North Huron/Morris-Turnberry servicing feud looms over budget process
BY DENNY SCOTT
As part of its first budget meeting of the year, Morris-Turnberry Council held several discussions related to ongoing negotiations with North Huron or an unidentified “other party” in regards to its funding levels.
The meeting, which was held on Jan. 13 via Zoom, saw several “priority” issues discussed by council, including funds typically given to North Huron for recreation grants, contributions to the cemetery and contingency grants, as well as the water rate for users of the Belgrave water system, all of which are connected to North Huron.
While no action was taken that would differentiate North Huron and Morris-Turnberry users of the Belgrave water system, several council members suggested considering making a change that would charge some users more going forward.
Treasurer Sean Brophy suggested increasing all users’ annual bill by 1.45 per cent to cover increased costs. He suggested council move ahead with the new cost so North Huron, which buys water service from Morris-Turnberry for North Huron Belgrave residents, could have bills prepared for users before they are issued to residents. The increase would result in an annual rate of $1,180.24 per user, Brophy said.
Councillor Jamie McCallum asked when the agreement for cross-border servicing with the Belgrave Water system was up. While an exact answer wasn’t available, the consensus was that it would be renegotiated in 2024 or 2025.
“I’d like further discussion at a future budget meeting in regards to moving forward with this rate,” he said. “The stuff we’re seeing in current negotiations with another party [makes me] think we need to look at our [services] a bit harder.”
He suggested that wording be added to the increased rates to make it only applicable to existing users, opening up the option to charge more for new connections.
Chief Administrative Officer Trevor Hallam pointed out that, in the existing agreement, all Belgrave water system users would pay the same amount, regardless of whether they lived in Morris-Turnberry or North Huron.
“Could we defer this to a later time in the budget and get a little more information on this?” Deputy-Mayor Sharen Zinn asked.
Brophy said that dealing with the issue sooner, rather than later, made more sense because it would prevent North Huron from having to adjust billing later in the year.
Mayor Jamie Heffer said he felt the discussion was a matter of two issues: setting the water rate for the year and then dealing with potential new hook-ups.
McCallum said he had concerns about the Belgrave water system since negotiations started with North Huron regarding cross-border servicing. “We’re seeing things not played fair,” he said. “I feel things should be different.”
McCallum said he would drop his concerns for the water rate, but wanted to discuss the issue at a later time.
Councillor Kevin Freiburger reminded his fellow councillors that, while they were politicians, the rates are paid by regular people who have little to do with negotiations.
“It’s fair to keep that in mind,” he said. “It’s worthwhile to make sure everyone gets a fair rate and shouldn’t matter what side of the road you live on.”
Council approved the 1.45 per cent increase to water bills for users of the Belgrave water system.
In response to North Huron Township Council deciding to charge non-user rates across the board, including for cemetery use, Morris-Turnberry has pulled funding that annually was used to offset cemetery costs for North Huron. For the 2021 budget, that totalled $17,000.
“I think, at this time, we should take those out of the budget,” Zinn said.
Councillor Jim Nelemans asked if there was any kind of commitment involved in the situation, but was then told the basis behind the funding was Morris-Turnberry was paying to prevent user fees, which North Huron had decided to charge anyway.
Nelemans argued that the money should be kept in the budget so as to not leave council short-handed if negotiations could be started with North Huron again regarding cross-border servicing.
“If we take it right out, and there is some give with North Huron… can we put it back in?” he asked before stating the money should be left and, if there are no negotiations, then it can be put into reserves.
“I’m not saying we have to pay it,” he said. “We can leave it in reserve and if there is a negotiation, we will have money available. If we take it out, we don’t have it.”
Other council members agreed with that stance.
Heffer asked if North Huron had submitted a grant/donation request, as was required under Morris-Turnberry policy as of last year, and Hallam said they hadn’t. Hallam then said all the other recipients of funding had completed and submitted forms.
“It was a pretty simple ask, just to make sure we were giving the right amount,” Heffer asked.
Council directed staff to leave the funds in but not award it to North Huron.
Council also decided to withdraw funding offered to the Blyth and Belgrave community centres going forward.
The funding, which was designed to offset the fact that Morris-Turnberry users benefit from facilities that are not directly supported by their tax dollars, was scheduled to cost $9,920 for Blyth and $6,242 for Belgrave.
Nelemans agreed when Brophy suggested approaching it similarly to the cemetery and contingency funds and leaving it in, but not paying it out to North Huron immediately.
“I think our main objective [tonight] was to get tenders out and that has to be done,” he said. “Hopefully we can discuss these other issues [at a later date].”
A contingency fund of $10,000, tied to a now-defunct agreement between North Huron and Morris-Turnberry, was also left in the budget but wouldn’t be paid out immediately.