay for an independent, third-party audit. In September the developer Rainer Hummel, who blew the whistle on the potential illegality of the Town’s credit-for-land scheme, offered to underwrite an examination.
“I am willing to pay the $50,000-dollar estimated cost of a forensic audit from my own pocket, so not to further burden the ratepayers of Pelham,” he wrote in a Voice Op-Ed.
Hummel repeated his offer at a Regional Audit Committee meeting, where he brought a cheque addressed to the Region in Trust. Hummel’s single condition for paying for the audit was that he approve its all-important terms of reference, or what was to be examined and who would be interviewed.
At the time, Rybiak called the idea of accepting Hummel’s money through the Region “sleazy.”
Mayor Dave Augustyn said, “Do we want to be the type of community that grants wealth great privilege? No.”
Critics responded that the Town was refusing Hummel’s offer only so that the Town itself could dictate the terms of reference.
Indeed, when KPMG released its findings in December it became clear that it had not conducted a forensic audit, but rather a “report,” which collated but did not verify the accuracy of information from Town staff and the Town’s lawyers.
Councillor John Durley said that other towns were at risk of the same actions from the Region, and suggested that Pelham had been victimized
“If this happened to Pelham, then it could happen anywhere else,” he asserted. “We’re the hardest-hit victim. We need to do some action on this.”
Only Councillor James Lane, who wasn’t on Council when it rejected Hummel’s offer, expressed skepticism.
“At the end of the day, we had a choice to do this or not do this. We didn’t have to [call in KPMG],” he said. “We could have got our backs up and said, ‘We’re not going to do this.’”
Councillors also ruminated briefly on the 2018 budget, discussion of which had occupied several meetings in January.
“I want to emphasize that none of the discussion was directed at being critical of staff,” said Councillor Gary Accursi. “It was directed at doing our job, and being robust in discussion of alternatives to come up with the best course of action. We try to be on our game as much as we can.”
Accursi asserted that Council had been criticized for its discussion of alternatives, and called it “interesting” that Councillors were being criticized for both not doing its job and spending too much money, and for trying to “circumvent spending money” on the community centre.
Council also addressed the matter of Poth Street, a week after a Poth resident said Town CAO Darren Ottaway told him that he, “could sell his house and move.” Ottaway also told a group of Pelham residents that a home in a rural location like Poth was a “bad investment.”
Councillor Peter Papp offered some hope that a solution to Poth could be found, saying, “There has been another alternative suggested to us with respect to Poth Street. If that is possible to be done, we’ll be asking for a report on this action.”
Papp declined to say publicly what this option would be, though called it a “tentative, interim solution.”
Ottaway said that the issue with Poth is that the consultants’ recommendation of a $1.2 million fix is “unacceptable,” and said that staff could have a report on Papp’s “other option” by the end of March.
Fire Chief Bob Lymburner addressed recent concern about odour emanating from RedeCan Pharm’s marijuana production facility on Foss Road. Lymburner said that while the Town could have a bylaw that covered the smell, it would not have the means to enforce it.
“If I lay down orders, it could be years in court and hundreds of thousands in legal dollars,” said Lymburner.
He said that the bylaw officer is not “walking away and saying, ‘That’s not our problem,’” with the smell, and has been engaged in ongoing discussions with the facility as it tries to make changes to control the odour.
Deloitte, the Town’s official auditor, also made a brief presentation to Council on its plan for the 2017 general audit. Deloitte’s Trevor Ferguson said that since the Town switched Treasurers mid-year, as it fired Cari Pupo and hired Teresa Quinlin, the firm would “test the internal controls, before the transition, during the transition, and after the transition.”
Councillor Papp told Ferguson, “It’s been a challenging year,” and asked whether KPMG’s review of the Town would be covered by Deloitte.
“That’s not within the scope of our work at all,” said Ferguson.
Council also heard a presentation from Niagara Regional Housing’s CEO Donna Woiceshyn, who provided an overview of the organization’s work before turning to the Pelham-specific part of her report.
Woiceshyn used an example of a single mother with two children, living on a monthly income of $1960, or about minimum wage.
“Affordable housing should cost no more than thirty percent of monthly income,”said Woiceshyn.
In Pelham, that number would be $702 per month for a two-bedroom apartment.
“That’s not available in Pelham,” she said, explaining that the average market rent for an apartment of that size here is $902.
Woiceshyn said that Niagara Regional Housing doesn’t even have units in Pelham, other than one-bedroom seniors apartments. For apartments, there are 244 on the waiting list, though Woiceshyn said that only a handful of those are currently Pelham residents.
Councillor Rybiak asked for specifics about Regional Housing’s waiting list process.
“Anecdotally, I get people telling me, ‘I’m on the waiting list, I’ve been on it for a long time, I don’t know where I am,'” he said. “Could you explain that process a little bit? What sort of advice can we give people that have questions about the waiting list?”
Jeannette McKay, the organization’s housing access supervisor, said that it’s a difficult thing to explain,
“There are two hundred different lists,” she said. “So a person could be [in one place] on the waiting list for Pelham Non-Profit, but could also be [in another place] on other waiting lists around Niagara. It can be really confusing for people, though it is a chronological system, slightly modified. We give special priority to victims of violence, and ten percent of vacancies are offered to homeless individuals.”
Rybiak followed up by asking what councillors coulc do when asked for advice on finding housing, considering that such a long wait list exists.
McKay replied that in such situations Regional Housing attempts to refer people to various community agencies in a position to help.