Special council meeting to reveal financial impact of COVID-19

Ken Kellar

Fort Frances Town Council will be holding a special meeting today to get up to speed on the financial impact of COVID-19 as well as to go over some of the plans to begin re-opening civic buildings.

Council usually only holds one meeting a month during July and August, as opposed to the second and fourth Monday of the month for every other calendar month except for December. However, according to town clerk Lisa Slomke, the Mayor or majority of Council has the ability to call a special meeting for specific advertised purposes. No other items save for those listed on the agenda will be discussed.

The first item on the agenda is the updated financial projections for 2020. While the town had its budget meeting earlier this year before the shutdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, those same shutdowns have had a significant impact on the town’s revenue and spending.
“As a result of knowing that there will be less revenue coming in in certain areas, the senior management team has tried to ensure we do not spend where it is not necessary,” town treasurer Dawn Galusha wrote in a report to council.

“Tax dollars (Municipal, Education and Payment in Lieu) account for 63.14%, and OMPF accounts for 15.18% of our revenue budget for a total of 78.32%. In addition, Operations & Facilities revenue accounts for 9.80% and will not change significantly from the budget, except for Airport Revenue. Community Services Revenues accounts for 5.82% of the total budgeted revenue and this division will see the majority of the impact of COVID.”

While the town has seen a marked decrease in revenue due to the closing of municipal buildings like the Memorial Sports Centre, other reductions in expenses related to items like staffing costs and benefits help to balance the impact the pandemic has had on the towns finances. According to Galusha, the town’s current surplus is roughly $165,000 smaller than it was on June 30, 2019.
Going forward, each division of the town was asked to examine its financial situation and given two operating scenarios to determine what they would project for the December year to date information. The first scenario (1) was to determine their numbers based on a return to regular operation on October 1 of this year, and the second scenario (2) was under the assumption that regular operations would not resume in 2020.

Based on the two different scenarios, Galusha projected that under Scenario 1 the town would be seeing a total shortfall of $56,103, and Scenario 2 would leave the town with a shortfall of $22,202.

“It is my opinion that based on the decisions made thus far: removing arena ice earlier, laying off staff who were not able to work while the Province shut everything down and not hiring students, we have nearly outweighed the losses in revenue from the various areas,” Galusha said in her report.

“We are of the opinion that there are many scenarios that we could consider in determining what the revenues and expenses will be for 2020. With the uncertainty of the Province’s COVID-19 directions in the fall and the reception from the Community to join or host organized Sports before a vaccine is in place, we have provided best case scenario considerations with some additional COVID specific cleaning and supplies costs.”

“This year has proven to be a challenge to date, and we will continue to monitor the financial situation of the Town,” she concluded.

“Updated monthly information will be provided to Council.”

Also on the agenda for today’s special meeting are the plans to begin reopening civic facilities in town. Town facilities were closed on March 16 in response to the pandemic, and while some town buildings have since resumed offering services in some capacity, like curbside pickup at the library or bill payments at the Civic Centre, other buildings like the Memorial Sports Centre have remained shut down.

In the plans prepared for council by Galusha, Human Resources Manager Jordan Forbes, Operations and Facilities Manager Travis Rob and Recreation and Culture Manager Aaron Bisson, the different divisions in town each highlight some of the steps that will be taken over the coming weeks and months to get facilities back into operational form, if still somewhat modified for COVID safety.

The Civic Centre will be conducting most of its business through appointments and enhanced safety precautions. The Provincial Offences Office and Cemetery Services will each make appointments where necessary, with those needing to make payments to the offences office being able to do so electronically, or in person if necessary by way of a doorbell placed outside the office, and those needing to interact with the Cemetery Services will be able to meet in the foyer of the Civic Centre while observing physical distancing and mask use. The Clerk and Chief Building Officer will continue to make appointments for the side entrance of the building.

By mid-August, the Civic Centre also plans to set up a number of health and safety features such as safety barriers, floor placement signs and self-screening signage, as Galusha noted that the building is not currently meeting those requirements. Once those requirements are met, customers will be allowed to enter the Civic Centre to make payments on the main level. Masks will be required to enter, with names and phone numbers being taken in order to facilitate contact tracing in the event of a confirmed case. Sanitization of surfaces and washing of hands will also be required for staff.

The report also notes that while the Fort Frances Power Corporation office is on the lower level of the Civic Centre, they are not included in the plans as they receive their guidelines from the Ontario Energy Board. As the washrooms at the Civic Centre are located on the lower level and the stairwell will remain inaccessible to the public while the FFPC office is closed, the public washrooms will also remain closed at that time.

The report from Rob notes that no changes will be coming to the Public Works, Water or Wastewater Treatment facilities, and that crews continue to work on projects that enable physical distancing where possible. The town has resumed allowing tenting at the Point Park, and opened up one of the public washrooms on Monday. The washroom will be cleaned and disinfected twice daily, seven days per week. The report also details that playgrounds across town are in the process of being reopened, with all parks due to be fully opened over the next four weeks. A small student crew is also continuing to work on turning and trimming the flower beds at the cemeteries.

The Fort Frances Municipal Airport remains closed to the public other than those travelling by airplane, and Rob notes that Bearskin Airlines service is still suspended, with town crews maintaining the airport to be ready for any aircraft to land and receive fuel or other needs. Once Bearskin resumes service, a mandatory mask policy will be enacted for public and staff while in the terminal.

Bison’s report highlights the reopening plans for the Memorial Sports Centre, noting it will be significantly reduced in its capabilities when it opens. According to the plans, the projected opening date is August 5 for the pool, weight room, cardio room and squash courts. The centre will be open from 6:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. from Monday to Friday before eventually adding Saturday and Sunday once staffing levels return to normal. All those entering the centre will be logged in order to facilitate contact tracing.

The schedules for both the pool and weight rooms will be divided into time slots to limit the number of people accessing the centre at any one time. There will be six pool time slots and five gym time slots. Depending on the type of activity scheduled for the pool, up to 15 people will be allowed in at once, with patrons asked to come to the pool prepared to swim –already in swimwear with pants/shorts and shirts worn over the swimsuit– as access to the changerooms will be restricted to those who are leaving. A shower will be set up on the pool deck to allow patrons to rinse themselves off.

The gym will be limited to six users per time slot and patrons will be asked to clean off their machine immediately after using it. Gym users will also be asked to come prepared and avoid using the changerooms if possible. The saunas in the changerooms will remain closed.

There are currently no planned ice-in dates for the areas as two of the four main ice users aren’t currently able to operate under current Hockey Canada guidelines, though staff will re-evaluate potential ice-in dates as more of their main ice users are able to commit to their seasons.

Outside of the Sports Centre, neither the Fort Frances Museum and Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre have set dates for opening to the public at this time, though both the museum curator and library CAO are working on opening plans, with some concern expressed over proper sanitization at the museum, as there is the potential to damage some artifacts. The report from Bisson also confirms that Sunny Cove will remain closed for the remainder of 2020 due to COVID restrictions. The town had also begun efforts to sell the property to a non-profit organization before the pandemic.

The final item on today’s agenda will be a request from Makkinga Contracting to complete another portion of their 2021 work this year. The company has benefited from favourable weather and construction along the east end of Scott Street has progressed well, Rob wrote. As such, they are in position to complete more of the work originally scheduled for next year during this construction season. Rob notes the town’s project contingency budget will cover the additional work, though a receivable will have to be set up for the year end.

The meeting was scheduled for 1:00 p.m. today.