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York Regional council, staff will set priorities at $15K retreat
Jan. 15, 2014
Lisa Queen

York Region councillors and top staff are booked to attend a three-day, closed-door retreat at King City’s Kingsbridge Conference Centre and Institute, where they will determine the priorities they want to tackle during this term of council.

Regional chairperson Wayne Emmerson estimated the cost of the “council education session” at $12,000 to $15,000, depending how many sleep over at the retreat, planned for Jan. 28 to 30 at Kingsbridge on Jane Street south of King Road.

About 40 politicians and staff will attend.

Some officials are only going for specific sessions, while councillors and commissioners are expected to attend the full program, Emmerson said.

The work day will run 9 a.m. to as late as 10 p.m. Jan. 28 and 29, while it will wrap up at about noon Jan. 30, he said.

Although the region has debt of about $2 billion, Emmerson defended the retreat as money well spent because it gives politicians and officials a chance to get away and speak freely as they establish the region’s priorities over this term of council.

It also provides an opportunity for councillors, especially new faces such as Markham Councillor Nirmala Armstrong, Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk and Whitchurch-Stouffville Mayor Justin Altmann, to get to know each other and regional issues better, he said.

“It’s a pretty good deal for a corporation that has a $3 billion budget,” Emmerson said.

“It’s an opportunity for us to look at strategic planning for York Region for the next four years and beyond.”

The retreat, permitted under the Municipal Act, is being held in the region and will likely be the only one during this term of council, Emmerson said.

Any issues raised at the session would have to be approved by council publicly, he said.

Councillors got a taste of the issues they will discuss during a committee meeting on Thursday at a presentation of the region’s draft strategic plan, with further issues coming forward at another presentation this Thursday.

Top concerns highlighted by councillors included ongoing challenges with reducing transportation congestion, providing affordable housing and boosting employment.

The average York Region commuter’s morning trip takes 32.1 minutes, compared to 27.8 minutes for the average Toronto commuter, 30.3 minutes for the average Peel Region commuter and 23.6 minutes for the average Durham Region commuter.

York’s number is made worse by the fact commuters are taking longer to get to their destinations, but travelling shorter distances than commuters in surrounding communities, regional chief administrative officer Bruce Macgregor said.

Based on the morning commute, it’s fair to assume York commuters are spending 64 minutes a day travelling both ways, Richmond Hill Councillor Brenda Hogg said.

“Some of the cross-town commutes (within the region) are some of the worst and we need transit to try to mitigate some of that,” she said.

Meanwhile, Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua, East Gwillimbury Mayor Virginia Hackson, Newmarket Councillor John Taylor and Richmond Hill Councillor Vito Spatafora called attention to the region’s lack of affordable housing, an issue that will be addressed at the retreat and, to a greater extent, at a dedicated workshop in coming months.

“I think what people fail to understand is we’re not talking about the other people. We’re talking about our own kids who won’t be able to afford homes,” said Bevilacqua, who stressed the need to go beyond discussions in favour of a practical affordable housing strategy.

Business owners will not be able to recruit the labour force they need if workers can’t afford to live here, he said.

With some communities still growing, Hackson argued it may make more sense to include affordable or social housing in new developments rather than trying to “shoehorn” it into completed communities.

“I would like to open up the possibility of taking a look at a growing place such as East Gwillimbury, where land use is readily available, but also cheaper and the idea if we put it in as a community grows, then we don’t have the NIMBY attitude that goes with it,” she said.

“I just think that is an opportunity that we could certainly take advantage of, particularly now that transportation corridors are changing and the higher densities we will be having, not just in East Gwillimbury, but in other communities as well. The public transportation will be much more available to people and that’s what they’re going to need.”

Georgina Regional Councillor Danny Wheeler and Markham Regional Councillor Joe Li called attention to the increase in the number of service jobs in the region at the expense of manufacturing jobs and the need for strong economic development initiatives.