A blunder of epic proportions? A sobering display of supreme incompetence and ineptitude? A total failure of communications, direction, and leadership? An underhanded excuse to hand our municipal water services over to a private corporation without public consultation? A rudderless municipal government fumbling from one crisis to the next with no future planning? An unprecedented assault against our neighbouring municipalities? Another attack on the construction industry by an anti-development council?
Or all of the above?
Whatever your view, this debacle falls on the shoulders of the mayor, Brian Saunderson. He’s the leader, the spokesperson, where the buck stops.
The headline of the story on Collingwood Today reads, “Collingwood council eyes moratorium on new development.” The town is considering an “interim control bylaw” that would stop “all new development that hasn’t already been issued a building permit.” That includes numerous, approved subdivisions which already have draft plan approval and which have sold many units, but don’t usually apply for building permits until a high percentage of planned units are sold.
But first, the town has to receive a “land use planning study” from consultants who haven’t even been chosen yet. That study alone will take several months, after a consultant is hired. Since the RFP for these services hasn’t even been sent out (the tendering process will likely take a couple of months), that likely won’t be finished until sometime next year.
I’ve been told by several sources that developers already can’t get building permits to finish work in approved subdivisions. Those subdivision agreements came with a reasonable expectation the town would provide adequate municipal water and sewer services. All of these subdivisions are already on land designated for residential use, so the study will not tell the town anything it doesn’t already know. It will simply delay construction.
These developers expect the buyers who have already committed money to purchase homes will sue the developers, who in turn will sue the town. Since developers also pay hefty security deposits when they enter a subdivision agreement, I expect they will also sue the town to refund those because the town reneged on the agreement.
What a clusterfuck.
Yet our council knew this was coming. Most, including our mayor, have known about it for the past six years, but have consistently failed to deal with either the long-needed water treatment plant upgrade or the pipeline agreement. Now they’re flailing and fumbling with extreme measures because it’s become a critical issue.
This isn’t a new problem: the renewal of the pipeline agreement has been discussed by councils for the past decade. It was almost signed back in 2015. But this current lot has been so obsessed with the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka the SVJI) that they haven’t paid any attention to what’s important. And now it’s blown up in their faces.
But not just Collingwood’s collective face. As Tony Veltri wrote on madhunt.com:
Brian Saunderson looking to stick a shiv in Town of New Tecumseth and the Blue Mountains, next Monday night. This is a significant matter that requires urgent attention considering our council continues to approve and encourage thousands of new residential development units. What level of incompetence has pushed us to this brink?… the amount of water coming to New Tecumseth is planned to be lessened and that on its own will impact not only Tottenham but Alliston and Beeton. And the solution is years off as Collingwood notes in its report because a new water treatment plant is recommended.
This also affects the development and growth in the municipalities of New Tecumseth and Alliston which get water from our treatment plant via a 57 km pipeline. It affects the Town of the Blue Mountains which also gets water from us. And it will affect Tottenham, which is supposed to be linked to the New Tec water supply this year, as well as any plans Bradford might have had for joining the pipeline. As the CwoodToday article notes (emphasis added), Collingwood
…staff would like to start discussions with New Tecumseth and The Blue Mountains to reduce the amount of water sent to the two municipalities until the plant expansion is complete.
So no one has reached out before this bombshell was dropped? What a facepalm moment. How much revenue will the town lose if they DO reduce their consumption? Will local taxpayers have to make up for that loss in higher water rates? Why aren’t local media asking these questions?
Why didn’t anyone on staff or council speak to people in those municipalities who get our water BEFORE making this report? At least warn them this was coming? I can’t find any indication they did (and apparently local media never bothered to ask). The motion on the agenda suggests communication was an afterthought: “AND THAT staff initiate discussions with the Town of New Tecumseth and the Town of the Blue Mountains to reduce the amount of water supplied these municipalities until the water treatment plant expansion is complete.”
Seriously? NO ONE thought to speak to these municipalities first? Isn’t there anyone on staff who can offer advice about basic communications?
The CwoodToday article also notes,
As demands have risen to 80 per cent of the plant’s capacity or higher, the town has worked toward a plan to expand the plant, with construction due to be completed by the end of 2025.
It’s not the supply capacity (raw water from the bay) that’s at stake. The town’s 2020 compliance report notes it is more than adequate:
The raw water supply is more than adequate to provide a reliable source of potable water to meet the demands of the system. The source is Nottawasaga Bay, part of Lake Huron in the Georgian Bay region
The treated water demand doesn’t really show as an issue, either:
The water treatment plant supplied 6,694,997 m3 of safe, potable water in 2020. That is down 1% from 6,791,070 m3 in 2019.
Treated water supply in 2020 ran from a low of 56% capacity in April, to a high of 79% in July (all that lawn watering and pool filling, I suppose). The average monthly demand in 2020 was about 65% capacity. There is nothing in the report to indicate an emergency with capacity or in meeting demands. So why is there a crisis NOW?
The environmental assessment report for the new plant also shows that the current facility has had even higher demands on capacity in the past without any crisis developing: 99% in 2001, 98% in 2005, 92% in 2007 and 2009, 93% in 2011. But after that demand actually fell, reaching a low of 68% in 2017, rising to 82% in 2019. Page 10 of that report also comments that an “Existing Plant Performance/Capacity Assessment” report was submitted on November 4, 2019, and recommended that “the expansion of the plant focus on capacity limitations.” Surely all of council was aware of this report, now almost 18 months old. So why is there a crisis NOW?
The town’s Environmental Services 2021 End of Year Update, presented on April 12, 2021, doesn’t mention a word about capacity problems of the imploding crisis that requires an interim control bylaw. Nor is a plant expansion listed on its page of future projects.
What I can’t find in any of the town’s documentation is a simple timeline showing how long this will all take, starting from the RFP for the proposed land use planning survey to the completion of the new water treatment plant and a new pipeline agreement. The demand for water from other municipalities won’t get any less simply because we get a report. How many years will our council kill development and growth while this goes on? The CwoodToday article suggests four years, but it could be more.**
It’s not just the developers who will be hurt: all of the building and related trades will be impacted: equipment and tool suppliers, paving companies, electricians, construction workers, heavy equipment workers, drivers, plumbers, roofers, carpenters, landscapers, concrete mixers, stonemasons, architects, planners, bricklayers, even food truck drivers… it could negatively affect the work and businesses of thousands.
And what happens to the proposed hospital expansion? It won’t be able to get going without building permits. Saunderson seems to be putting up yet one more roadblock to its redevelopment.
So why didn’t anyone at the table have the brains to raise this years ago? Too obsessed with the SVJI to notice? The result of their inattention is this monumental screwup.
Let’s do a little history and technology here.
The pipeline was built in 1999 (finished in 2000) to pump water from Collingwood’s treatment plant to New Tec and Alliston, with the Township of Essa (Baxter), Township of Essa (Angus) and Clearview Township (New Lowell) all taking some of it along the way. The water to the east side of Blue Mountains comes from Collingwood along another pipeline.
The agreement to build and finance the New Tec pipeline was signed by five partners: the Collingwood Public Utilities Service Board (CPUSB; an independent commission that was created by bylaw to oversee the town’s water and wastewater services), the Town of New Tecumseth, the Province of Ontario, the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) and SNC-Lavalin/Con-Drain Consortium. The ConDrain site notes:
Financing for the project came from five sources: a $5 million grant from the Province of Ontario, $7 million in equity from the Town of New Tecumseth, $1.3 million in equity from the Collingwood P.U.C., $11.1 million debt financing from OWSCA, and $2.9 million debt financing from the SNC-Lavalin/Condrain consortium.
The deal between Collingwood and New Tec (or technically the New Tecumseth Improvement Society, or NTIS) was to provide water at a fixed rate for 20 years. That deal ended in May, 2020. No new deal has been written since, much less signed. But it almost was; the water plant could have begun its upgrade back in 2015 or 2016.
The plant’s expansion was already planned and ready to go ahead in 2015: the CPUSB had commissioned and paid for an environmental assessment and had the design already in hand (it looks like the town’s current expansion proposal is the same one approved and paid for by the CPUSB… I hope the town didn’t pay for it twice!). It would have doubled the capacity, met all of Collingwood’s and New Tec’s needs, and been up and running before the existing agreement ran out. There would have been none of these issues with future growth and development in 2021. And today Collingwood would be making a lot of money from the water sales,
New Tec and Collingwood had been in sometimes acrimonious discussions about the agreement and the water supply for many years. As Madhunt.com commented:
New Tecumseth and Collingwood have, since at least 2016, been banging heads over water. Reading Collingwood’s report to council, they’ve been aware their once modern water treatment plant couldn’t/still keep up and had/has to overdose on chlorine in the winter because it’s sensitive to cold apparently. And that’s been squeezing capacity during those months. The only long term solution was/has/is a new treatment plant.
Now, it’s fair enough to say water treatment plants aren’t simply financed, built and operational in short periods of time. It’s a multi year approval process through to ribbon cutting…
That we are at this brink is a colossal failure both in New Tecumseth and Collingwood.
In late 2014 or early 2015, Marcus Firman, COO of the Collingwood Public Utilities met with the CAOs of Bradford and New Tec and came “so damned closed” to a solution that worked for all the parties. That agreement could have begun the expansion process at that time.
But it wasn’t to be: adversarial internal politics left Firman disenchanted with Collingwood. Firman (who was widely recognized as one of the best in his field) left to work in another municipality, tired of the “…ongoing debate about a possible new governance structure that would oversee the public utility.” Firman told The Connection,
It seems there are governance issues; I don’t want to see something that has served this community so well for more than 120 years pulled apart.
In late 2015, Rob Andrews, President and CEO of OCWA stepped into the discussion, and met with Collingwood and New Tecumseth staffs to discuss a new water supply agreement. he presented them a draft of a collaborative agreement in January 2016. A “deal… to end 13 year stalemate between New Tecumseth, Collingwood” was said to be at hand in July, 2016.
Bradford West Gwillimbury was keen to get in on the deal and initially offered $14 million to get water from the pipeline; and then offered $44 million to build the expansion — more than enough to finance the projected $45 million expansion of the Collingwood water treatment plant.*
It seemed like good news, because the new agreement was touted in media releases (from madhunt,com, Jan. 11, 2016):
New Tecumseth and Collingwood have agreed to restructure the contract that sets terms for delivery of treated water from Collingwood to Alliston, including dissolution of the New Tecumseth Improvement Society (NTIS), and will set new parameters for funding the Raglan Street treatment plant expansion to meet additional capacity requirements at both ends of the pipeline.
The Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) is facilitating the new arrangement between the two municipalities. OCWA’s interest involves trying to recoup its initial $12.3 million loan that helped finance the $28 million pipeline construction in the late 1990s.
The Collingwood treatment plant currently treats 31,140 cubic meters per day. The pipeline currently has a capacity for 13,440 m3/day. The capacity can be expanded to 60,000 m3/day by constructing inline re-pumping stations.
But suddenly it got shelved and the negotiations ended. What happened?
CAO John Brown and Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson happened. It appears they were both opposed to the town owning assets like utilities and airports. Under their collective influence, council sold (privatized) our publicly-owned electricity utility (Collus) and our publicly-owned airport to for-profit corporations without even the pretense of public consultation.
Brown also challenged the CPUSB over who controlled the water utility staff (including Firman): the town or the CPUSB. The town lost when legal opinions gave control to the CPUSB. So after Firman left, the CPUSB was disbanded by council (in violation of the town’s board appointment policies) and the water utility staff became town employees. How did that affect the pipeline agreement, since it was signed by the CPUSB, not the town? Local media never asked. (The subservient Block on council went along with everything, of course. And most of them got re-elected in 2018.)
Now in town hands, the water utility was intended to have been part of the sale with Collus (in a press release, EPCOR had offered to manage “the system and financing any water and wastewater infrastructure renewal that may be required”). Brown and EPCOR representatives unsuccessfully pitched changing from publicly-owned to privatized to water utility employees in 2017, again without public consultation. But the deal hit a snag (possibly because of resistance from the two unions). Water didn’t get included when the electricity utility was privatized.
Although water and wastewater services and their employees remain under town control, word on the street today is that this latest “crisis” is a stepping stone to privatize the water utility to EPCOR as had been intended by the previous council. Another secret deal, a conspiracy to betray the public trust again, where no public consultation or input is allowed.
Although all could have been resolved and an agreement signed to build a new water treatment plant in 2016, there seems to have been no interest in town hall to continue the negotiations. The proposed deal got shelved, and relations between Collingwood and New Tec returned to their previous, acrimonious state. That has continued this term. For example, a 2019 story in CollingwoodToday, noted the tone of the relationship;
Some Collingwood councillors want to make sure New Tecumseth can’t re-sell water they buy from Collingwood for a profit. During the council meeting Monday night, councillors debated for an hour the terms of a new water treatment agreement with New Tecumseth, specifically the ability of New Tecumseth sell the water from Collingwood to bottling companies, and Collingwood’s autonomy and decision-making power when it comes to water treatment facility expansion.
Our council was fully informed about the water deal and the end of the agreement for years. A report was presented to council in November, 2019 by Brian Macdonald that noted, “The current agreement has a 20 year term that expires on May 3, 2020. There is a 10 year renewal term, but with the outcome of the 18.5% pipeline interest we are not prepared to renew on the existing terms.”
Council just didn’t do anything about it. They’ve been too obsessed with the SVJI to care. (Aside, that is, from their first effort to shut down construction and development in Collingwood, back in 2018). As noted on Madhunt’s Facebook page, this appears to be Collingwood bullying New Tec to get its own way:
The simple question remains, how did we get so far to this point we’re even having this discussion? How is that the water agreement between both towns was allowed to expire in May 2020 and now Collingwood is using that opening to negotiate a lower supply.
We come now to 2020 and the town’s annual compliance report. This is the provincially-mandated report about the water service that council receives in public every year. It notes:
The water usage this year was lower than last year from January to March, then in April the effects of the lockdown were seen with an exceptionally low production of 464,661 litres. The next lowest April production on record is 480,151 litres in 2003. As the economy recovered and industries sought to regain lost production, water usage in June was higher than last year then leveled out for the remainder of the year.
I can’t find anything in that report that suggests a crisis in capacity (usually that doesn’t get triggered until the demand reaches 85%). The average monthly demand in 2020 was about 65% capacity, well within the plant’s ability to provide. So why is there a crisis NOW that requires the sky-is-falling halt to all development and construction for at least a year, perhaps two, or maybe many more?**
This screwup is beyond the usual Keystone-Cops governance we’re used to from this council. This is a maelstrom of monumental proportions that will suck in lawyers, developers, businesses, and politicians from around the region like a swarm of angry wasps. And it will only get worse.
The responsibility for this debacle has to fall on Brian Saunderson’s shoulders. As mayor, the buck stops at his desk. Where was his leadership all this time? Oh, right: focused on his job-hunting campaign to get out of being mayor. After which he’ll leave the rest of council behind to deal with this mess.
Collingwood deserves better.
* The new plant will cost a LOT more money nowadays: costs have increased $20 million because the town dropped the ball on the 2015 agreement. The assessment shows (emphasis added):
The expansion in the capacity of the plant will be undertaken in two phases (Phase 1 and Ultimate) to meet the future anticipated water supply requirements. The opinion of capital cost of the Phase 1 expansion of the plant is $65 million (2020 dollars). A further expansion will be necessary to meet the Ultimate water supply requirements. Funding for the Phase 1 expansion will be provided through the Town’s Allocated Water Reserve Fund (funded through water rates),
That “further expansion” noted above will cost another $19 million in today’s dollars, likely a helluva lot more when it finally gets built. These additional costs are the result of our council failing to approve a new agreement since 2015. We should have started building the new water plant years ago. I expect water rates are going to skyrocket to finance this plant.
** In a CTV news story about this debacle, it notes, “The development freeze could potentially last one to two years.” If the new plant takes four years to complete, how can the “freeze” thaw before it’s operating? Neither the capacity nor the demand will change before then.
It also says, “The town reports a 53 per cent population increase, much of that growth in the last five years.” How is that possible, since there has not been a national census since 2016? The town doesn’t conduct a census itself, and has no way of knowing if homes (new or resales) are owned by permanent or part-time residents. Nor does the town have a mechanism to track people who sell homes and move out of town. That statement is just more piffle and the media should have called him out on it. Why isn’t our mayor being fact-checked like the town does to the public?
And in the same piece, Mayor Saunderson is quoted in his usual dense, lawyerly fashion, “We will look through our framework at creating some exemptions on projects.” WTF is “our framework” and who is “we”? Is he taking responsibility for something planning staff will do? Why can’t he just say something in plain, clear English?
Word count: 3,483 Yeah, I know I’m wordy.