July 28, 2011

On Aug. 18, 2003 I started working at the Sentinel-Review as an education and agriculture reporter. The first article and photos I filed were of a summer children’s program run by the former Oxford Community Police Service.

Almost eight years later, earlier this afternoon, I filed my last article as a multimedia journalist for the Sentinel-Review.

It’s been a wonderful eight years and I feel indebted to this newsroom, my colleagues and friends here and this community. I will continue building on the skills and knowledge gained here as I move on to a new opportunity.

On Tuesday, Aug. 2, I will begin a new job just down Highway 403 at the Expositor in Brantford.

Some time over the weekend all the administrative controls, etc., for this blog will be exclusively in the hands of my friends at the Sentinel-Review and this space will be theirs to maintain and keep using.

Thanks to all those who’ve stopped by to read a post and particularly to those whose comments have kept the conversation going.


The week ahead: July 25-29

July 25, 2011

Doing the tour of the usual suspects turns up no scheduled council meetings this week.

Enjoy the week.

What’s the best answer on parataxi?

July 21, 2011

I approach the topic of parataxi service delicately.

For those not in the know, the city’s parataxi program allows those with physical disabilities to access door-to-door taxi service the same way an able-bodied person would. Riders register with the city and purchase vouchers that c0st either $2 a ride or $8 a ride. The $2 vouchers can be used during the operating hours of Woodstock Transit buses, while the $8 vouchers are used during set hours on Sundays, holidays and the times of the day when buses are not rolling on city streets.

Outside of parataxi hours, riders would pay the accessible fare as set by city bylaw, $13 a ride.

Until July 1 of this year, there was a standing verbal agreement between the owners of accessible taxi vans and the city that the drivers would collect the vouchers, submit them to the city and be reimbursed the difference between the face value of the voucher and $13.

When the program was created some six years ago, it was designed to give people the dignity of door-to-door service at a level the city’s single accessible transit bus (ParaBus) couldn’t provide. At the time, the city didn’t own accessible low-floor buses.

Parataxi was immediately and immensely popular. At its peak, there were over 700 registered riders and it was costing over $500,000 a year— all of which goes to the parataxi owner / operators. Several years ago, the city tightened up the registration requirements for users of the program out of concern that many people using parataxi were mobile enough to be able to use regular buses and taxi vehicles. At the time, about half the city’s bus fleet was new low-floor accessible buses.

The number of users sits around 300 today. To these people, the parataxi service is a lifeline. It provides freedom and dignity. The future of the program as it exists today is at risk however, since the city’s bylaw that allowed for a $13 accessible taxi fare is illegal under new provincial rules— the accessible taxi fare can no longer be any higher than regular cab fare, which in Woodstock ranges between $8 to $10 a ride depending on pickup and drop-off points.

The city clerk’s report on this is worth a read. Particularly pages 11 and 15-17 dealing with ridership, financials and the letter from the parataxi drivers. Now the service is not under immediate threat, but the drivers have already shown they’re prepared to mount a huge public-relations campaign to maintain the status quo as much as possible.

However, we need to be cognizant of the realities that currently the vast majority if not all of the transit buses rolling on city streets are low-floor accessible vehicles. Most city residents also live within several hundred metres of a bus stop. While these low-floor vehicles cannot accommodate the largest mobility devices and the transit schedule is no where near as convenient as parataxi, Woodstock has worked its grant mojo to buy enough of these buses at minimal cost to the property tax base as possible. This allows many to be able to ride the bus just like anyone else.

We also have a ParaBus service that currently runs weekdays and costs $2 a ride. Also not as convenient to the end user as parataxi, given it must be booked with more advance notice than simply calling for a cab. But it can accommodate all sorts of mobility devices and provides municipal transit service at a level that is consistent with riding the bus.

That’s the ultimate question behind this review. Does the city wish to continue providing an accessible public transportation program whose level of service is much, much better than its regular transit program at the cost of between $400,000 to $500,000 a year (which goes into the costs of the cab companies running the program, and their profits however slim they might be)?

Or do we feel more comfortable in providing an accessible transit service that is equivalent to the level of service provided by Woodstock Transit buses?

Council will ultimately decide this question, but the discussion along the way should be interesting.

The week ahead: July 18-22

July 18, 2011

It’s a quiet week, with most councils meeting last week.

Tuesday, July 19

  • Township of South-West Oxford regular council meeting, council chambers in Dereham Centre, 9 a.m.
  • Township of Zorra regular council meeting, Oxford Highway 119 and 27th Line, 9:30 a.m.

On the township front, there’s an interesting planning report for a township-owned piece of land in Embro, with plans to develop it into a pharmacy. There’s a suggestion in some of the correspondence attached to the planning report this may form part of a physician-recruitment strategy within the township.

Of note as well, though not a council meeting or something that council is likely to attend, the Woodstock Art Gallery at 449 Dundas St. opens Tuesday at 11 a.m. We’ll be dropping by and I suspect first-day traffic will be full of curious onlookers to see what’s been done with the space.

Back to plan A with the gallery

July 13, 2011

Confirmation today that surmounting some of the “ifs” involved in selling 449 Dundas St. to Fanshawe College and leasing the basement and first floor back for the Woodstock Art Gallery exhibition space won’t happen.

This as we awoke this morning to hear that Ontario Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli told Easy 1010 / CKOT Tuesday the governments had refused the request from the City of Woodstock to keep the $3.3-million Build Canada Fund – Communities component grant if it sold the building.

Gallery supporters are already claiming victory, but I’d be far from the first to suggest this may have been one front in the battle conquered, but any war is far from over.

The basement, first and second floors can proceed as planned and will be the new home of the Woodstock Art Gallery. This most recent development does nothing to solve the question of what happens with the third and fourth floors at 449 Dundas St. Unless all that hot air from councillors has dissipated, solutions to make the use of the entire building cost-effective for the city still need to be found.

It also puts a big fat question mark, again, on the future of the gallery’s home at 447 Hunter St.

Further to that point, we’ve all listened to several councillors (Plant, Northcott, Tait) state that running the gallery costs too much. There is nothing that has happened in the past three months that has in any way changed the cost of running the gallery in 2012 and the foreseeable short-term future beyond. There’s promise of fundraising (which can now hopefully resume, and the faster the better) to support the capital and operational expenses but if council is actually going to take action on either increasing revenues or decreasing expenses, there’s a lot of work to be done. Council could, if it really takes this most recent decision to heart in a bad way, bleed the budget dry at the gallery to the point that going there isn’t worth it because there are no good programs running and no money for exhibitions.

So to all the people who’ve rallied for today’s outcome— congratulations, but your energies are still needed. You need to continue to ask city council to support its gallery. You need to help council, since it hasn’t done so itself, find sponsors and other revenue sources to have the gallery meet the potential of its new home. You need to help council figure out the best and highest use for those top two floors at 449 Dundas St. and the best and highest use for 447 Hunter St. for all the city’s ratepayers.

Volunteers have a long history of running hot and cold in this city. Thousands eagerly sign petitions that read well on paper (a commitment to a cause that too often expires once the pen used to sign the piece of paper has been lifted off the paper). Hundreds show up at rallies. Well, the really tough work lies ahead. Don’t walk away just yet.

Hey, we’re not ‘festival town…’

July 11, 2011

The weekend brought us the 13th edition of the Canterbury Folk Festival in Ingersoll, which is a nice little (ahem, free) folk festival put on by a group of volunteers at Yvonne Holmes Mott Memorial Park. See our coverage here.

The Town of Ingersoll has used Canterbury as the centrepiece of its “Festival Town” tourism marketing efforts. While I would quibble that a dozen street closures is enough to call Ingersoll a Festival Town, that’s the branding the town has chosen and they’re committed. Canterbury is also a fine festival (musically, vendors, etc.) and is well attended.

Anyway— why bring this up here? Well, it’s been done before, but the City of Woodstock’s Cow-a-Polooza could be so much better than it’s been over the past decade. This year, for the first time ever, the event actually features a musical artist that isn’t a cover band or a tribute artist. April Wine will be headlining the mainstage on Saturday night. Not necessarily my musical tastes, but it’s something to get an artist to mainstage who actually writes their own material and doesn’t dress up in costume to look like some other performer.

Cow-a-polooza is already a great community festival, what with the cow-milking and power-lifting and wrestling. Stages are on the go and there’s a good variety of things to do for a good variety of ages. It has a budget, it raises money too through sponsorships.

April Wine was a good step forward for the 10th offering of this festival. Let’s hope the 12th and onwards see more investment in original talent— preferably local, but if not Canadian will do.

Nonexistent summertime lulls

July 11, 2011

Maybe it’s just my Monday morning-induced blahs or the last 90 minutes I spent reading this week’s council agendas for the City of Woodstock and the County of Oxford, but this business of meeting only once a month during the summer should end.

Agendas for each meeting sit at over 150 pages each, with days still remaining for late reports to come (which most certainly will as councils don’t meet again until the second week of August). While the bulkiness of the county agenda is due to the nature of some of its reports, the city agenda in particular is packed.

It’s time to consider continuing the regular council schedule during July and August. As frequent readers here and followers of municipal councils in Oxford would know, most councils meet twice a month. Woodstock, Blandford-Blenheim, East Zorra-Tavistock, South-West Oxford and Zorra meet the first and third weeks of each month, Oxford, Tillsonburg (usually) and Norwich meet the second and fourth weeks of each month and Ingersoll meets once a month, usually in the second week.

It’s been a longtime practice for Oxford and Woodstock to step down to meeting only once a month in July, August and December— and the city usually co-ordinates its Thursday meeting to fall on the same week as the county council meeting. I’m suggesting this practice come to an end.

Woodstock and Oxford have become large enough municipalities that generate enough business for councils to consider to meet twice a month during the summer. Even in the event it’s a particularly dry summer — and certainly this hasn’t been the case in the five years I’ve covered these councils — the second meeting of the month could still be cancelled with enough notice.

This schedule would accomplish a few things— for one summertime meetings would be shorter, agenda packages slimmer, allowing a more consistent length of time (compared to other times of the year) for councillors and others to consider agenda items. Second, it would help avoid marathon-length meetings where — and this happens in long meetings throughout the year — the propensity for council to gloss over reports late in the agenda increases.

It would also help ensure that municipal business requiring council input and/or approval isn’t held up waiting for a singular council meeting per month.

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