PUSLINCH – Council hopefuls painted their vision of Puslinch Township at a meet-the-candidates meeting on Oct. 5 hosted by the Optimist Club of Puslinch.
Incumbents Sara Bailey, Jessica Goyda and John Sepulis and newcomers Robert Cassolato, Russel Hurst and Stephanie McCrone all hope to be elected for one of four seats up for grabs.
Mayor James Seeley was acclaimed and current township councillor Matthew Bulmer was also acclaimed as county councillor for Ward 7.
Each gave opening and closing statements and then took questions from the audience of about 50.
Questions ranged from the skills the candidates bring to the table, their stance on below-water-level aggregate operations in the township, how to expedite the Morriston bypass, development, and keeping tax increases low.
Seeley said he was honoured to be returned to the mayor’s seat uncontested, and Bulmer said his bottom line is responsible decision-making that considers not just cost but value to residents.
Sepulis had COVID-19 and couldn’t attend and therefore couldn’t answer any questions put to the candidates. But his opening and closing statements were read to the audience.
He said the two significant accomplishments of the current council were bringing two new providers of high-speed internet to the township, and addressing issues raised by residents regarding Guelph Junction Railway.
His goals for next term are to:
bring natural gas to the township;
update the roads master plan;
improve recreation facilities;
petition the province to limit gravel pits in Puslinch;
accelerate the Morriston bypass; and
address illegal dumping.
Cassolato has lived in Puslinch with his family for about a decade. He works in IT and risk management – skills that would benefit the township, he said.
He noted council has done an admirable job of advocating for the township when it comes to below-water-table aggregate extraction.
“We need to see from the aggregate companies that they are doing what they say and saying what they do. We’re not seeing it now,” said Cassolato.
He added the Morriston bypass “needs to be an item for next term.”
Cassolato would like to see a zero per cent tax increase for Puslinch residents and to look at service levels to ensure residents are getting value for their money.
“And if there are savings, we would look at where they could go,” he said, noting parking at trailheads and accessible parks and playgrounds are high on his list.
As Highway 401 runs through Puslinch and is known to be a corridor for human sex trafficking, Cassolato said the township should work with the province on the matter.
“This is a significant issue, but I would need to learn more,” he said.
Cassolato is in favour of sustainable growth and good land use planning, he said.
“It’s not sustainable the way it’s going now,” he said.
On taxes, Cassolato said residents need to decide what they want and what services they would lose to hold a zero per cent tax increase.
“What would they lose to keep it at zero and what will they pay for?” he asked.
McCrone has lived in the township for 23 years and said she gets the feeling residents think their complaints fall on deaf ears.
“I have seen changes in the township – some good and some bad,” she said. “There seems to be a disconnect. We’ve lost the sense of community.”
McCrone said she’s not “up to speed” on aggregate operations, “but I think we have enough gravel pits. They are causing issues. They have to follow the rules, and some aren’t,” she said.
She would also be a vocal advocate for speeding up the Morriston bypass, she said.
McCrone said her vision for the next four years is fewer gravel roads, better internet service, “and I’d like to see an engaged community,” she added.
On human sex trafficking, McCrone said, “I know it’s on the 400 series. What can be done is education.”
On a question about cutting red tape regarding land development, McCrone said she’d like to expedite the process for builders.
She said she recently went through the process, “and it wasn’t easy. There’s room for improvement,” she said.
When it comes to taxes, McCrone said it’s a question of needs versus wants. It also comes down to sensible schedules.
“I see roads are plowed when there’s no snow or ice,” she said. “That’s a place to start.”
Bailey said her priorities are preserving the “rural personality and heritage,” protecting agriculture, allowing appropriate development, and ensuring both the quality and quantity of drinking water.
Bailey said she’s opposed to below-water-table aggregate extraction.
“I am always opposed to farmland being taken for aggregate extraction,” she said. “We need to have a conversation with the province of what licensing and rehabilitation should look like.”
On the Morriston bypass, Bailey said she attended the event where the Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney announced funding for the first phase of the bypass, but as it’s a provincial project, she can only advocate to speed the process. Council doesn’t really have any power in this, she said.
Bailey said it’s time to update the parks and recreation master plan, to include more programs for youth and seniors, and to have mental health facilities located in Puslinch.
“I recognize there’s a gap in mental health (facilities) between us and Guelph and the rest of Wellington County,” she said. “We have to bridge that gap.”
Bailey said education – of both parents and youth – is the best way to address human sex trafficking in the community.
“Education is the way,” she said.
On building in the township, Bailey said what land is available is dictated by the county and province.
“I would not advocate for taking agricultural land for housing,” she said.
Bailey said to keep taxes low requires assessing the services the township offers.
“We need to ask you what services could be reduced,” she said, adding staff does an admirable job of applying for grants to help fund local projects.
Goyda said she has a passion for Puslinch and was behind the “shop local Puslinch” campaign after pandemic lockdowns, and the “young playground planners” initiative, where youth helped design playground improvements. She hopes to maintain infrastructure while keeping tax increases low.
She disclosed that she has family that operates a gravel company in the township, but it does not extract below the water table.
“I would advocate for looking at the cumulative impact those operations bring to the community,” she said.
On the Morriston bypass, Goyda said she shares the frustration of the community that it is taking so long. She said the MTO does update council on its progress.
“That’s our opportunity to express our views,” she said.
Over the next term, Goyda said she hopes to increase the sense of community and sense of belonging in the township by having great recreational facilities and programming and developing a plan to tackle speeding.
She too would like to see natural gas come to Puslinch, and more affordable housing.
She noted that Puslinch recently passed a bylaw allowing granny flats.
“I think that will allow smaller, less expensive rentals,” she said.
On human sex trafficking, Goyda said it’s a topic parents need to talk about with their kids and the township could help through awareness and education initiatives.
Goyda acknowledged the township needs growth but is limited by the province and county on where that can be.
“But there are ways to have good growth,” she said, noting developing employment lands along the 401 corridor is one way.
She added that if the hamlet of Puslinch could be designated into the official plan, there could be opportunities for residential growth there as well.
Goyda said shared service agreements and shared buying opportunities with the other municipalities in Wellington County are two initiatives the township has employed to keep tax increases at bay.
And the asset management plan will allow the township to budget and plan for future costs.
“We can anticipate costs coming down the road,” she said. “That allows us to keep taxes stable.”
Hurst is the executive director of the Ontario Agribusiness Association headquartered in Guelph and would bring his leadership experience to council.
He said the township needs to develop a five-year strategic plan to guide its decision-making.
On below water table aggregate extraction, Hurst said the decision really belongs to the province. If the agreements are clear and the companies are held accountable there’s not much the township can do.
He said the Morriston bypass is not a high priority for the Doug Ford government and the municipality needs to work with businesses and municipalities along the route to demonstrate the economic impact and safety issues the bypass would resolve.
Hurst said over the next term, if elected, he’d like to pave more gravel roads and have safer roads, more youth recreation programs, and use benchmarking when it comes to budget.
“We need less focus on zero (tax increase) and more focus on benchmarking,” he said. “That’s how we measure value.”
Hurst said the safe community committee could take on human sex trafficking and engage youth in conversations about how to protect themselves.
“This is a major concern in high schools,” he said.
Hurst was concerned to hear that builders have trouble navigating the township’s zoning and site bylaws.
He said he’s opposed to building on agricultural land, “but there are opportunities to build on non-agricultural land,” he said. “If it’s harder to navigate here, I would look at that.”
Hurst said to keep taxes low for residents means increasing the non-residential tax base – especially industrial land along Highway 401.
That, combined with a review of service levels, could help keep taxes from going up year over year, he said.
Puslinch is offering mail-in and in-person voting for the Oct. 24 municipal election. The deadline for voting by mail is Oct. 15.