We have a jam-packed agenda at the County this year, and the common theme that ties everything together is growth. Whether it’s our proactive response to increasing demands on our services, increases in regional populations, greater partnerships with our municipalities, other levels of government and community partners. As a County we will over the course of the next year implement strategies that support and address our regional growth and service demands.
Fortunately, we are in a strong financial position to meet these needs. This was recently reconfirmed by Standard & Poor’s Rating Services as they affirmed our very strong AA rating. The rating is well earned as we have a very low debt burden, great fiscal policies that are complemented by a strong economy and our historic budgetary performance. We take great pride in our continued prudent management of your tax dollars and our stable financial position which allows us to maintain our services and make strategic investments for the future. Our 2016 operating budget of $449 million is consistent with this approach.
With the growth in the need for our services in mind, here’s a preview of some of our key priorities for 2016 (listed in no particular order):
Addressing growing needs in affordable housing and poverty within our communities will continue to be a key priority for council and a personal priority for me in 2016 and beyond. Our Social and Community Services strategies take a “housing-first” approach. Simply put affordable housing is not the issue, it’s the solution. We will continue to implement strategies from our 10 Year Affordable Housing and Homelessness Prevention Strategy with a continued focus on engagement with municipal, private and not for profit sectors to assist in achieving our target of creating 2,685 new affordable housing units by 2024; and most pressing, meeting our phase 1 target of 895 units by the end of 2017. While these are bold targets, they’re attainable through the support of our partners at all levels. County funding will also go a long way towards creating additional secondary suites, new rent supplements and planning for rental development. This includes the opening of our new Simcoe County Housing expansion site in Barrie (33 Brooks Street) and development of a proposal for expansion and redevelopment of Simcoe County Housing locations in Collingwood and Innisfil.
Including Barrie and Orillia, our region is projected to grow to 667,000 residents by 2031, placing a greater emphasis on the need for effective planning/development policies and strategies. We are taking a regional approach to our preparations. From a planning perspective, we hope to receive full approvals to our Official Plan from the Ontario Municipal Board. We are also looking at how the County can be more involved in regional transportation, linking rural and urban areas through the completion of our Transit Feasibility and Implementation Study later this year.
As a country, our population growth is driven by immigration. New Canadians are increasingly calling Simcoe County their home, and through our Local Immigration Partnership we are working with area partners to attract newcomers to our communities and provide support resources that help establish more welcoming communities. This includes programs such as the Library Links multilingual resource initiative and the Ontario Government’s Local Poverty Reduction fund that are aimed at helping immigrants in our communities.
Economic Development and regional tourism fuels our needs for employment and attraction. We want to help our municipalities and partners prepare for and embrace our bright future. Given this objective, we have restructured our grant and funding programs in Economic Development, Tourism and the Arts and Culture sectors. These funding opportunities will help our partners attract, support and grow business. We have added economic development resources and look forward to taking a more active role in helping our municipalities garner new business and employment opportunities. County roads truly impact all of us and our businesses. As a County, we maintain an inventory of more than 850 kms of roads, 50 signalized intersections, and 200 bridges. Given our growth and the demand on our road networks/systems, ongoing maintenance and road/transportation enhancements take up a large percentage of our budget annually. In 2016, we will invest in capital roads projects totaling $42.1 million. This includes reconstructing and rehabilitating approximately 55 km of roads and a total of 5 bridge structures in 2016. This will be managed through approximately 20 construction contracts. Highlights will include completion of County Road 50 and County Road 90 (from Barrie city limits to the CPR bridge), reconstruction of Wilson Drive County Road 43 intersection and work on the Bear Creek bridge replacement among other projects.
Last December I updated everyone on our Solid Waste Management Strategy Update session, which looked at opportunities for efficiencies over the next five years. We currently have aggressive diversion targets, which are proposed at 71% diversion by 2020 and 77% by 2030. Our best way to achieve these targets is through the growth of our organics program. This strategy aligns two key projects currently on the go – our proposed Organics Processing and Materials Management Facility initiatives. Staff will provide Council with an update on the preferred site early this year. We will have further public and stakeholder information sessions, and, later in the year, staff will work towards preparing reports on technology and site specific designs which will include further consultation with the public. These are important projects which support our long-term objectives to increase our diversion rate, reduce garbage, and securely manage our own processing capacity.
In 2016, we will continue to ensure our residents receive the highest level of care possible by increasing our resources and expanding our health and emergency services programs to suit the needs of our growing region. Paramedic Services are adding additional resources across the region to improve response time challenges and meet the demands of increasing call volumes. They will also continue to implement other programs such as our community paramedicine initiative to continue to meet growing demands on their services.
We are also expanding our training and preparation to respond to emergency situations. Our Emergency Management staff have partnered with the District of Muskoka to host a large scale regional Emergency Exercise which will see several hundred participants unite to test our response to a mock water loss emergency. These exercises test our emergency response plans and help us improve our continuity of operations and communications plans, which also contributes to the disaster resiliency of our communities.
We are looking at strategies to respond to our growing population of seniors. This includes provincial and County funding towards an Age-Friendly Community Initiative to identify, plan and address needs and priorities related to older adults in our area. I encourage you to get involved and provide input by visiting www.simcoe.ca . Our Long Term Care and Seniors Services staff are incorporating new and innovative ways to help engage with and improve the quality of life of our seniors. One such program has been happening at Sunset Manor since September. The Tots and Tykes Intergenerational Program sees little ones from E3’s Tiny Tots Daycare visiting with residents for an hour each week, bringing with them their energy and laughter and lust for life that our residents are thriving on. As a grandfather myself, I completely understand the joy that our seniors must feel after spending time with these youngsters. We are also in the process of renewing our Accreditation decision through Accreditation Canada, a not-for-profit independent organization that provides national and international health care organizations with an external peer review process to assess and improve services provided to residents based on standards of excellence.
Finally, as Warden I want to continue to grow and foster our relationships with our municipalities, upper levels of government, community partners, and most importantly all of you, our residents. I plan to meet with all our municipalities again on various topics over the coming year. We look forward to hosting the second annual Simcoe County Comes Together Conference this spring. Also, stay tuned for dates and information on a number of new Warden’s events and picnics geared to engage communities in all corners of the county. The first event will be a free Warden’s March Break Fun Skate. Information will be posted on www.simcoe.ca over the coming days.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg! 2016 is sure to be a busy, productive and impactful year. I look forward to working with all of my fellow council member’s and our phenomenal staff to continue providing quality service and making positive impacts .
Simcoe County Warden