North Huron/Morris-Turnberry servicing meeting looms
BY DENNY SCOTT
North Huron and Morris-Turnberry Councils have some ground to cover at the negotiating table to craft a cross-border servicing agreement, with the two groups looking for different outcomes.
While a date has not yet been set for a day-long meeting North Huron Council proposed, both sides have expressed different goals for the discussion. Recently, Reeve Bernie Bailey of North Huron and Mayor Jamie Heffer of Morris-Turnberry discussed the issue with The Citizen, explaining what their councils are currently hoping for and what they’re willing to work on.
Morris-Turnberry Council members recently spoke in favour of a third-party-mediated meeting, making several suggestions as to who could chair such a meeting. Heffer reiterated the importance of the mediation from his point of view, saying it was a good way for the meeting to go ahead.
His council had suggested the current Huron County Warden Glen McNeil, his predecessor Central Huron Mayor Jim Ginn or local agricultural scholar Wayne Caldwell.
Bailey, however, is staunchly against not only the mediation, but those specific suggestions as well for several reasons.
Bailey said mediation had been suggested by Huron County staff and council members, however when county staff presented him with an option for a mediator, it would have cost thousands of dollars a day, and he anticipated the mediator would spend weeks preparing for it.
Beyond that, he was told by McNeil that the sitting warden couldn’t mediate the situation.
As for Ginn, Bailey pointed out that, currently, North Huron and Central Huron don’t have a cross-border servicing agreement either, so Ginn and Central Huron could benefit from steering the negotiations. Finally, he said Caldwell wasn’t a good fit either, saying he had failed to mediate a dispute between North Huron and Morris-Turnberry regarding fire protection several years ago. He feels that issue was only resolved when Morris-Turnberry Council realized how difficult a proposition building their own fire department would be.
“I was hired by North Huron [ratepayers] to make sure the township is run properly, legally and not to give money away,” Bailey said, adding that he felt, to meet that mandate, the meeting should be held only between the two municipalities.
In representing his council, Bailey said he felt that the issue had been mishandled because the previous sitting North Huron Council let the existing agreement lapse, then handed the issue to the current council to clear up.
He was also unhappy that, as the Reeve-elect at the time, he wasn’t invited to a meeting in late 2018 between North Huron’s then-Reeve Neil Vincent and Morris-Turnberry’s then-Mayor Paul Gowing and Heffer, who was Mayor-elect at the time. Bailey also felt the lack of municipal staff at the meeting was suspect, as only Huron County staff were represented.
Going forward from that, Bailey feels that simply charging a multiplier of the regular bill (1.5 times, for example) isn’t fair to North Huron ratepayers and wants to tie cross-border services together, representing both soft services like community centres and childcare programming to infrastructure like water and wastewater.
Morris-Turnberry Council, in Bailey’s opinion, hasn’t been negotiating fairly, both by “debating in the press” and reducing payments to North Huron that he felt were guaranteed in a “gentlemen’s agreement” struck when the two councils first started dealing with the issue.
Bailey was referring to financial contributions Morris-Turnberry makes to soft services like community centres. Those contributions were cut due to COVID-19. Bailey said what Morris-Turnberry had done to North Huron, but not other neighbours, was unfair. He also commented that Morris-Turnberry’s current discussions about similar changes to money paid to North Huron cemeteries, which are used by Morris-Turnberry residents, is similarly unfair, adding it was a “low” move.
Bailey said Morris-Turnberry Council and staff were fortunate as they have little in terms of infrastructure and services that has been impacted by COVID-19, and the moves being made were taking advantage of the fact that North Huron provides services that Morris-Turnberry’s ratepayers use.
He went on to say, if council supports him, this will be the last time Morris-Turnberry is offered a chance to find an agreement, saying that North Huron has been given a legal opinion that says North Huron’s services, including soft services and infrastructure like water and wastewater, can be cut off to Morris-Turnberry ratepayers if an agreement can’t be reached. Bailey said that wasn’t a threat, but the only way that North Huron can guarantee its systems and facilities remain in operational condition as, without an agreement, North Huron staff or contractors can’t evaluate existing water or wastewater systems in Morris-Turnberry.
“We have legal documentation that tells us what we should be doing,” he said. “We pay these people because they know; it’s their job to know what we should and shouldn’t do. If we decide to forget all that, and carry on as things are, there will come a day North Huron will face a billion-dollar lawsuit because someone got sick on water…. In my mind, we can’t do that.”
Finally, Bailey said that North Huron ratepayers voted for him to keep the municipality safe and in a financially stable state, which he was doing by pushing for these negotiations.
Heffer said Morris-Turnberry Council’s stance has been consistent since the negotiations started: council wants the water and wastewater issue to be dealt with independently of other cross-border issues.
“The goal is to come to an agreement for a fair and reasonable rate for the Morris-Turnberry users of the system,” he said. “Our position hasn’t changed. We want what’s fair for our residents for water and sewer services that North Huron provides.”
While Bailey wants a more holistic approach to the issue, Heffer said he and his council want to see issues dealt with independently, saying the last agreement, which started as a cross-border servicing agreement and then grew to include financial contributions from Morris-Turnberry to North Huron for soft services, represents a complicated way to do business.
When talking about Section F, the part of the now-defunct agreement which included financial contributions from Morris-Turnberry to North Huron for soft services, Heffer said that kind of decision-making can lead to distractions.
“We understand [why that’s appealing], but those are discussions for another day and another agreement,” he said. “We’re trying to keep the water and sewer discussions about water and sewer without other issues snowballing into it.”
He said that, when it comes time to discuss these issues, it’s easy to “lose sight of the real goal” by discussing ancillary issues.
“That was the problem we had with the previous agreement,” he said. “Things kept getting added instead of having their own agreement and the document got to be cumbersome and out of scope of water and sewer issues.”
He said he wasn’t criticizing North Huron Council’s way of looking at the issue, but saying that Morris-Turnberry wants to look at the singular issue of cross-border water and wastewater infrastructure.
Heffer also pointed out that Morris-Turnberry has a similar agreement with Huron East in which Morris-Turnberry water users pay 1.5 times the rate that Huron East users pay to access a Huron East system.
“We also have an agreement for the Belgrave water system that Morris-Turnberry owns and operates,” he said, referencing the system that supplies water to both North Huron and Morris-Turnberry residents of the village. “We do it at the same rate regardless of what side of the street people live on. We feel that’s fair in that system.”
Heffer said no one looks forward to dealing with these kinds of challenging issues, but his belief is that breaking issues down into achievable steps, like isolating the water and sewer cross-border agreement from other aspects of cross-border servicing, is the way to make progress. He went on to say he doesn’t want to dwell on the past or the history of the agreement as that’s “not productive in this case.”
“We want to make it work [in] as fair a way as we can,” he said. “Other issues, we can address going forward.”