By Mike Baker
A need for further investment in broadband internet services, improvements to long-term care and issues surrounding blue-green algae in local lakes were some of Haliburton County warden Liz Danielsen’s key takeaways from last week’s virtual Rural Ontario Municipalities Association [ROMA] conference.
The event was very well attended, Danielsen claimed, with around 1,100 participants from across Ontario. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the event took place exclusively on Zoom from Jan. 24 to 26.
While the changed format drastically impacted Danielsen’s ability to network with representatives from other municipalities, she was a big fan of the way the different minister delegations were set up.
“I think they did a really good job of the transition from in-person to virtual. Everybody still had opportunities to meet with the ministers to have their delegations as usual. It was interesting – in a Zoom call you’re seeing faces close up, so you got a better sense for how people are reacting to the information you’re giving them,” Danielsen stated. “It seemed, strangely enough, like there was more openness. More willingness to listen. It really was a different experience.”
Danielsen juggled three different hats throughout the event – as county warden, deputy mayor of Algonquin Highlands, and as vice-chair of the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus.
While most of the discussions Danielsen was involved in could, in some way, be tied to all three roles, there was one topic in particular that was a recurring theme throughout the event.
Broadband internet has long been an issue for rural communities across Ontario. This past November, Ontario Premier Doug Ford held a media event in Minden to announce the provincial government would be investing $1 billion over the next six years to improve internet and cell service in communities just like Haliburton.
One of the first initiatives to be funded, Danielsen says, is the Eastern Ontario Regional Network’s cell gap project. She indicated work on that project, which centres on improvements to cell service in some of the province’s most remote areas, will begin this spring.
Following further discussions at ROMA, she expects there to be some additional provincial funding announcements in the near future.
“There’s a lot of discussion about the best direction to take – whether to support the big service providers, or smaller service providers. We’re just interested in trying to get the best coverage in rural Ontario and Haliburton County,” Danielsen said.
She added, “Broadband, and more specifically the necessity for broadband, was actually the theme of the conference overall… There was a lot of emphasis placed on working together with different levels of government and doing whatever we can to support the process to get broadband in place.”
The improvements being talked about focus on the installation of fibre-optic lines in some rural hubs and boosts to cable and DSL services. Other more forward-thinking ideas, such as satellite delivery, may still be a few years out for local residents, Danielsen believes.
“The unfortunate part about these improvements is, no matter what we hear, it all takes time. We’ve heard presentations about satellite delivery, and other special projects that have gone ahead in small communities. But by the time you put out an RFP, and you go through that process and work begins, it seems like we’re always looking at 2023 or beyond, and right now we just can’t afford to wait that long,” Danielsen said. “When you look at the problems that, for instance, the ones our kids are having with online schooling. It’s just impossible right now for some families.”
“I’m just not sure how we’re going to fill that gap soon enough,” Danielsen admitted.
There was a fruitful discussion with Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario’s minister of long-term care, talking about the new systems and processes being installed in many facilities across eastern Ontario, Danielsen said, while she also held talks with environment minister Jeff Yurek about issues surrounding blue-green algae.
“Blue-green algae is a huge concern for us in Haliburton County, because there’s still a lot of people who draw their water from our lakes. And if a lake has been contaminated, the water can be toxic,” Danielsen said. “When someone spots, or reports a bloom, right now we have a process where someone will come in and test the water, but then there can be as much as a two-week delay for results. The big thing is, there seems to be some question about who is responsible for doing the notification [and reporting algae blooms], so we wanted to bring that to the minister’s attention.”
Yurek, Danielsen says, was “a bit taken aback” to hear it can take two weeks for test results to be returned to the community.
More municipal funding
Elsewhere, it was revealed that Haliburton County and its lower-tier municipalities would collectively receive about $645,000 in further infrastructure funding through the province’s Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund.
Premier Doug Ford announced $200 million in new OCIF money for Ontario’s rural municipalities during the ROMA conference.
The program works on a population-based formula. The County of Haliburton will receive nearly $285,000, Dysart et al nearly $160,000, Minden Hills just over $102,000 and Algonquin Highlands and Highlands East each $50,000.
“Investing in local infrastructure projects that help strengthen our communities and support Ontario’s long-term economic recovery is important to help get shovels in the ground on important community projects,” Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP and Ontario Infrastructure Minister Laurie Scott said in a recent media release.