Whittling down a regional tax increase projected to be in the double digits will be among the first priorities of the city's newly-elected, but well-seasoned, reps on regional council.
Now that the dust has settled on the municipal election and former city mayor Doug Craig and longtime councillor Pam Wolf have been named to regional council, it appears early concerns the new council would be made up of too many untested and inexperienced people didn't play out in Cambridge.
While Wolf is new to the upper tier, she is far from inexperienced as a politician, having been a member of city council for the past 16 years, much of that time spent debating issues with Craig as mayor.
Craig is about as seasoned a municipal politician as you can get, and despite being out of the game for the past four years, sounds poised and eager to tackle the big issues that have plagued the region throughout the pandemic.
“We’re coming into very difficult times,” Craig says of what lies ahead, citing the 11 per cent projected tax increase and encampments as the first two issues he hopes to tackle.
"We cannot have people living in tents in the winter.”
Convinced the end result of budget deliberations will be a reasonable tax increase, Craig says it simply has to go that way with affordability at the top of everyone's mind.
“You have people talking about gas prices, food prices, heating going up like 30 or 40 per cent and then all of a sudden 11 per cent taxes?,” Craig says.
But as far as what would have to be cut to achieve a lower tax rate, Craig is honest in saying he doesn’t know. It will come down to figuring out what the priorities are for the region and identifying the programs they can’t cut.
Off the top of his head, he suggests a hiring freeze.
His other priority is looking at alternatives to consumption and treatment services (CTS).
Craig has been vocally opposed to bringing a safe drug use site to Cambridge since it was first proposed, calling the region’s approach to dealing with the opioid crisis a “complete failure.”
But he won’t go as far as suggesting the application to bring the CTS to 150 Main St. be shelved at this stage of the process.
Instead, he wants the region to consider a comprehensive approach to the crisis, anchored in a more robust outreach designed to reach the people the CTS model is failing to help.
“We’ve got a huge crisis on our hands, the scope of which none of the politicians really understand,” he says, adding he'd like to see the region move away from CTS sites, which he feels have produced absolutely minimal results.
They’re not the cure-all, Craig says. There are 2,000 people in the region using drugs on a daily basis. The Kitchener CTS site sees 30.
“158 people died last year (from overdoses) and if 158 people died on our road network last year, people would be up in arms, and we should be up in arms over this,” Craig said. “The CTS sites represent taking care of only one per cent of those of the addict population on a daily basis, and that’s from the region’s own statistics.”
Getting specially trained outreach workers into the community with naloxone kits and other support tools, will be much more effective at saving lives, he adds.
“It’s terrible what’s going on." Of those that died last year, according to the coroner’s report, 61 per cent were not addicts he says.
"They were recreational users and they died at apartments and homes and residences. That’s what the region’s not looking at”
Craig also wants to establish a regular dialogue with local MPs and MPPs to reinforce the need for better support to manage issues like mental health, homelessness and addiction, areas that are the purview of upper levels of government and well beyond the region’s ability to fund and manage.
Electors voting for experience and trust helped move Pam Wolf into a regional council seat Monday night, beating out her nearest rival Tyler Calver by more than 1,000 votes.
Wolf said she believes anyone who runs for regional council should have experience in the cities or townships first, noting she has been on Cambridge council for 16 years, much of that time with Craig in the mayor’s chair. Wolf says she is happy to be working alongside him again as well as Cambridge mayor elect Jan Liggett.
After hearing about Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s plan to get more housing built across the province, including Cambridge, which has been tasked with building 19,000 new homes by 2031, one thing Wolf hopes they follow through on is a promise to cut red tape.
The champion of affordable housing promises to continue her push for building more supportive housing at the regional level and believes much more can be done to get promised provincial and federal funding into the hands of developers faster.
Using the example of the Satellite Motel development on Hespeler Road, Wolf said it was close to two years from the feds making a funding announcement to the day they cut the cheque, a delay that added close to $2 million to the project’s costs.
Wolf acknowledged Cambridge is already ahead of the game in terms of the province's plan to get more rental units on every property, having upped the allowable number of additional rental units earlier this year. The city also recently confirmed its commitment to waive development charges for affordable units, another proposal announced Tuesday in the More Homes Built Faster plan that has become controversial in larger cities that don't have a similar policy.
Transit is also a priority for Wolf, who says she wants the region to investigate a pilot project to allow seniors to ride for free.
She also supports the idea of letting students ride for free or at a significantly subsidized rate, as has been proposed by former Cambridge public school board trustee Jayne Herring.
University of Waterloo professor emeritus Peter Woolstencroft had been following the local races closely before Monday's vote, eager to see how the makeup of regional council would fare given the exodus of some longtime councillors.
The political science expert said he was pleased to see many long-term regional councillors opt to take a pass on re-election, adding politicians who are “too long in the tooth” can get too settled in their ways, something that’s not really compatible with a growing and changing population.
“This community, from top to bottom, is changing enormously in terms of interests, demographics. And we have a lot of problems that were unheard of 10 years ago, even four years ago,” he says.
One of those outgoing regional councillors, Helen Jowett, says challenges on the horizon for this council are many, not the least of which is a projected “double digit tax increase,” part of which will be impacted by the often-contentious police budget.
Jowett, who represented Cambridge and chaired the region's administration and finance committee, says the last deliberations on that budget item were "heavily weighted on people's opinions that we should defund" police.
The problem with implementing that idea is it would have to happen through arbitration, requiring council to deny the budget as proposed and waiting for the union push back with measures like work to rule.
"The consequences of that would have been a lot less police. Now in what world would that have been a good idea?," she asks. "And certainly not in the precariousness of the times we are having right now. That's maybe an oversimplification but that's what we were faced with at budget time."
What anyone going into a regional council position has to realize, Jowett adds, is that they are one vote and the way they "get things done is through collaboration, consensus building and adaptation to new information continually coming at us."
The learning curve for anyone new to council, experienced or not, can be rough.
In defence of politicians, Woolstencroft says most of the experienced candidates he’s talked to admitted they weren’t comfortable in the role until well into their first term of office.
“The day to day practice is a challenge for people. It’s interpersonal relations, it’s knowledge, it’s processes. And bureaucracies are great at creating processes," adds Woolstencroft. "It takes an enormous amount of time. Just look at the Canadian military for God sakes. It takes them three years to decide whether they should have a dozen eggs in a carton.
"This is going to be an extraordinary learning process and it will be interesting to see who flourishes," he says of the new council.
Some will see it as a “tremendous opportunity to provide leadership” while others will be intimidated by it and “they’ll sit there like a nodding dog in the back of a Ford.”