Wastewater enforcement one more thing for municipalities

Mayors hope challenges not dissuading people from considering council run

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com Published on May 10, 2017

When two federal enforcement officers walked into the Town of Dover’s office, asking about compliance with wastewater regulations, the town manager was a bit thrown.

The visit was unexpected, but what was more unexpected was a suggestion she might play a part in any enforcement actions taken, with her name on related reporting and paperwork. She brought it to council.
“She was a little distraught, like anybody would be, especially when you’re coming into a small town with not a lot of big staff. We do have a couple of people working for us, but it’s a little intimidating,” said Mayor Tony Keats, who is also a vice-president of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL).

In speaking with the enforcement officers, he said, the manager explained the steps being taken to be compliant with wastewater rules, and heard them out on requirements. Things were settled soon enough, but similar scenes — with unexpected visits — have played out all around Newfoundland and Labrador in recent months.

New wastewater rules have been in full effect since Jan. 1, 2015. As The Telegram reported in September 2016, only three of the 297 municipalities in the province (St. John’s, Gander and Springdale) were issued a grace period for updating their infrastructure. Enforcement officers have been dealing with the rest on a case-by-case basis, setting out schedules and seeking evidence of movement toward compliance — namely, spending on outflow testing and new infrastructure where required.

The message being handed out is one of responsibility.

Wastewater isn’t the only concern on the minds of municipal staff and volunteer councillors these days.

“Being on councils now … it’s not like being on councils in previous years or years before. You’ve got more responsibility and there’s more services that you offer to residents and you’ve got to make sure you’re doing everything right and by the book,” Keats said.

There’s more paperwork (wastewater is being tracked for the first time by many, for example), and there are infrastructure deficits around drinking water and shrinking tax bases to deal with. The province is dealing with economic challenges and a rapidly aging population has changing service requirements.

And municipal elections are coming up.

Keats was asked if the pressures might keep people from running for a council seat.

“I’m hoping it’s not,” he said, confirming he will seek another term.

“There’re a lot of issues within our municipalities: roads, safe communities. We look at that every day and at the end of the day we try to balance out the good and bad,” he said. “I do think we have many more good days than we have bad days.”

Labrador City Mayor Karen Oldford, who is president of MNL, said councillors serving all over the province are encouraging Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to Make Your Mark by running for election as a municipal representative.

She said municipalities are evolving and there are new challenges, offering the example of some once-independent, volunteer firefighting operations becoming a town responsibility, in terms of occupational health and safety training and supports. The wastewater demands are another thing.

“Certainly it is a concern for us that that may impede people from stepping forward,” she said.

But Oldford said there is a close look at regional government coming up, with consultations expected before the end of the year, and communities are already finding ways to share resources to tackle responsibilities, with MNL’s support.

She said she hopes to see the existing and future challenges being tackled by more diverse councils, and councils with new members alongside more experienced ones.

“You can make your mark on your community in many different ways and one is by offering yourself for municipal office,” she said.

On wastewater, MNL has been in touch with both federal representatives and the province, and progress is being made in terms of understanding and project funding. She highlighted the province’s reorganization, to bring Environment under the same department as Municipal Affairs, with the hope it will make meeting regulations easier.

Minister Eddie Joyce said maintaining 90-10 funding on water and wastewater infrastructure projects was meant to help, also noting funding rolled out for new projects from the provincial and federal level.

He said he did hear about wastewater and other concerns during the latest MNL symposium, but he doesn’t believe any individual concern will keep someone interested in running for office from putting themselves forward.

“The vibe I’m getting … some people won’t run, but the majority of them will,” he said of existing councillors. “There’s a lot of people wanting to step up to the plate.”

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