St. Clair conservation wants to add staffer to improve speed of permit approvals

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The St. Clair Region Conservation Authority is pitching a 17 per cent spending increase for 2022, and it is not going over too well with municipal politicians who make up the board of directors.

Conservation Authority staff recently introduced the draft budget at a special meeting, asking politicians to give approval to send the spending package on to municipal councils for input.

But that didn’t sit well with some, since they had not had a chance to review the budget in detail and some municipalities are facing double digit increases.

Girish Sankar, the acting general manager, says most of the increase is due to adding another person in the planning department. Municipalities, developers and ratepayers have complained the process for getting approvals from the authority is too slow, with some approvals taking years. Sankar says $90,000 has been added to hire another staff person to speed the approvals up.

Sankar says “10 per cent of that (17 per cent increase) would go into the hiring off the staff in the planning and regulation. And the other seven per cent is being allocated to a three per cent increase allocated to Highland Glen that was approved at the last meeting and then four per cent towards other benefits and insurance and other increases that are (cost of living) related.”

The total budget of the authority is projected to be over $9.9 million in 2022.
About $1.3 million of that is split between the municipalities which are part of the authority. They pass it on to ratepayers in their budgets.

This year, Dawn-Euphemia ratepayers will pick up about $5,600 more – a 15 per cent increase according to Mayor Al Broad.

That accounts for a lot more cash per ratepayer there. The conservation authority charges each municipality based on the value of the land in its community. “Because we have high assessment and a low population, we pay more per person than anybody,” says Broad in an email to The Independent.

The authority says each taxpayer shells out about $7 per year for conservation services but in Dawn-Euphemia, the proposed 2022 budget will bring that up to $18 to $21 per person.

In Petrolia, the conservation authority levy will increase 10 per cent. Mayor Brad Loosley wasn’t sure how he could defend that.

“I think the awkward thing is we’re looking at a 17 per cent (spending) increase basically. For this to go back to my municipality – to help justify this puts me in a very difficult position.”

Loosley suggested some of the increase come from reserves. But the authority’s director of finance, Tracy Prince, says the board has been using reserves for years, and has emptied the planning reserve completely.

She says using reserves “is not a really good business practice” adding “ I have grave concerns in regards to using operational reserves for that… if anything were to happen to the McKeough Dam (the channel which diverts water away from Wallaceburg during flooding events) – even at this point, some major repair – I do not feel we have the reserves to cover it.”

Sarnia City/County Councillor Mike Stark suggested doubling the fees charged for permits to make it truly a user pay system. Pt. Edward Councillor Larry Gordon pointed out a recent report done for the authority concluded increased fees “are not an issue for the development community” if the service improves.

And in fact, the conservation authority staff had already built in a 10 per cent increase in fees to the 2022 budget.

But Sarnia City/County Councillor Terry Burrell says it wouldn’t just be developers footing the bill – farmers and landowners in the watershed would also pay the higher fees. And Enniskillen Mayor Kevin Marriott says most of the permits involve work which is for the good of the entire watershed so the fees should not be doubled.

The board was split on the move, which could have generated another $40,000, so the increase won’t happen.

Instead, the board of directors agreed to send the budget out for municipal input – hoping to give them a heads up of the increasing costs as they plan for their 2022 budgets.

Chairman Joe Faas of Chatham-Kent offered as the head of the board to take staff to individual councils and meet with local politicians to explain the increases – instead of leaving the representatives – who had just received the document – to explain it.
The board normally approves the budget in February.