By Craig Westcott | The Shoreline, January 9 2019 (Vol. 31 No. 43)
Terry French’s first year and a bit as mayor of Newfoundland’s largest town witnessed several big achievements, a couple of financial surprises and the cementing of a new approach to fiscal management as the still relatively new council moves into its second full year in office.
“When I first came here I honestly felt like – and this is not pointing a finger of blame at anyone – we were a little disjointed,” said French, reflecting on the first months after this council was elected in late September 2017. “I didn’t feel like we had a plan. And part of that could be my fault too because I came in with a vision of things that I wanted to accomplish and the (other) councillors came in with different things on their minds as well, and of course staff were doing their thing. I didn’t feel like we were all under the one tent. That’s one of things I really tried to work on in the early days, to get us all focused together.”
French said that effort took a bit of time because the Town was also in the process of replacing its chief administrative officer, after the former CAO resigned to take a job in the private sector.
“So, it took us a few months to get there,” said the mayor. “I’m really starting to find now – and we’ll disagree tomorrow over the height of someone’s fence or a building permit – but I think the top-level vision now is being seen by all of us, by council, myself and all our staff. We know where we’re headed and we’re pretty focused on our top-level items, which is a change from when we first came in.”
Two of the biggest challenges the new council faced was the unexpected emergency replacement of the HVAC unit at the CBS Recreation Complex and a court decision that saw a judge side with a contractor who had sued the Town.
“The Coady Construction thing was a total shock to me,” French admitted.
Coady Construction & Excavating sued the Town for awarding a water and sewer contract to a competing company back in 2011 that had failed to include a unit price for manholes in its bid. Even though it was unclear the manholes were even needed for the project, a Supreme Court Justice ruled the Town should have disqualified that company’s bid because of the oversight. If that had happened, the contract would have been awarded to Coady Construction, which was the next lowest bidder. The financial cost to the Town is still being negotiated. It will include Coady Construction’s legal costs.
“I didn’t see it coming,” said French. “I hadn’t heard tell of it, I didn’t know it existed. The first time I saw it (mentioned) was in the newspaper. That was one of those moments (where I thought) ‘How did this escape anyone telling anybody?’ It’s a fairly old file, but that’s the kind of thing we can’t overlook. If we have these types of things on the books, obviously we’ve got to be on top of it. There’s no rationale as to why that was missed. Staff and council are committed to (ensuring) these types of things don’t happen in the future. And whoever comes here, or whoever remains here, this is the kind of knowledge that has to be transferred, whether that’s from a staff position, or from a council to council position. So that was something that was a shock to us, however we got past it.”
The mayor said a cheque to settle the dispute hasn’t been cut, yet. “There’s still some haggling going on,” he said.
The HVAC unit replacement necessitated the closure of the pool for several months and the rearranging of council’s capital works funds to accommodate the repair.
“That was a big one for us too,” the mayor admitted. “There was a $600,000 or $700,000 price tag that was dropped on us as an extra expense.”
French noted the Town usually has a small contingency fund in place. But that would not have been enough to take care of such a large bill. When it happened, the mayor called then Municipal Affairs Minister Eddy Joyce to see if there was anything the province could do to help.
“Eddy was more than open to helping me any way he could,” said French. “And we found a way to take some money out of the infrastructure money that had been allotted for the Town and use it (right away) and then get it (back) through another program the following year.”
On the achievement side, the Town had a number of big ones in 2018 including the opening of a Royal Newfoundland Constabulary detachment at the old Town Hall, the inking of a deal that will eventually see Ocean Choice International make Long Pond its home port, the hosting of the Pinty’s Boost National Curling Tournament and the crafting of a television commercial that is expected to drive residential growth in CBS in coming years.
But the biggest accomplishment, at least for French personally, was that the new council was able to devise a 2019 operating budget that is actually smaller than what the Town spent last year.
“We reduced spending,” said French. “It’s only the second time that I know of in the history of the Town. The last time was because some debt had fallen off the books.”
French said the Town was able to trim its expenses by slightly more than $500,000, despite the cost of nearly everything it consumes, buys or otherwise pays for going up. “That meant us finding quite a bit of money within the department and within the town operations to achieve that,” he added. “Some of the decisions certainly weren’t politically correct and they’re not necessarily sexy things to do, but they had to be done, and that’s a credit to council and staff to get there. That was a big deal to reduce spending when you see things like our water charges going up by over a hundred thousand dollars last year… We were able to find enough savings from within to reduce our spending and continue things like a roads program… That was a big achievement that just by the nature of it took a back seat to some of the other things that we did. However, it’s probably my proudest thing that we’ve been able to achieve since I’ve been here.”
French said another achievement that also didn’t get much attention was the signing of a new collective agreement with the Town’s unionized workers. “I want to thank our town staff because we’re the first ones, me included, to grumble when our road is not plowed or our garbage is not picked up, or we don’t like the look of something,” said the mayor. “But you know these people step up in all kinds of weather, for all kinds of events, whether it’s a snowstorm or whether it’s hosting the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling.”
The quality of the Town’s workers was reinforced to him, said French, the night before the start of the Pinty’s Grand Slam tournament when he went to the arena for a look and saw the crew from Rogers Sportsnet working on a first name basis with the Town’s workers.
“I knew then we were in the right place, and that doesn’t happen everywhere they (Rogers Sportsnet) go, and I was told that many times,” said the mayor. “When you get stadium staff and recreation department staff on a first name basis with Sportsnet executives who are here running a tournament and they’re laughing and joking and kidding each other, well that speaks highly of the Town. They are our representatives and people went away with a great taste in their mouths from dealing with CBS, I can assure you.”
French said visitors were equally impressed by the hospitality displayed by the volunteers who helped make the event a success.
Turning to the year ahead, French said council will continue the ‘back to basics’ approach it adopted last year. “We can’t be everything to everybody,” he said. “That’s unfortunate, but that’s real. But we’ve stuck to some of the core things that we have to provide.” That includes snow clearing, repairs to roads, and construction of sidewalks in school zones along Route 60 and the Foxtrap Access Road. That’s in addition to the $6 million the Town will spend on major paving projects this year, and the millions more for a new library, which will go to tender shortly.
One new project coming up, said Mayor French is the development of a community park off Bishop’s Road in Long Pond. That’s the coastal area behind Dominion Supermarket. “I’m looking forward to seeing some kind of design this year,” French said. “I think that has a lot of potential. It’s not that we’re forgetting about sports in CBS, but certainly there is a time now where we need that kind of a family fun park and I think you’ll see the design and the plan for that in the coming months and you’ll hear me talking about it to local service clubs to get them involved with us and help us build what we should have.”