Conversations with retiring SDG Counties councillors

MORRISBURG – There will be at least two new faces representing Dundas County at the 12 person SDG Counties Council table in the next term. Councillors Steven Byvelds (South Dundas) and Al Armstrong (North Dundas) are both retiring from municipal politics at the end of their terms in November. The Leader sat down with both politicians to discuss the last four years at SDG council and their varied perspectives on the upper tier municipality.

Steven Byvelds

Byvelds is mayor of South Dundas and has spent nearly 10 years at the SDG council table. Elected in 2006, he became deputy mayor of South Dundas in 2009 after the death of Mayor Charles Barkley. Byvelds served as mayor of South Dundas from 2010-14 and was elected to a second term in that position in 2018. He was Warden of SDG in 2011. Byvelds announced on May 2 that he would not seek another term.

Of the accomplishments at Counties Council in 2018-22, Byvelds said he was most proud of getting support to improve the SDG road network within South Dundas.

“The 8-18 project, including the extension of paving to finish off County Road 8 ranks number one, along with getting County Road 7 done this year,” he listed.

Changing how SDG deals with road construction surpluses and pushing for a policy to set aside that money to address “Now Needs” roads is another success Byvelds said he is proud of.

In his previous term at Counties, Byvelds advocated for SDG’s $100K donation to St. Lawrence College’s campus rebuild in Cornwall, and pushed for an economic development department to be brought in-house.

As the United Counties is made of up of three individual counties, treating all three as equally as possible is a challenge. Byvelds said whether it is roads, regional incentives projects or tourism, it is up to all 12 members of council to ensure everything is equal.

“We have to always look at the big picture,” he said. “But sometimes we all need to look at how projects and funds are being distributed. I do feel this improved as the 2018-22 term went along.”

SDG is in a strong financial position with zero debt, good roads and has a lower infrastructure deficit than its lower-tier municipal counterparts. Byvelds said looking ahead at the next term of council, there will be a few challenges – namely inflation and low-income housing.

“We spent a lot of our surpluses and reserves this year,” he explained.  “With inflation where it is, those reserves need to be built up again along with dealing with continued inflationary pressures.”

On housing, Byvelds said that to be fair SDG will need to look at long-term debt financing options for any project built in the Counties. Several possible projects have been earmarked by Cornwall’s housing department, which manages housing for SDG under the shared services agreement.

That agreement was renewed early in this term of council after an acrimonious relationship between the two councils last term.

“I give a lot of credit to our committee with Councillor Armstrong looking after land ambulance services, and myself housing,” he explained. “Both will take time to develop, but these files are certainly underway.”

He also credited former Cornwall Mayor Bernadette Clement for advocating the two municipalities work together on solutions.

While communication improved between SDG and Cornwall politicians, Byvelds said one of the biggest challenges for him during this term has been communication with Counties’ staff.

“Especially this year,” he added. “Staff need to understand that councillors are the ‘boots on the ground’ and we need to know what is going on in our areas.”

Byvelds explained, “they need to listen to our thoughts and with their expertise, work together on solutions.  I know projects would go better if they recognized our knowledge and did not just do things ‘by the book.’”

The other challenge for Byvelds this term was not getting everything done that was started – specifically the Waste Management Study.

“It sits on a shelf,” he said. “South Dundas is challenged with waste and landfills, and could have used this study as a way of looking at new ways to do waste management.”

In representing South Dundas at SDG Council, Byvelds said he always tried to look at broader issues keeping South Dundas in mind.

“I hope our new councillors, and the rest of Counties Council will do so,” he said adding he will miss the opportunity to work with a new Chief Administration Officer next year. Current CAO Tim Simpson is retiring at the end of 2022.

“I believe, as much as Tim Simpson was a good CAO, that a change at the top is good for new ideas, and I will miss working with new leadership.”

As his time at the Counties draws to a close, Byvelds said that South Dundas needs to continue to work with SDG for the betterment of both municipalities.

“We also need to continue to work with Cornwall as they are a big part of the picture not only in Shared Services but Economic Development and Tourism,” he said.

Byvelds said that across his time at Counties, he appreciated knowing more of the area.

“Most people do not know where Dalkeith is, and other areas of our region, nor do they appreciate some of the different cultures [Scottish] we have here,” Byvelds said. “I have learned a lot being on council and will always remember the opportunity I had.”

Allan “Al” Armstrong

Armstrong is in his first term as deputy mayor of North Dundas but has been a continuous fixture at that council for almost 22 years. Elected in 2000 as councillor, he opted to run for deputy mayor in 2018 and did not stand for election this year. He served as SDG Warden for a shortened term in 2021, replacing the previous warden who was on leave.

Armstrong is a member of the Shared Services committee of SDG council, which looks after services that are contracted with the City of Cornwall like housing and land ambulance. On that file, he said he feels there is a better deal now between SDG Counties and the City of Cornwall. Armstrong attributed that to there being “the right mix” of elected officials from at the table in late 2018.

“I didn’t understand how there were two entities there, and we paid 68 per cent of all the bills that were there but had no representation in making the budget,” he explained. “Mayor [Bernadette] Clement agreed and we moved forward. I am just glad I was there to ask that question.”

Improving land ambulance services in the Counties was something Armstrong lobbied for in that new agreement and he said it is better.

“The City agreed to add a new ambulance to the fleet, not just replace an ambulance,” he said. “So the fleet has actually grown – or at least will once the ambulance arrives.”

The equipment has been ordered but global supply chain delays have knocked back the delivery date by months. Armstrong said the new equipment is a good step, but more has to be done to improve ambulance dispatch. He added that the province needs to assist to lessen dwell times at hospitals which hold up Cornwall and SDG Paramedics returning to their own area, and he would like the paramedic system to review its operating plan more to improve response times.

Looking at the work accomplished by the 2018-22 term of Counties Council, Armstrong said that a lot was done from initiatives like the mental health nurse OPP pilot project to rural education.

“If the next council follows through and completes the Education Committee’s recommendations, then I will say that I am very happy about what this group of mostly new people accomplished,” he said.

Another initiative from SDG council that Armstrong strongly supports is the OPP mental health nurse pilot, but he didn’t at first.

“It was the first time in a long time that someone changed my mind on something,” Armstrong chuckled. “Councillor Kirsten Gardner changed my mind. The mental health nurse is one of the best things we did as a council this term, without a doubt,” he said.

One issue that he would like to go back and revisit is the Counties’ process for selecting a warden. Council reviewed this earlier last year and opted for the status quo of electing the warden yearly by popular vote of the council. Armstrong said he preferred to return to rotating the warden’s position through each of the three counties that make up SDG.

“What we are at Counties is a collection of duly-elected officials chosen by the voters of our townships who all think we are good leaders,” he explained. “We’re going to parse that down to say that 11 of those people [at Counties] will decide if those voters actually elected a good leader? That argument doesn’t wash with me.”

At the time, council also tried to change how a tie vote for warden would be settled. Presently, in the case of a tie vote, a name will be selected from a hat.

“Anybody sitting at this table who doesn’t feel that is one of the most embarrassing moments of their life, doesn’t care enough about the warden’s position,” Armstrong said. “It’s arguably the second most important position municipally in Eastern Ontario and this is how you settle it?”

Unlike Byvelds, Armstrong was not a fan of the United Counties level of government. In the four years since joining SDG Council, that view has softened a bit. Armstrong explained that while SDG provides more services than he believed, a “one-size fits all” approach for certain policies should not limit individual municipalities working together on issues.

“The whole idea about municipal government, to me, is autonomy. I think there are efficiencies that are found by working in an county system, and I think there are efficiencies lost by not segmenting other services.”

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