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‘As normal as can be’

Harbour Grace mayor and council making the best of Covid-related challenges

It won’t be a walk in the park, but the Town of Harbour Grace will be able to fund its operations for the rest of the year, despite the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, says Mayor Don Coombs.

“We’re going to be tight,” said Coombs. “I spoke to our collection people the other day and they said it’s going to be a hard year on collections. And I said, I understand. It was bad enough with Snowmageddon, but with this on top of it…”

Coombs noted the Town extended to April 9 the eligibility period for the four per cent rebate taxpayers can get if they pay their taxes in full by the end of February. 

“There was a good response (to that), but we’re going to have to watch every cent,” he added. “There are things that you have to do, but it’s going to be tight for us.”
The Town Hall is closed to the public, but still open to conduct  from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday, the mayor said. “The business of the town still has to ahead, the same as anything else,” said the mayor. “We’ve set up a new online banking program for people to make their payments.”

As for other matters, Coombs said the reconstruction of a short section of Harvey Street, known as phase 4, is in the works again, but it will have to be seen how much work can proceed this year. The province still has to call tender on the approximately $2 million job, which entails a lot of water and sewer infrastructure replacement in addition to repaving. But the work is on the list of projects the government hopes to tackle this year, which was released last week by Transportation and Works Minister Steve Crocker.

Another concern is the operation of Eastern Waste Management’s regional collection centre, which is located at the site of the former Harbour Grace dump. That facility is usually open to accept items big and small for 12 to 14 hours a week, but since the Covid quarantine, it has remained closed altogether. That was a concern this past week after a house fire in the community. The cleanup crew had nowhere to haul the debris. “That’s got to be addressed,” Coombs said of the collection site, adding he intends to raise the matter at the weekly joint council meeting, at which officials from Eastern Health now participate.

“My (main) concerns are for our staff and our citizens to make sure we can still deliver services,” Coombs said. “We still have water line breaks – we had two that broke this morning –  that business has got to go on and as long as our employees are safe, that’s all we can do, because everything has changed. I don’t know if it will ever be the same again… We’re still doing our permits and other stuff. Everything has got to go on as normal as you can be, even though it will never be normal again… It is what it is. But from the town’s perspective, we’re trying to address everybody’s needs. Everybody has got my phone number, so they should feel free to call.”

Coombs expressed concern for small businesses in the region which are having to cope with the downturn caused by the pandemic and quarantine, especially tourism businesses. The economy was soft even before the pandemic, he agreed. 

Another issue the town is dealing with is a broken sewer outfall at the government wharf near where the local fishing fleet is located. Town staff are trying to make emergency repairs to the outfall in addition to fulfilling their other daily duties, such as the repair of water lines. The hope is that a temporary repair can be made to the outfall before the fishing season resumes to buy time until the town can arrange capital funding for a permanent repair.

Still another concern is the fate of the summer student job program, Coombs pointed out. Like many organizations in the area, the town hires high school and post secondary students every summer to help run its programs and take care of work around the community. It benefits the town, but also helps the students who depend on the money to help cover the cost of books, tuition and rent in the fall, Coombs said.

One piece of business that council is putting off until after the pandemic is the hiring of a new Town Manager. Its previous top hand, Mike Saccery, passed away in January. Saccery had been with the town for about four years. His loss has necessitated some restructuring at the town hall. Coombs said the town was fortunate in that it had Town Clerk Sean O’Brien on staff to pick up some extra duties in the interim. O’Brien has some 30 years experience and is familiar with many of the files Saccery looked after, the mayor said.

In addition to his duties as mayor, Coombs wears a number of other hats in the community, including as the head of CBN Minor Soccer. That group had to call off it’ winter programme because of Covid, and Coombs is uncertain how the summer season will transpire. “I have no idea when soccer is going to start,” he said, noting the national association which governs the sport will take the lead on when, or if, soccer will go ahead this summer, the same way Hockey Canada did for minor hockey groups across the country.

The schools are in a similar situation, said Coombs, who also happens to be the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils.

There’s a lot of stuff to figure out, Coombs allowed. “It can’t go on forever.”

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