‘What do you do for us?’: councillor questions value during GRCA budget presentation

GRCA requesting 3.3% increase in Wellington North tax contribution

Correction, Feb. 15: This story has been updated from an earlier version to correct information about the per-person impact of an increase in the Grand River Conservation Authority’s (GRCA) 2023 budget, and to clarify context in a discussion between Wellington North councillor Lisa Hern and GRCA CAO Samantha Lawson on Feb. 6. The 2023 GRCA budget results in an increase of $0.25 per person, to a total of $11.47, not an increase of $11.47. Discussion between Hern and Lawson focused on water festivals south of Wellington County, not in the county’s south. As a result, some paragraphs with incorrect context have been removed.

KENILWORTH – Councillor Steve McCabe is questioning the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) about what the township receives in return for taxpayer dollars.

GRCA corporate services manager Sonja Radoja presented the authority’s 2023 budget, along with its associated burden on taxpayers, to council on Feb. 6.

The total GRCA budget proposed this year is $34.8 million, with a total levy demand on municipalities of $12.96 million. That represents an increase of 3.5 per cent over last year.

According to the authority, the increase works out to a per-person increase of $0.25, to a total of $11.47.

Radoja attributed the increase to inflation, staff restructuring, increases in conversation area demands, increased insurance costs, and the need to create a sustainable business model for outdoor environmental education.

Divvied out over 32 municipalities, the increased ask for Wellington North this year amounts to an additional $1,809, or 3.3%, from $55,274 in 2022 to $57,083 in 2023.

McCabe questioned GRCA CAO Samantha Lawson about what the authority provides in return for taxpayer dollars.

“What do you do for us up here?” he asked.

The Ward 4 councillor said he hadn’t heard back on inquiries made last year to the authority about reopening the Damascus Conservation Area and trailways in Wellington North for snowmobiles.

“The area around Damacus Lake is completely off-limits,” McCabe explained in an email to the Advertiser, noting a passive walking trail remains accessible.

“There used to be hibachi-type barbecues, a great sand beach, swimming, ball diamonds, horseshoe pits, fishing, and picnic tables.”

“I’ve always got to go back to what goes on here in Wellington North, and it’s not a lot,” McCabe said at the meeting.

The Damascus Conservation Area was closed for recreation following the July 1982 drowning death of Frederick Totsch at the area, according to an email from GRCA communications manager Lisa Stocco.

Following an inquest into Totsch’s death, the Ministry of the Solicitor General wrote to the GRCA with recommendations, but the the GRCA was unable to meet them, Stocco said.

Lawson told McCabe municipal funds aren’t used for recreation or park maintenance, but suggested the authority and municipality could “work together to revisit opening that park.”

“That being said we’d have to also talk about the upkeep and the maintenance because currently we don’t have the staff to support opening that property,” Lawson added.

In his email, McCabe said he finds it “offensive” the GRCA focuses on other parks while leaving the Damascus property “shuttered.”

“If they cannot take care of the lands in our township, give it back to the township and we can take care of it,” he wrote.

Stocco confirmed in her email the GRCA “has no plans to reopen the property as a pay-for-use conservation area, or to offer additional programs, services or activities on the property.”

McCabe also asked for an update at the meeting about GRCA-owned snowmobiling trails in Wellington North.

The trails were removed from use in 2019 over a disagreement about insurance coverage between the authority and the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs.

Lawson said it’s likely the authority would be discussing reopening trails post-season this year.

“We do have meetings with some of the other municipalities … and if Wellington North is interested too, we can include you in some of those conversations to look at how we can facilitate snowmobile use through the township,” Lawson said of the 6.5km of mapped trails in Wellington North.

“All of these trails are located within the Damascus Reservoir property complex,” Stocco explained in her email.

New GRCA council appointee Lisa Hern said Wellington North, despite having a sizeable presence within the watershed, is left out of events such as water festivals seen in other counties south of Wellington.

“I’ve heard a lot of great things about the water festivals, and the kids really enjoying those, and I’m wondering why that couldn’t be available up here for the kids in our northern areas,” Hern asked.

Lawson told Hern the authority is provided funding for those water festivals.

In her email, Stocco wrote Wellington County doesn’t provide special funding to the GRCA for delivery of the Waterloo Wellington Children’s Groundwater Festival, being held this year at the Guelph Lake Conservation Area.

The GRCA belongs to an organizing committee and contributes in-kind staff and resources to the festival as a partner.

“We will be following up with the township to further discuss the items raised at the meeting,” Stocco wrote.

The GRCA’s requested increase will be factored into this month’s budget deliberations on the tax levy.