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Wasaga Utility decision irks some

 Gisele Winton Sarvis

Wasaga Beach logo

Wasaga Beach logo

WASAGA BEACH - Thousands of Wasaga Beach residents are breathing a sigh of relief now that the town council unanimously decided not to sell the town-owned electric utility.

However the decision made at a July 6 special meeting with another singular topic on the agenda took some members of council by surprise. A decision had been scheduled for a public meeting on July 18 at the RecPlex.

“The people of Wasaga Beach have spoken loud and clear about their desire to retain ownership of our utility provider,” Mayor Brian Smith said after the vote. “Council has heard the message and acted accordingly. Given all we now know, we did not see any sense in delaying our course of action.”

However Deputy Mayor Nina Bifolchi, who took a stand against the sale last fall, was out of town and not scheduled to be present last Thursday.

“While I thought this surprise motion was completely inappropriate I am both happy and relieved with this outcome,” she said.

“However, I have some serious concerns about how this entire process played out, including a surprise motion at a special meeting of council that the mayor and others knew I was unable to attend,” she added. “Also, some members of council, but not all, were privy to the motion prior to the meeting. I’m glad I arrived home early and was able to be part of this very important vote. In my opinion, council put this community through unnecessary turmoil and expense.”

Coun. Sylvia Bray, who stood with Bifolchi against the sale early in the process, estimated it has cost the town more than $100,000 including staff time.

While she supported the vote not to sell, she said it robbed the public of involvement in the vote.

“I felt it was a cowardly action. There was only one person at the meeting. We kind of denied the 800 people who showed up at the last meeting to take part in the decision,” she said.

“My belief is it should have been a public meeting however it was the right decision and I’m glad it’s over.”

Last October, the board of directors of Wasaga Distribution Inc., which includes Mayor Smith, made a presentation to council with the help of electricity sector lawyer Mark Rodger of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP unanimously recommending the sale of the utility. They explained that council had three options: retain and grow the utility, merge the utility or sell it.

The recommendations from WDI were prompted by the fact that major changes are occurring in the electrical distribution sector in Ontario, as demonstrated through the sale or merger of a number of small utility companies, the “905 mega merger,” and the privatization of Hydro One. These changes are in conjunction with the introduction of additional regulations to govern the sector.

Council decided to conduct a review of the options.

Wasaga Beach citizen Neil Hamilton started a petition against the sale online and with volunteers going door to door and through an online organizing the posting of approximately 3,500 Keep Hydro Public signs.

He petitioned council to stop the sale option and his petition grew to more than 8,000 by May.

Advocates for the retention of the utility cite it’s top level of efficiency in the province as well as fears of rate increases under a merger or purchase by a less efficient operator.

In May the town held a public meeting with a panel of experts attracted close to 800 people. No one who questioned the panel supported the sale of the utility and many wore Keep Hydro Public buttons and waved small red paper signs saying “NO.”

Also in May the town conducted a telephone survey and an online survey, both of which had the majority supporting retention of the utility.

The Town also maintained updated information on its website concerning Wasaga Distribution.

Mayor Smith said the level of engagement has not been matched for some time in the community.

“I want to thank the many people who took the time to research the pros and cons, attend our meetings, participate in our survey and questionnaire, as well as those who wrote to share their concerns with me and other members of council,” Smith said.

So what are the next steps for the utility?

Deputy Mayor Bifolchi is confident the employees have the answers.

“It is imperative that all Wasaga Distribution staff be engaged for their expert opinions, working knowledge of the business and ideas for growing WDI,” said Bifolchi.

“I have full confidence in their abilities to make this company even more successful while maintaining the excellent service they provide.”

The provincial 25% electricity discount will be coming into play this summer to reduce ratepayer’s bills. This percentage includes the eight per cent savings already applied so ratepayers will see another 17% discount.  

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