MNBP Draft Budget Up 4.93%; Tax Rate Up 1.77% — Cabot Head Light Closed Again For 2019

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Cabot Head Lighthouse Closed
The Cabot Head lightstation will remain closed for 2019.
By John Francis

February 19, 2019 was a long day for Northern Bruce Peninsula’s Council and Staff. It began at 9:00AM sharp, with a Special Council Meeting to discuss the budget, broke for lunch at noon and then had a regular Council Meeting at 1:00PM. They adjourned the regular meeting at 3:15 and went back to the budget. They managed to chew through the entire budget, line by line. They adjourned at 5:05PM.

The Agenda for the budget meeting was 148 pages and it became clear that all five Council members had read it carefully. There was some consternation among the four new Council Members that the budget proposed by staff included a budget increase of 4.93% with a tax increase of 1.77% yet offered no obvious way to get to zero. Staff explained their various concerns, hoping to understand Council’s priorities — are they interested in cutting taxes or improving services?

The elephant in the room was that Northern Bruce Peninsula has by far the lowest tax rate in Bruce County — the next lowest is more than 50% higher — and a large portfolio of aging infrastructure. Most of that infrastructure was built with federal or provincial grant money, but those programs dried up long ago. There is no low-hanging fruit in the proposed budget. In fact, even with the (proposed) 4.93% increase, the municipality will continue to fall behind in maintenance on the aging infrastructure. 

Take bridges for example. As they deteriorate, they are in danger of having their load limits dropped below the weight of ambulances and fire trucks. Currently three of MNBP’s eleven bridges are in this condition, with a total replacement budget of well over a million dollars. In a municipality with a total budget of around $6 million, that is a daunting number.

Council and staff also discussed the municipality’s backlog of 23 road improvement projects (total price tag about $6 million according to estimates prepared in 2012) and the 2019 priorities (Isthmus Bay Rd, Dyers Bay Rd/East Rd, Johnston Harbour Rd).

Staffing levels at various facilities were discussed; the potential for savings is near zero. Was it possible to save money by training our own water system technicians? No, because you would need redundancy — two people — for a job that doesn’t require two full time people. We actually save money by sharing Ontario Clean Water Agency personnel with other municipalities.

Councillors identified several projects they would like to see:

• Better signage around the (underutilized) visitor information facility at Ferndale.

• A precise breakdown of Tobermory parking revenues and how that money is being spent.

• Study of possibility of expanding Tobermory’s water system to service the Community Centre and other facilities.

• Investigate the possibility of chemical spray for Phragmites control; see if it can be administered in conjunction with the spray program for Wild Parsnip.

• Study how other municipalities are dealing with Short-Term Accommodation issues and take advantage of their experience.

At the end of the meeting Councillor Smokey Golden pointed out that Council had gone through the entire budget without making any effort to cut anything. She is concerned that the province may be serious about its threats to cut back $1.5 million per year it currently gives MNBP. Mayor Milt McIver agreed that this is a real concern but defended the budget: “I think this budget is reasonable,” he said, “and staff here are very good at managing it.” He noted that Council could “nickel and dime it” if they wanted, but that large savings are simply not possible.

The regular Council Meeting was the filling in between the two slices of Special Budget Meeting. It began with a delegation from Parks Canada led by Acting Park Superintendent John Festarini. 

Highlights: 

• With the Driftwood Cove purchase, Bruce Peninsula National Park now has 90% of the land it is mandated to acquire and preserve.

• Visitation on Flowerpot Island is up 519% in ten years.

• Bruce Peninsula National Park will charge a per-person fee in 2020 rather than just a per-vehicle parking fee.

• The Parks are currently engaged in a visioning/planning exercise with a view to setting long term goals.

Councillor Megan Myles noted that Parks personnel have expertise in a number of areas that are going to be very important to MNBP: visitor management, area management, asset management. She hoped Parks would be willing to share.

Sup’t Festarini asked for guidance from Council — did they want him to make regular appearances? Yes, said Councillor Smokey Golden to nods from around the table. “Everybody is interested,” she said.

She noted that the Federal Infrastructure Program (FIP) has provided jobs for a number of MNBP people. She worries that when the project ends, so will their careers. Sup’t Festarini noted that Parks managers have been asking themselves the same questions — Parks has invested a lot in these people; can we find a place for them in the park/field unit/organization?

Councillor Golden pointed out that it is possible to work for Parks Canada for 20 years and never have a permanent position. Sup’t Festarini agreed that this is regrettable. Councillor Megan Myles offered the insight that short-term contracts are far from ideal, but they are the daily reality for her generation.

It was agreed that Parks would make a quarterly presentation to Council and maintain regular contact.

Noting that the next delegation was from the Friends of Cabot Head Lightstation (FOCH), the National Park delegation stayed on.

Ron Wheeler and Ina Toxopeus presented to Council on behalf of FOCH. Wheeler began by explaining that FOCH is a volunteer group and that, with the lighthouse closed for two years, the Friends group has gone two years without revenue. “We’re kind of in dire straits,” he began. During the two years of closure, FOCH has had almost no income. “We have lost about 40% of our volunteer base and membership. We aren’t sure how we are going to run the programming at the level that was being provided in years past.”

Wheeler and Toxopeus explained the state of the lightstation — porcupines are eating the buildings and poison ivy has taken over the whole property.

In 2016, there were 18,000 visitors to the site. When the lightstation was condemned in 2017 because of Mercury and Lead contamination, it left the Friends group suddenly responsible for collapsing the museum and the store, removing all their furniture and artifacts and finding storage. Wheeler pointed out that in this emergency — as in many others over the 25 years the FOCH have existed — Ina Toxopeus saved the day. If it weren’t for her, the organization would not exist today. 

The remediation is (finally) being conducted this winter and spring. The FOCH have been told they can occupy the property again on July 1, 2019. But with vacancies on the executive and a much-reduced volunteer corps, they would need at least six weeks to get the museum up and running — probably longer — and they could not manage the store and the program offerings they did before. It seems impractical to try to open at all in 2019. They wondered if it would be possible to get some help from Bruce County Museum or the St Edmunds Museum. After all, “we serve each other’s purposes.”

Would Parks Canada be interested in taking over the lightstation, they wondered. 

Sup’t Festarini was very clear on that point: “I will say for the record that Parks Canada has no interest in getting assets outside the park study area. But I know a bit about lighthouses. We have some under our stewardship.” He suggested that FOCH and the municipality look at what other places are doing to make their lighthouses sustainable. He suggested that the future for Cabot Head is some type of partnership. Parks Canada can offer knowledge and guidance. He suggested that FOCH talk to the Biosphere Association and to the Friends of Bruce District Parks. Consolidate. Prioritize. We can steal business plans from other places.

Mayor McIver thanked the Parks Canada delegation for staying behind to help. “You are a valuable resource,” he told them.

CAO Bill Jones was asked if any response had been received to the municipality’s Request For Proposals concerning a shuttle bus service to the lightstation. There was one expression of interest, he said. It was necessarily vague, given that the RFP did not offer firm dates.

Ina Toxopeus offered insight into how the process will unfold. She expects divestiture to follow remediation. Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) will first offer the property to other federal agencies (she nodded to the Parks delegation), then to provincial agencies, then to groups, then to private citizens.

There is a need for people to be at the lightstation, she continued. Visitors there don’t understand poison ivy, don’t understand rattlesnakes. There are distressed mariners at Winfield Basin and other emergencies.

“It’s a beautiful property and you’ve done great work there,” Mayor McIver told the delegation.

It was agreed that the lightstation will be closed for 2019. MNBP staff will prepare a report about possible partnerships and strategies.