Affordable housing will be springing up in the spot of the former Park Fitness Club in north end Brantford.

Updating an earlier blog issue, a 39-unit, four-storey building will be put up on the site on Park Road North. Developer Counsel Corp. will get $2.7 million to help build the one building, but hopes to get more help next year to build a second one.

You may remember that I mocked neighbourhood opposition to the concept of building affordable housing on the property. Some residents said they feared increased crime.

It’s good to see that nonsense didn’t carry the day and cooler heads saw the wisdom of affordable housing on the site.


It looked like the demolition of Brantford’s Colborne Street South was days away when I last blogged on the issue back in January.

Some city politicians were so eager to swing the wrecking ball, that they swatted aside all objections from a few fellow councillors who questioned if some buildings were worth saving. And the pro-demolition forces seemed to be invigorated by a $1.4 million grant from Ottawa to do the de-construction.

But a lot of water has passed under the nearby bridges over the Grand River since then. And the buildings still stand.

City leaders have been hit with a few surprises, including learning that the federal demolition dollars come with a few strings attached. Perhaps the biggest string was the requirement that Brantford do a heritage inventory on the buildings — something politicians had insisted wasn’t necessary. Council has agreed to spend $95,000 to do the inventory.

There’s been other developments as well. The delays have fostered more opposition to the blanket 40-property demolition, with more residents coming out of the woodwork to argue that a few former heritage gems should be spared at the least.

Meanwhile, a Wilfrid Laurier professor, Lisa Wood, weighed in with her opinion to save some buildings and got in hot water with her boss. Brantford Mayor Mike Hancock wasn’t happy she voiced her opinion and told Laurier so, according to media coverage of the controversy. Hancock’s response is another chilling reminder that city politicians can’t bear honest public criticism of their plans.

A Facebook group on saving Colborne Street South attracted more than 1,600 Friends to sign up.

All of this rallying of support to save the buildings may not amount to anything, but the twists and turns of this story are interesting to watch. As they say in the news biz, this story’s got legs.

There might only be one woman’s voice at the Brantford council table later this year.

One-term councillor Jennifer Kinneman has decided not to run again, unable to juggle a full-time job, a young family and an almost full-time workload from being a councillor. It’s a juggling act that would be tough for anyone, male or female. Kinneman indicated she would be doing a disservice to voters if she couldn’t devote her energies to her elected job.

Unless another woman is able to break through the glass ceiling and get elected this October, only veteran councillor Marguerite Ceschi-Smith will be left to break up the din of male voices around council chambers.

At this point, just a couple weeks into the nomination period, several women have stepped up to run for council seats. But it will take a particularly high-profile candidate and/or a groundswell of support for one of them to grab a seat.

Brantford isn’t alone in struggling to find really strong female candidates and then to have them elected. Many communities have this problem (as an earlier blog post indicated).

Last October, Toronto Mayor David Miller and the city’s 10 women councillors threw their support behind a project called Toronto Regional Champion Campaign.

The project, designed to encourage women to get involved in municipal politics, teams 16 young women with the women councillors to give them first-hand experience in the workings of city government.

It’s a great idea to expose interested women to municipal politics. Hopefully, some will end up running in October’s election or in future elections.

Such a mentorship idea would be good to see in other municipalities.

What’s the rush?

Some Brantford politicians are so eager to tear down Colborne Street South that they are throwing caution, common sense and even old-fashioned democratic principles to the wind.

Expropriating and tearing down a two-block stretch of under-maintained buildings was first estimated to cost $12-$15 million, but who knows how high the price tag will climb? The city is already half way there, even though there’s been no settlement with some of the property owners.

One councillor, Dan McCreary, is trying to put the brakes on, even suggesting that some of the buildings may be worth salvaging. That flies against the majority of council, which is hell-bent on getting on with the job — even though there’s nothing to replace the buildings with.

Dan McCreary

The grandiose idea originally was to tear down the buildings so Laurier Brantford, the YMCA and maybe even Mohawk College could construct a recreation complex. The city might even go in on it. However, a bid to get federal infrastructure dollars has fallen through. Although there’s still a chance to get fed bucks down the road, that’s all it is: a chance, since lots of other cities are bidding for the cash, too.

So, here we find ourselves in the middle of a recession, with high local unemployment, dozens of closed factories and a shrinking tax base, about to embark on a multi-million dollar dream.

Yes, it would be great to clean up the downtown further and rid the city of the blight of some rundown buildings, but should it be at any cost? And does it need to be done right now?

McCreary has come under fire for asking those kinds of questions.

Mark Littell, who is running for mayor in this fall’s election, lashed out at McCreary for daring to be a naysayer. Littell, who chairs the Colborne Street South task force, labelled McCreary not only an opponent of fixing up the streetscape, but also an opponent of downtown development.

Mark Littell

“It is very easy to armchair quarterback,” Littell told the city daily, The Expositor. “The people who continue to say ‘No’ must come up with a plan of their own and not just criticize what the people of Brantford want.”

What the people of Brantford want? I didn’t know that the people of Brantford had already elected Littell as mayor. And I didn’t know that only he knew what the people wanted.

Littell is trying to get elected as mayor as the guy who saved Colborne Street South, pulling it out of the gutter by his brute strength — he’s been working out at a gym lately — and single-minded determination.

But it doesn’t bode well for the city if this wannabe mayor is so quick to attack someone who doesn’t agree with his point of view.

Debate, different points of view and asking questions are a key part of democracy. There are many questions about the city’s plans for Colborne Street South that need to be asked. Littell should realize it.

Calling political women

Women make up the majority of Canadians, but a minority of politicians.

Only 22.4% of the House of Commons are women, although they make up 52% of our population. That places Canada 46th out of 189 countries with national parliaments — not something we can boast about.

Those are national statistics, but they’re not much different at the local level across Canada, with a few exceptions.

About 24% of councillors across Canada are women, while only 15% are serving as mayors. The far north have the most women involved, followed by B.C., with Ontario being average with 25% female councillors and 17% female mayors.

In my home of Brantford, there are two women councillors out of 10, along with a male mayor. There only used to be one woman on council but another won a seat in 2006.

Marguerite Ceschi-Smith, who was the lone female on council for years, recently spoke to my journalism class about being a councillor and one of her favourite causes: encouraging more women to run for elected office.

Marguerite Ceschi-Smith

Ceschi-Smith helped run a campaign school for women back in October in Brantford, giving information, advice and tools to women who might consider a run for municipal office next October.

She’s also active in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which publishes an Election Toolkit for Women: The Candidates Guide to Municipal Elections.

The FCM is actively promoting women running for government, through its toolkit and other resources. It also has published a report calling for women to reach the 30% mark by 2026 at the municipal level. It’s probably a realistic goal, considering it’s 16 years away. Still, on the surface, it seems like it should be reachable sooner.

There are barriers — but not roadblocks — to women running. Most women, even if they are successful career women, still carry the bulk of the responsibility for childcare and family care.

As Ceschi-Smith pointed out to my class, it’s a big decision to run. You need the support of your family, since you’re going to lose some family time. This is particularly tougher for younger women. You also lose some privacy, with residents calling all times of the day and night with beefs and problems.

And there’s still incidents of discrimination or plain rudeness to women in office, Ceschi-Smith said.

Despite those drawbacks, there are opportunities for women who are willing to step forward. They should be encouraged to grasp them.

More women would bring fresh ideas to the table, which has been dominated too long by middle-aged men. They would offer insights that men can’t. And they would likely put a different focus on where to spend tax dollars, perhaps more on services to help families and less on traditional things like fixing roads.

They say if women ruled the world there wouldn’t be any wars. I wonder what local government would be like if women had more power?

Do you know how your community measures up?

The Ontario government requires that major municipalities measure the cost effectiveness and efficiency of their pubic services every year and publicly release that information to taxpayers.

The Municipal Performance Measurement Program is almost 10 years old. Municipalities will have to file their next report after Jan. 1, 2010.

The province requires more than 50 measures, grouped under some 12 areas, including:

  • Local government
  • Fire
  • Police
  • Roads
  • Transit
  • Libraries
  • Drinking water
  • And garbage and recycling

Since these reports have been filed for a number of years, you can check if costs or spending is going up, down or sideways.

If you check the police statistics, it cost Brantford $269 per person to provide services in 2008, up almost $18. Yet the total crime rate per 1,000 persons fell to 94 incidents, compared to 104 the year before.

Other stats: treating drinking water cost $383 per megalitre (whatever that is); operating city parks $63 per person; running recreation facilities and programs totalled $100 per person; and running libraries $44 per person.

Then there’s all kinds of stats regarding garbage and recycling. Collecting and disposing of garbage cost $141 a tonne, while collecting recycling was more, at $147 per tonne. In all, 29.6% of residential waste was diverted for recycling, but that was down almost two per cent from 2007. That’s nothing to be proud of.

Brantford’s report, listed online under the finance department’s documents, contains notes explaining some of the numbers. But you can draw some of your own conclusions.

For example, some people might think it unfair that the library system only gets $44 per person, while arenas, pools and fitness programs get $100. In fact, it costs more to keep city parks pretty than to run the city’s two libraries.

And you would think that it would be troubling that the amount of residential waste recycled is stuck around 30% over a five-year period. Shouldn’t the percentage of recycled material be going up? What needs to be done to get over that 30% hump?

The province issues a report summarizing all these numbers, which is available online. Unfortunately, it doesn’t name the municipalities, so you can’t compare Brantford directly to a similar-sized city such as Cambridge. There are comparisons by group size based on population and northern and southern communities are separated, but you can’t do city by city comparisons. That would give people a better sense of how their city ranks.

Even still, there’s a lot of information that curious residents might find interesting. Informed residents should have a sense of where their money goes.

Show me the money

The numbers just don’t add up.

More than 6,000 residents in Brantford were on EI last month (a drop from the last few months, but still double from a year ago). The number on social assistance topped 2,000. And the local food bank will hand out a new high of 2,700 Christmas hampers next week.

Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre

On top of that, the city lost about 100 small- and medium-sized businesses over the last year. If you drive around the industrial parts of town, you’ll see dozens and dozens of  For Sale signs in front of empty factories, warehouses and businesses.

Yet, city politicians seem to be on a spending and handing-out-money spree.

Here’s some numbers:

  • Brantford is spending about $15 million to expropriate a dilapidated two-block stretch of Colborne Street.
  • It will cost another $2 million to tear down the buildings. The city hopes a higher level of government will kick in half, but hasn’t got any promise yet.
  • The price tag to build four new ice rinks at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre was supposed to cost $39 million, with one third, or $13 million, coming from the city (Ottawa and Queen’s Park putting up the rest).
  • That project is $11 million over budget only months after it began, meaning it will cost at least $50 million in total. And don’t expect Ottawa or the province to come to the rescue.
  • Upgrading the Gretzky aquatics centre will cost another $9.6 million, with the city again paying one third. Luckily, that project isn’t over budget.
  • Then there’s Mohawk College, which wants the city to put in $2 million for its $10-million project to buy the historic Expositor newspaper building and turn it into classrooms.
  • And, last but not least, the city will probably be asked to chip in to build the planned $42-million recreation centre that Laurier Brantford and the YMCA wants to put on part of the expropriated Colborne Street property. That project failed to get a federal infrastructure grant.

Add that all up — check the math for yourself — and the city will be coughing up possibly $46 million. That’s assuming it will have to pay for the cost overruns but won’t have to give Laurier-YMCA anything.

And let’s not forget that this comes at a time when the council vows to stick to a zero per cent budget for 2010, since the politicians say they understand residents are hurting in this recession.

Some of these projects do have value — the Gretzky centre needs updating and is embarrassing to its namesake — and you can’t turn down infrastructure dollars.

Maybe I should apologize for being so dense, but how is the city going to pay for all this and keep its 0% promise at the same time? Either taxpayers will have to pay through the nose next year, or the city will borrow the money and make us pay for many years to come. That’s painful either way.

There is an alternative. Someone could stand up and say that we just can’t afford all this right now. Someone could stand up and say the numbers don’t add up.