Parting thoughts

Next Friday, my four years as councillor for Heights East come to an end with the swearing in of a new council. It’s been a wild and crazy ride, what with floods, COVID, internal bickering and a legacy of open files from the previous council. More than once I thought about resigning. I kept going because I knew the effect it would have on my colleagues and my constituents. I honestly believe this council has left Hudson a better town — administratively — than we inherited. Now I can get back to enjoying the Hudson I gave up four years ago, the place where we can all say bonjour hi without calculation or malice.  

Throughout these past four years, my spouse, partner, campaign manager and accomplice Louise Craig has been my rock and my sounding board. What they say is true — when we elect someone, we elect their family and friends as well. It’s doubly true at the municipal level. I’ll be reminding myself of that the next time I’m about to dump on an elected official or town staffer. Be tough but civil. What goes around, comes around.

October 2017: four years feel like a lifetime ago

In the 60 or so years I’ve been following municipal elections in Hudson — before and after the 1969 merger of the three villages from which it was created — I’ve come to the conclusion that Hudson voters like to see themselves as socially progressive — until they get the bill. 

The harsh reality is that Hudson has no industrial base to help shoulder the tax load and no land on which to locate an industrial park. Commercial properties account for less than 2% of Hudson’s total worth, yet already shoulder a disproportionate share of water and sewer bylaw costs. So Hudson’s roughly 2,400 residential property owners are on the hook for almost all of what it costs to run and maintain the town.  

When it comes time to pay for basic services — drinking water, public security, snowclearing, garbage removal and infrastructure (roads, ditches, sidewalks, streetlights) — Hudson residents want value for money. They have good things to say about the town’s new snowclearing contractor. They appreciate the end to watering bans. They agree on the need to control access to our public facilities. They understand the day is coming when garbage removal will be charged by frequency, weight and volume. They have indicated their support for extending the sewer system and municipalizing the maintenance and verification of septic tanks. They like seeing roads paved, ditches flowing, streetlights working — and those double sidewalks downtown.

The arguments start when it comes time to decide what’s essential, what would be nice to have and what would be disastrous. 

I’ll begin with the folly of a development freeze. Some of those seeking office maintain that growth isn’t worth the social costs incurred by taxpayers. These raise-the-drawbridge advocates insist that Hudson would be better off socially and financially if it froze development entirely or limited it to a minimum of new doors per year. 

My response: growth is critical to Hudson’s social and economic health. That said, I do have a caveat, which I’ll get to.

Truth is, Hudson is not being swamped by new arrivals. The number of households in Hudson increased by 375 between 1991 and 2016 (federal census stats). Over that period, Hudson averaged 15 new doors a year, or 7% growth over 25 years — hardly the population explosion the moat-diggers claim. 

While population data from the 2021 census won’t be released until next February, permits for new residential construction issued since the last census show an uptick reflective of the Canada-wide housing bubble. Between 2016 and 2021, Hudson added 94 single-family dwellings, four semi-detached units, 16 townhouses, one two-family unit, two multifamily dwellings and two commercial-residential buildings. Total: 119 permits representing 181 individual units, averaging 2.5 residents per unit — fewer than 500 additional residents. That’s 24 new doors a year with a collective taxable worth of more than $76 million, most of it infill development on serviced lots in the urban core. At the 2020-21 residential tax rate of 71.84¢ per $100, that represents additional annual tax revenues in excess of $550,000 on a total budget of $13.7M. 

It’s hard to argue that tax-generating low-cost development is harmful when we consider the economic challenges ahead. Start with the 2022-2024 valuation roll, the big number used to calculate property taxes as well as downloaded costs such as policing, public transit and a bevy of levies from the Montreal Metropolitan Community, and Vaudreuil-Soulanges regional municipality. The formulas used to calculate what each municipality pays — and is refunded — are partly based on its richesse foncière uniformatisée, or RFU, an assessment of the collective value of all public and private real estate in every Quebec municipality, based on recent real estate transactions. 

Hudson’s 2019-2021 roll placed its collective value at $1.245 billion. Of that total, $1.169 billion was taxable (religious, institutional and some public entities are not taxed, depending on whether they can convince a provincial tax-status tribunal they should be exempt). Three years later, a red-hot housing market has raised Hudson’s collective worth — and the average property evaluation — by some 30%, to $1.579 billion, of which $1.494 billion is taxable. 

You read that right — the total worth of Hudson’s real estate has increased by $410 million in three years.

This doesn’t mean taxes must increase by an average 30%. The next council can maintain average tax and tariff hikes within Quebec’s 5% rate of inflation by lowering tax rates. What it does mean is that assessments for SQ policing, public transit and services provided by two levels of regional government will be higher in 2022. Some of that is hangover from the COVID pandemic but most is due to inflation, beginning with a $200k jump in debt servicing costs. With inflation baked into every contract, collective agreement and overhead expense, over 80% of Hudson’s 2022 budget will have been spent before it’s adopted sometime in January. Download and overhead increases are are out of council’s reach, so discretionary spending cuts become the only option open.

Long-term debt is another of those bogeyman issues used to frighten voters. It used to be a concern; by 2008-09, Hudson’s long-term debt had ballooned to over $35 million, the result of poorly planned capital expenditure and lax oversight (municipalities shouldn’t float loan bylaws to buy anything amortized over less than five years).The next two administrations reduced it by roughly $10 million, but at the cost of unsustainable tax increases and deferred infrastructure maintenance. Our administration slashed operating costs (by contracting potable water and wastewater treatment operations, IT, public security and bylaw enforcement), then as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. Those savings allowed the town to embark on the first major infrastructure renewal program since the water and sewer works of 2007-2008. This included a new well, critical wastewater treatment plant upgrades, major drainage and storm sewer repairs and the resurfacing of 14 kilometres of Hudson’s 76 km of roads, including Bellevue and Main Road between Côte St. Charles and Beach.

Our council recognized that debt reduction would need to take a step back ($24.6M in 2019; $27M in 2020 and 2021) in order to reverse Hudson’s spiralling infrastructure deficit. The incoming council will vote on a 2022 budget which proposes to resume annual debt retirement ($24.9M in 2022; $23.1 in 2023; $19M in 2024). We approved this course of action with the understanding that the cost of repairing and upgrading Hudson’s infrastructure should be borne by both this and future generations of taxpayers. The intensity and duration of the inflationary cycle should be a factor in determining the rate of debt retirement, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of neglecting infrastructure investment. We saw how well that worked.

Residents should know the long-term debt ratio is a regulatory yardstick, not a measure of how well or badly a municipality is managing its finances. Quebec is far more concerned about how close a town is to its borrowing capacity, which is why it’s preferable to use Hudson’s line of credit for near-term expenses and the PTI to plan for capital spending. The world, Hudson included, has enjoyed dirt-cheap money for a decade but that may be over. Memo to incoming council: whittle down that electoral wish list. 

Returning to the list of essentials and nice-to-haves, is more greenspace essential? Hudson has 22 parks and greenspaces totalling 90 hectares. The outgoing council set out to double that by extending the public trail network by way of servitudes on private lands zoned green or agricultural. Over half of Hudson’s total area (1,099 out of 2,162 hectares) is zoned agricultural, and according the Montreal Metropolitan Community’s master plan, will remain so until at least 2031. Yes to acquiring greenspace — if we can do it without borrowing or spending down accumulated surplus to satisfy a particularly noisy special interest group. 

While we’re discussing land acquisition, shouldn’t protecting Hudson’s drinking water source be a priority? We’ve seen what happens in neighbouring towns where potable water conservation has become an annual ordeal of watering bans and dying lawns and gardens. I’ll expand on the need to protect the Upper Viviry watershed in the days to come, but our own struggle to find sufficient water should serve as a reminder that we can’t take it for granted. COVID put our water-meter pilot project on hold, but Quebec will persist in demanding us to lower our collective consumption by a third. A resounding YES to this essential!

Is affordable housing essential? As matters stand, the only affordable housing in Hudson is the 90-unit Manoir Cavagnal. Around the time the next council completes its term, the Manoir’s mortgage will have been paid off and its holders, the Lakeshore Legion Housing Association, looking to divest. Legally, they could flip it to a developer, who could renovate, add dedicated parking and raise the rents. Shouldn’t we be planning for that eventuality? Absolutely.

Is senior housing essential? Hudson residents average 47.7 years of age, the oldest municipal population in the MRC. Hudson’s seniors (I’m among them) hope to remain in our homes until right-sized, right-priced housing alternatives present themselves. In 2007, our elders were promised a continuing-care seniors campus in R-55, a 14-acre parcel of land bounded by Cote, Oakland, Ridge and Charleswood. The project fell through and with it, the dream of many to be able to remain in their community when they can no longer remain in their home. 

R-55 is in the process of being reborn as the demand for that acreage approaches the owner’s asking price, but it will take compromise and original thinking to make it so. Get it done.

Still unclear is the status of Villa Wyman, an assisted-care facility between the former Wyman United and Stevenson Court at the foot of Upper Maple. It was seen by the previous administration as the destination for residents who lose their autonomy but want to remain among friends and their support group. Is it still viable? It will fall to the next council to decide whether and how it can be moved forward — because it should be considered essential.

Returning to development, Willowbrook, Como Gardens and yes, Pine Beach are seen by many older residents as alternatives to leaving town when the time comes to downsize. Like it or hate it, most of the Hudson Glass condos, the vilified project next to Legg’s, are sold. Those 37 rental units on Lower Maple are occupied as soon as they’re built. Clients for these and other projects are not people looking for a fight over saving greenspace and halting development. They want a place to live in Hudson. If the incoming council wastes time and money setting out to kill Pine Beach, Willowbrook’s next phases and several other multi-unit projects either in the pipeline or on the drawing board, who are they hurting? 

Pincourt’s Pointe-a-Renard HLM: which affordable-housing model should Hudson follow?

Young families, for one. Without affordable family housing, Hudson risks losing its volunteer firefighters, its caregivers, its maintenance contractors, its service industry workers and all those who are essential to our local businesses. What should comprise affordable family housing in Hudson? A monolith looming over the former snow dump, like the massive structure in Pincourt’s Pointe-a-Renard? Cookie-cutter units like those in the developments at the southern end of Ste. Angèlique in St. Lazare? Or a uniquely Hudsonian mix of townhouses, cottages and multi-unit buildings in a treed, landscaped setting?

There’s another risk to limiting growth. If Hudson and its neighbours price or regulate themselves out of reach of young families, our local English schools will be the next domino to fall. Enrolment in the off-island English school system crested a decade ago and continues to drop. Westwood Senior, with a capacity of 1,020 Secondary 3-5 students, enrolled just 625 students in 2019-20. This won’t reverse itself without a radical shift; based on current enrolment at Westwood Jr. and the LBPSB’s nine elementary schools, the projections for Westwood Sr. are for 637 this year and 689 in 2022-23. 

A somewhat healthier picture emerges from enrolment in our K-2 and K-6 schools (Birchwood, Evergreen, Forest Hill Jr and Sr, Mount Pleasant, Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau) but it’s likely that kids now attending Pincourt’s K-6 elementaries Edgewater and St. Patrick will be bused to half-empty facilities on the West Island as the LBPSB struggles to maintain minimum enrolments. We have seen the alternative to keeping our English schools viable — the education ministry revoking the permits of those failing English schools and transferring their facilities to the overcrowded French sector. Affordable family housing is the only sustainable remedy. Limiting population growth isn’t.

A competent, productive, dedicated municipal staff is an essential. The days when the same person could serve as Hudson’s town manager, clerk and treasurer ended with Louise Villandre. Public works has come a long way from the time when Côte St. Charles wasn’t paved, Cameron was a logging track and Main Road linked summer cottages and farms in Hudson Heights and Como with Hudson’s bustling downtown. Now they’re overseeing infrastructure contracts and projects, tracking federal and provincial grant and subsidy applications and reprofiling Hudson’s drainage system by satellite. The town clerk’s office now includes an archivist required by law to oversee the documentation Quebec requires us to maintain and a part-timer who handles access-to-information requests. The treasury has made the budgeting process routine instead of an annual dogfight. 

From my perspective, Hudson’s taxpayers are well served by their public servants, with one glaring fault — communications. It was bad under Elliott, worse under Prevost and no better under our outgoing mayor. I’ve spent four years wondering how best to fix what is clearly broken. Our director-general has begun the process by initiating a trackable, interactive complaint reporting system. I’d say we’re halfway there, with a major website overhaul and a comprehensive communications policy still required. This is an essential for the next council.

Urban planning is another essential component of municipal government. That said, there are two ways of looking at an urban planning department. One is positive — an urban planning department is the only branch of municipal government with the power to generate income. Or the flip: urban planning is the portal through which developers and property owners access the approval process, thus transforming development from a series of political decisions to a bylaw-based administrative process. 

I get the impression that some candidates in this election would like to shut down urban planning, lay everyone off and post a giant NO! on the door at 64 Cedar. It has been my experience that most of those running for office have little or no working knowledge of Hudson’s master zoning bylaws 525 and 526, yet pander to their base by claiming they’ll stop this or that development. Stopping development boils down to a simple choice: either allow development according to Hudson’s existing zoning bylaws or buy out the owner. A council can impose a temporary freeze on all or certain types of development, but only if the process of redrafting those master zoning bylaws is underway.

Form-based code presentation: a template for the preservation of the look and feel of the downtown core should be completed

A priority of this council I hope to see completed was to oversee development of a process that would set design parameters for architects and developers. The core concept: preserve the look and feel of Hudson in renovations and new construction. The project began with an inventory of Hudson’s heritage buildings with a brief history of each. 

As I noted above, I favour development — but with a caveat. The previous council saddled us with concordance bylaws clearing their way for multi-residential and integrated projects as well as an agreement sticking taxpayers with the cost of connecting the Pine Beach development to town water and town sewers. It makes no sense to stick taxpayers with connection costs. Throughout North America, developers expect to pay to connect and in many jurisdictions, pay to replace the reduced capacity of the drinking water water and wastewater treatment systems they’re connecting to. Some municipalities charge developers by the day for the inconveniences their projects cause. Only in Quebec are developers still treated as if they’re doing taxpayers a favour. Impact and connection fees should be an essential component of every project. 

Hudson’s voters historically tend to elect councils who stick to the cost-cutting mantra. In the seventies, Taylor Bradbury’s council decreed big lots, and no-frills budgets. (Bradbury’s administration had the support of the populace when it turned down the opportunity to buy the 10-hectare Sandy Beach property for under $300,000.) 

With the emergence of the environmental movement following Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, Hudson’s voters began hearing from candidates about the need to control development and protect the environment. In the early eighties, warring residents nearly came to blows over the rezoning of what are now Hudson Valleys and Alstonvale. In 1991, Mike Elliott’s administration famously pushed through a pioneering bylaw to halt the growing use of pesticides. But then as now, the hidden hand of Hudson special-interest groups exercised their clout and the Elliott council was voted out by a business-oriented slate headed by Steve Shaar. 

What I find interesting is that so few of Hudson’s major political shifts have resulted in regulatory changes. Bradbury’s big-lots mentality still controls density — and real estate prices — in much of town. The $50 million infrastructure deficit highlighted in the 2018 Maxxum intervention plan is the end result of Bradbury’s obsession with tight budgets, carried forward through successive administrations. Shaar’s team didn’t repeal Elliott’s pesticide bylaw. (This council overhauled it to give it the regulatory teeth it lacked.) Mayor Elizabeth Corker and council responded to Shaar’s 2001 Sandy Beach rezoning referendum by commissioning the 2008 Teknika wetland/woodland audit, taking over what is now Jack Layton Park and overseeing construction of the Sandy Beach Nature Trail (with funding from developer Hans Muhlegg.) In their second term,  Corker’s successor Mike Elliott and council worked to advance Muhlegg’s development as well as those of John Norris (Mount Victoria, Lower Alstonvale), George Ellerbeck (Willowbrook) and Sebastien Wiener’s UK1.

Whatever they promised voters, Hudson’s last three councils have failed to advance the control and shaping of development. Corker’s team replaced a catchall architectural control bylaw with architectural control zones in the French Quarter and along Main Road where the town planning advisory committee has input and council decides whether a particular project harmonizes with its neighbourhood. In most Hudson neighbourhoods, however, issuance of building and renovation permits is a purely administrative function, in which checklists set out maximum dimensions, setbacks and constraints on development such as floodplains, wetlands and landslide zones. Architecture is a by-product of the checklist approval process; neighbours do not learn of a project before it is approved by council. Even then, provincial privacy laws don’t allow a municipality to make plans public.

How will some members of the incoming council reconcile their roses-and-unicorns election promises with the realities of having to make informed, fact-based decisions? I don’t know.   Quebec requires that all newly elected municipal officers attend compulsory training in governance, ethics and the legal framework for what they can and can’t do, but there is no requirement for a mayor and councillors to familiarize themselves with the bylaws of their municipality. As a consequence, we had councillors voting on the basis of lobbying by special-interest groups or what was posted on social media. 

A council’s duties boil down to this: 

  • act as stewards of the public purse; 
  • act in the interests of all taxpayers, not just those in your district;
  • work with your staff, not against them;
  • be prepared to justify your vote;
  • don’t expect Quebec to enforce municipal governance and environmental protection laws. It doesn’t. It falls to municipal councils to enforce them.   

Meanwhile, the list of nice to haves seems to grow every year. I sense that most residents would see council continuing to support Hudson’s calendar of town events, from St. Patrick’s to Santa’s Breakfast, but where’s the cutoff point? 

For those who believe in arts and culture, access to public performing and plastic arts facilities as well as continued — and preferably increased — support for non-profits like Hudson Village Theatre, Greenwood Centre and for events such as the Hudson Music Festival, StoryFest, Hudson Film Festival, etc. 

For recreation consumers, safer bike and pedestrian zones on major arteries, conversion of the rail line between Vaudreuil-Dorion and downtown Hudson into a multi-use aerobic corridor, a bigger pool, tennis/pickleball courts, waterpark, skateboard/scooter park, non-motorized watercraft access, more dog runs, more groomed winter trails and heated public toilets. 

For nature lovers, funding for more and better maintained trails, greenspace acquisition. For animal lovers, money for Le Nichoir, A Horse Tail, dog runs and poop bags, feral cat spay/neuter programs. 

Special-interest pleas and threats to go public pose an existential challenge any council. Hudson’s Legion Branch 115 is asking for a six-figure lump-sum payment, free parking and other considerations from the town to compensate for their failure to earn tax-exempt status. The Manoir wants free public parking and tax relief for its residents. Both indicate they are prepared to use the media and public pressure to force council’s hand. It’s a slippery slope with no soft landing.

There’s a limit to the benevolence of Hudson’s taxpayers. My advice to my erstwhile colleagues: don’t be too quick to test it. You will find it soon enough. 

Pine Lake, April 6/21

Pine Lake made one of its cameo appearances last month. The proposed loan bylaw would replace the existing structure with a sixty-foot concrete weir that would raise the water level in Pine Lake by about a foot and reinforce and waterproof the earth dike along Cameron.

On the agenda for Tuesday’s April council meeting is the notice of motion for a $1.05 million loan bylaw for the demolition and replacement of the Pine Lake dam and related work. 

Residents are justified in asking why this proposal is 25% higher than its 2014 predecessor, withdrawn by the previous council after a significant number of residents signed a register demanding it be put to a referendum. I’ll do my best to explain it as I understand it.

There also appears to be widespread misunderstanding of loan bylaws and the municipal financing process. I’ll try to cast some light on this in the context of District 2 councillor Austin Rikley-Krindle’s notice of motion ‘to finance the rehabilitation of the Pike Lake dam and spillway and the environmental development of wetlands.’

August 7/06: Runoff from torrential rains caused the Viviry to overflow its banks and raised the lake water level to a record level. Note the stream cutting through the earth dike to the left of the dam. Quick work by Hudson’s Public Works sandbagged the breach before it could cut its way through the bank.

Background: 

Despite repeated flood threats to the dam, dike and adjacent Cameron over the years, nothing was done to reinforce the system before April 2014, when rising water levels and ice pressure unseated the 62-year-old dam. Before the administration could agree on the best course of action, the dam slumped into the sinkhole created by the escaping water and broke away from the curtain walls directing the flow into the Cameron culvert. What’s left provides minimal floodwater retention but our consulting engineers warn that a major torrent (like those of 2006 and 2009) could displace the entire structure, possibly blocking the Cameron culvert and washing away a section of Cameron.

July 11/09: The closest Hudson came to losing Cameron. Torrential rains and runoff from upstream development raised the lake level over the dike. Again, quick thinking by Public Works and first responders saved the day.
July 11/09: This is the scenario Stantec warned could lead to the loss of Cameron.

Expert advice:

The saga is well summarized in the September 2019 Stantec report. Stantec collated the data from three previous technical studies — EXP (May 2014), Amec (August 2014) and GHD (September 2015) and a variety of options proposed in the February 2016 report by the Pine Lake Working Group of citizens. At council’s request, Stantec also looked at an alternative proposed by hydraulic engineer Miroslav Chum. Stantec then measured all options against the conditions laid down in an August 2017 environment ministry (MELCC) memorandum highlighting its concerns.  

Stantec tells us this: the volume and velocity of runoff entering Pine Lake has increased 20% as the result of climate change. The 100-year maximum flow — the volume and velocity of runoff from a catastrophic downpour — originally was estimated at 15 cubic metres per second. Based on year-over-year estimates and high-water spikes, Stantec now sets the 100-year maximum at 18 cubic metres per second. 

The studies agreed the maximum capacity of the Viviry Creek culvert under Cameron is 10.8 cubic metres per second. Council was told the only solution would be to double the capacity of the culvert at an estimated cost of between $400,000 and $500,000. 

Spring, 2014: Early risers reported the apparent failure of the Pine Lake dam after water found a path underneath. While the administration debated what to do, the dam slumped into the hole, making a quick-and-dirty repair impossible.

The other factor in Stantec’s cost-benefit equation is lake volume. The original dam was designed to maintain the lake level at 34.2 metres above sea level. Since then, the lake has silted up, significantly reducing its volume (and its ability to retain stormwater). Stantec estimates the 100-year lake level should be raised to 34.98 metres, requiring that a replacement structure be raised to 35.12 metres. To accomplish this, a replacement structure would need to be 20 metres long and the existing dike along Cameron reinforced with steel pile walls or similar and waterproofed with a high-density plastic membrane. The existing concrete spillway and curtain walls between the dam and the culvert also need to be replaced. Estimated cost: $1,050,000  — $656,700 including taxes, plus a 25% contingency buffer. 

Quebec’s municipal affairs ministry (MAMH) requires that municipalities adopt loan bylaws prior to going to tender on SEAO, the government bid tendering website. Think of SEAO as a brokerage where municipalities must post any contract over $101,000 and where contractors must obtain tender documents, usually in exchange for a deposit. These documents are based on the reports from third-party consultants, such as the engineering firms hired to find a solution to the Pine Lake stalemate. 

SEAO was created in response to the collusion scandals which led to Superior Court judge France Charbonneau’s probe, but many believe it has led to an increase in the average cost of municipal contracts. Like it or not, SEAO is the only game in town if we want to get our roads paved and our infrastructure upgraded.What will it look like?

What will it look like?

People ask me what the new structure look like. Instead of the dam, we will be seeing the Viviry flowing over a 60-foot-long concrete lip, called a weir. There will be no floodgates because the weir is designed to maintain a fixed water level in the lake and constant flow its full length. The Viviry runs all year, so there will always be water flowing over the lip. (If you want to see a weir in action, head down to the Sandy Beach footbridge and see how the beavers maintain a constant water level in their ponds with their weirs.) 

Why restore the lake?

There’s money for a lake. A couple of months before Stantec presented its report to the town, St. Lazare came to council with a proposition. Their remediation project for a landslide zone along the Quinchien River would wipe out fish habitat; Quebec’s environment ministry (MELCC) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada would permit it so long as they could find somewhere similar nearby to create a similar habitat. Would Hudson be interested in restoring Pine Lake so that it would qualify? Their council approved an amount of up to $400,000. Stantec’s report was modified to include the full-restoration option. 

Uncertainties

Council must decide at the April 6 council meeting whether to proceed with a loan bylaw for the entire amount, minus whatever we finance with the town’s accumulated surplus and St. Lazare’s fish-habitat contribution. We still don’t know how much we will receive from St. Lazare even though their council adopted a resolution providing up to $400,000 for restoration of fish habitat. Given that uncertainty, council agreed to make the loan bylaw independent of whatever we receive from St. Lazare. Whatever we receive from them will go to reduce the total amount of the loan bylaw.  

Late last month, we were told that MELCC informed the town there would be no funding for sediment control because we were receiving monies from St. Lazare. Other sources of funding are being actively explored, but MAMH still requires a loan bylaw for the full cost even if we don’t spend it. 

Another aside on municipal financing: because a loan bylaw doesn’t reflect the actual cost of a project, it isn’t added to the town’s long-term debt until it is completed. At that point, invoices are paid out of the town’s line of credit. Then, and only then, is the actual cost rolled into the town’s long-term debt and reflected in our tax bills. Estimated cost per taxpayer per year is in the $5-$6 range.

One thing has been made clear to us in the Stantec report— doing nothing isn’t an option. MELCC has ordered us to remove the original dam. The ministry has also ruled out non-conforming options, such as Miroslav Chum’s boulder spillway. If we opt to remove the dam and do nothing else, we don’t get St. Lazare’s money, but we’ll end up having to spend that much or more to double the volume of the Cameron culvert, reinforce and waterproof the dike and replace the curtain walls. And no lake.

I’ve been writing about this mess since 2014. I’ve read and re-read every one of the reports and proposals.  Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t see a cheaper, faster path forward. 

Hudson’s SQ refunds? Not so fast

A month ago, Feb. 5/21, I posted the following:

Seventeen MRC municipalities, including Hudson and St. Lazare, will be getting significant refunds on their 2020 Surêté du Québec bills — and a more equitable assessment system in the future. Besides receiving a $610,000 rebate sometime this month, the budgeting change means Hudson’s taxpayers will see the annual cost of the town’s SQ bill ($1,750,000 in the 2021 budget) reduced by roughly a third.

Since then, the six municipalities benefiting from the grotesquely unfair assessment structure currently in force — Vaudreuil-Dorion, Pincourt, Les Coteaux, St. Zotique, Vaudreuil-sur-le-lac and Pointe-des-Cascades — have adopted resolutions to launch legal action with the aim of annulling the Feb. 3/21 MRC resolution that would have meant a fairer method of taxing MRC municipalities for SQ policing services.

Their core argument: given that the current system has been in place since 2006, immediate changes to the structure unfairly burden their taxpayers by forcing the six to reimburse amounts already budgeted for 2020 and 2021.
The new deal was approved at a stormy Zoom meeting of the MRC’s 23 mayors by a double majority — two-thirds of municipalities representing 55% of the MRC’s total population. They were being asked to vote online on a proposal — first presented to them in November — that would reimburse 17 MRC municipalities for overbilling on their 2020 SQ assessments.
Even mayors of some subsidizing municipalities recognized the fiscal impact on towns having to find funds in their 2021 budgets to reimburse their neighbours. The mayors of 11 municipalities — including the six that benefited from the current assessment structure — supported an amendment that would have delayed application of a more equitable sharing structure until the 2022 fiscal year. It was narrowly defeated.

Voting on the original resolution, Vaudreuil-Dorion’s Guy Pilon and others opposed a proposal for a more equitable sharing of the costs of SQ services across the MRC. In 2019, the MRC’s total SQ bill was $25,972,945, including a MAMH subsidy which resulted in a collective overpayment from the 23 MRC municipalities of $7,470,008.

By making the bylaw retroactive, those six municipalities now have to find savings in their 2021 budgets to reimburse the 17 others for their 2020 SQ policing services — Les Coteaux $115,500; Pincourt $113,717; St. Zotique $135,700; Pointe-des-Cascades $24,809; Vaudreuil-sur-le-lac $13,468 and Vaudreuil-Dorion $1,788,389.

As of Friday March 5, lawyers for Bélanger Sauvé had not yet filed notice of whatever action they propose to take, but one can be reasonably sure they will seek immediate injunctive relief as the MRC sends out rebate cheques based on the MRC majority decision reached last month. Also this past Friday, Hudson received what I assume is the final MRC rebate cheque for 2019 — $360,000 minus $155,000, for a total of $206,000. (The $155,000 represents monies already rebated under the existing redistribution agreement.)

I don’t think it’s prudent for our town to spend the $610,000 we seem to be owed for 2020 until the money is in the bank. It’s a reasonable assumption that the six allegedly injured municipalities will try to convince a court that they stand to lose more if the 2020 reallocation goes ahead than any fiscal discomfort suffered by the 17 others if it doesn’t.

Either way, a legal test of Quebec’s internal equalization system for SQ policing is long overdue. The formula under which the 23 member municipalities in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC are taxed for SQ services is part of a Quebec-wide equalization scheme that has wealthy regions subsidizing the cost of policing in rural regions where sparse populations are spread out over vast areas.
On average, Quebec municipalities policed by the SQ pay 53% of the cost, Quebec the rest. But wealthy MRCs (we’re one) are assessed approximately 112%. Under the original deal, individual municipalities were refunded half of the difference between 80% and 112%.

Originally, each MRC municipality received and budgeted for SQ rebates. That was changed to the current system in 2006. Rebates are no longer refunded to individual municipalities but to MRCs, which distribute them on the basis of a formula which considers a municipality’s richesse foncière uniformatisée, or RFU, along with population and density.

The scheme underwent a significant makeover with changes to the Police Act (Chapter P-13.1, article 77: Règlement sur la somme payable par les municipalités pour les services de la Sûreté du Québec). Basically, the overhaul ensures that municipalities should be able to plan well in advance for any increases in cost, including rebates. Adopted in December 2019, the changes took effect June 14 2020, but for whatever reason, the MRC didn’t get around to dealing with the fallout until most municipalities had wrapped up 2020 and were almost done their 2021 budgets.

In November’s presentation to MRC mayors, it was explained that Hudson’s RFU is the driver behind inequitable SQ costs. Hudson, with about 5,300 residents and 37 square kilometres, has an RFU of close to $1.4 billion, a number based on the triennial property value assessments and registered real estate transactions. As a result, Hudson pays a higher per-capita cost for all RFU-based downloaded services, including SQ policing.

Hudson, with 5,300 residents, has an RFU near $1.4 billion. In 2019, its SQ bill was $1,582,568. (According to the MRC’s own numbers, Hudson’s overpayment was estimated at $610,000.) Ile Perrot, with more than twice the number of people (11,298), was billed $1,544,894. Rigaud, with just under 8,000 residents, paid $1,481,713. Les Cèdres, with 7,040 residents, paid $1,106,252. St. Zotique (8,600 residents) was charged $1,244,600.

The 2020 redistribution was even more egregious. Last year, Hudson was billed $1,617,346 for SQ services. Compare that with Rigaud, $1,531,757; L’Île Perrot, $1,624,616; Les Cèdres, $1,153,712 or St, Zotique ($1,270,846.)

[RFUs, as well as other numbers useful for comparison, are available for every municipality in Quebec on the MAMOT website.]

Our pandemic projects

Below, Louise’s 8 x 10-foot squirrelproof veggie bunker under construction. Above, my Colin Angus Expedition rowboat.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that keeping busy helps keep one sane and grounded..

My 2020 began with a resolution to have my book on Quebec’s 1970 October crisis out in time for the 50th anniversary. This would be on the heels of a writers’ anthology due out in May.

David Sherman’s Fish Wrapped: True Confessions of Newsrooms Past was published by Toronto’s Guernica Editions at the height of the first lockdown. Absent any possibility of a book tour and the usual hoopla, the book and my contributions to it went nowhere.

At the same time, the town council I sit on was having to make pandemic-related decisions regarding staff layoffs and shutting down public amenities such as the town beach and public pool in the midst of the hottest July on record. As a result of several confrontations, I developed symptoms that required that I be tested. The results took four days to confirm I didn’t have it. It was the warning I needed to get serious about mask wearing, distancing and who we were comfortable being around.

Meanwhile my non-fiction October Crisis project was going nowhere. After losing key segments of my manuscript to sloppy file management, I realized I had forgotten how it feels to write instinctively. I was utterly defeated by the thought of having to press on with the project now in its fifth year. I walked away from my publisher and stopped communicating with my sources. I was overwhelmed by a sense of failure and shame and stopped answering phone calls and emails.

At the same time I found myself pulled in a dozen directions by picayune calls on my time. We had sold our beloved Herreshoff Nereia in September 2019 to an American in Buffalo, but he couldn’t cross the border to get it (eventually he had it shipped by truck). In the meantime I had to babysit a boat that was no longer mine. We tried to maintain a semblance of family life with outdoor visits with my daughter and son and their families, but they had their own challenges. Town business occupies at least a week a month, what with quick meetings on Teams and regular/special council deliberations on Zoom. The lack of public consultation — decreed by the Quebec government — generated angry recriminations from people I respected and liked.

The vege-bunker in operation. The silver-coloured sheet of corrugated steel barn siding slides into the open doorway to that bees and parasitic wasps can pollenate the flowering plants. So far, the bunker has proved itself impregnable to squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs and other rodents. We still need to treat for white fly, slugs and Japanese beetles and other potential pests, but the proof of concept has been a success.

I decided I would self-isolate emotionally, filling my time with achievable projects. First, I built a vege-bunker and vertical trellises, a pestproof garden centre in our back yard where Louise spent the summer growing tomatoes, beans, cukes, squash, greens and herbs and learning farmer’s tricks from the internet, books and pros like Peter Robinson. I had an excellent reason to get the backyard farm done quickly. Unbeknownst to Louise, I had ordered an expedition rowboat kit from Colin and Julie Angus, a Victoria B.C. couple who had designed and built two prototypes to voyage from Scotland to Syria. Over the course of the next two months, I rushed to get the thing out of the garage and teach myself how to row a sliding-seat craft with feathering oars. We biked or we walked when I wasn’t building the boat or working on town files. It was a summer of daily excursions and tiny expeditions. We figured out how to sleep comfortably in the back of the SUV. I figure the summer of 2021 will be similar.

When one’s hands are busy, one’s mind has the opportunity to wander off to play by itself. Once I was no longer agonizing over The Book I found it kept coming back in flashes of insight into how it should be structured and improved. The October Crisis 50th anniversary brought the expected crop of derivative rehashes by the usual hacks but it has also prompted comment from principals who had remained silent until now. They allowed me to make plausible deductions to fill gaps in what I knew. I’m back to writing with enthusiasm I haven’t felt in months — proof of that adage that when you want something done, ask a busy mind.

Mission: build a boat in two months

July 2/20: UPS delivers the rowboat kit.
Short lengths of copper wire pull the bilge strakes and floor together.
Laminating the sheer strakes to the top hull panels.
Installing the three bulkheads.
Epoxying and reinforcing the joints from inside and outside
Prep sanding prior to applying fibreglass cloth layer to hull
Ready for glassing
Verifying symmetry and fairness.
Hull glassed and epoxied
Decks glassed and epoxied.
Hatches cut and lips added.
Hatch supports provide final contours
Hatches in place, our outrigger takes shape
Final hand sanding and five coats of UV-blocker polyurethane applied.
Varnishing the decks
Prepping the hull for timting stain once we decided against painting.
Designing the sliding seat system
Three-kilo sliding seat comes together with the help of master craftsman Jamie Sage and carbon-fibre tube sections from Nancy’s Curling Masters championship broom handle. (Thanks ever, Nancy!)
Finished cockpit, with unidirectional carbon-fibre roving floor and coaming reinforcement.
Ready to launch. Like so many other recreational products, used boat trailers were suddenly in short supply last summer. We found this well-maintained 40-year-old trailer cheap north of Brockville and added new bunks and LED lights. Tows beautifully.
Maiden voyage, Hudson’s Jack Layton Park, August 28/20.

The Fleet circa September 2020. Bert, the tubby little dinghy on the left, was acquired as a tender in 1998 but had been sitting behind the garage for the past several years before I converted him into a sailing dinghy in between stages in the rowboat’s construction. Another pandemic brainfart.

Bert’s first test sail as an eight-foot sportboat with a boardsailing rig and deep daggerboard and rudder. It was like dropping 500 horsepower into a Corolla. Unbelievably fast for its size, seriously unstable — and laugh-out-loud fun. We had Bert almost sold to a couple who had a cottage on a lake up north. The deal died in the ruckus after some fool tried to drive his car across the Jack Layton Park footbridge to squash a cyclist he claimed had ripped him off on a drug deal. Another offer came in and Bert is now the star attraction on a private pond in the Eastern Townships.

SQ rebates: $600k windfall for Hudson

Sûrèté du Québec officers and agents hosting a Volunteer’s Night supper at Hudson’s Community Centre: the 20-year experiment that would see the SQ provide community policing to replace our municipal police forces has not held up with time. It has proven to be a distant, mostly absent drag on municipal budgets. Whose fault is it? (Hudson Gazette photo)

Seventeen MRC municipalities, including Hudson and St. Lazare, will be getting significant refunds on their 2020 Surêté du Québec bills — and the promise of a more equitable assessment system in the future.
Besides receiving a $610,000 rebate sometime this month, the budgeting change means Hudson’s taxpayers will see the annual cost of the town’s SQ bill ($1,750,000 in the 2021 budget) reduced by roughly a third.
The new deal was approved by a double majority (two-thirds of 23 mayors representing 55% of the MRC’s total population) at a special meeting Wednesday, but not without some argument.
They were voting online on a proposal — first presented to them in November — that would return the overpayments made in 2020 to 17 MRC municipalities, part of a Quebec-wide subsidy framework approved with the signing of the MRC’s first SQ contract with the Public Security ministry in 2005.
The mayors of 11 municipalities — including the six that benefited from the current assessment structure — supported an amendment that would have delayed application of a more equitable sharing structure until the 2022 fiscal year. It was narrowly defeated.
By making the bylaw retroactive, those six municipalities now have to find savings in their 2021 budgets to reimburse the 17 others for their 2020 SQ policing services — Les Coteaux $115,500; Pincourt $113,717; St. Zotique $135,700; Pointe-des-Cascades $24,809; Vaudreuil-sur-le-lac $13,468 and Vaudreuil-Dorion $1,788,389.
Voting on the original resolution, Vaudreuil-Dorion’s Guy Pilon and others opposed a proposal for a more equitable sharing of the costs of SQ services across the MRC. In 2019, the MRC’s total SQ bill was $25,972,945, including a MAMH subsidy which resulted in a collective overpayment from the 23 MRC municipalities of $7,470,008.
The current formula for sharing that rebate includes a municipality’s richesse foncière uniformatisée, or RFU. In the November presentation, it was explained that Hudson’s RFU is the driver behind inequitable SQ costs. Hudson, with a 2020 SQ bill of $1,850,000 paid by 5,300 residents, has an RFU near $1.4 billion. Ile Perrot, with more than twice the number of people (11,298), paid a 2020 SQ bill of $1,624,616.
[RFUs, as well as other numbers useful for comparison, are available for every municipality in Quebec on the MAMOT website.]

SQ Sgt. Det. Daniel Thibaudeau and Citizens Action Committee moderator Gilles Boudreau planning a Slow Down for Patricia traffic awareness campaign in St. Lazare. Thibaudeau transferred to Parthenais headquarters and Boudreau is retired and living in New Brunswick. Their dream was to see CACSP chapters throughout Quebec; if one still exists, none live in Vaudreuil-Soulanges. Ask MRC mayors why that is. (Hudson Gazette photo)

How much did it cost us? 

We may never know. We do know we don’t have the policing we used to. Ever since Hudson lost its 12-member municipal police force 20 years ago next year, our town has failed to receive the level of community policing we were guaranteed when the PQ government of the time forced Vaudreuil-Soulanges mayors to choose between a regional police force or the SQ. 

At that time, a majority of Vaudreuil-Soulanges towns already policed by the SQ got a cheap rate, so there wasn’t much enthusiasm for a likely more expensive regional police service, which had to include an investigative division and other specialized units.

In 2005, the county’s rural/urban split ensured the regional-police option couldn’t pass, and after the 2002 takeover of local police forces, some 100 SQ personnel assumed the policing of 850 square kilometres and fewer than 90,000 residents. (Today, Vaudreuil-Soulanges numbers 160,000 residents and will see its own 404-bed regional hospital opened in the fall of 2026. The MRC’s two detachments have expanded to maintain a ratio of one agent per 1,000 residents.)

The SQ of 2005 talked up that period’s buzz phrase — community policing — and what it would look like on the ground. Out here saw SQ families buying homes and enrolling their kids in school and becoming part of the community. SQ officers took an interest in the goings-on at our local schools and served lasagna at Comedy Night suppers. We saw our SQ help launch public awareness campaigns such as the ‘Slow Down For Patricia’ courtesy stops and a policy to ensure that qualified medical personnel are on call to mediate in mental-health crises. St. Lazare had a citizen’s public security committee. As the editor of Hudson’s iconic Gazette I got the impression that the SQ was doing its best to help us stop missing our local constabulary.

Until this technology lost in court, SQ patrollers didn’t have to leave their cruisers to issue a violation for an expired registration. (Hudson Gazette photo)

We knew we overpaid for SQ services. How much, I could never be sure. I was one of those locked out of the MRC meeting where the mayors reached agreement on their first SQ contract. I’ve been writing for years about how wealthy MRCs subsidize policing in have-not regions, but it was only last November when I learned that we were also subsidizing some of our own MRC colleagues to the tune of roughly $6 million a year. 

Just before Christmas, the local media carried planted stories of how much Sûréte du Québec policing services are costing our region compared to other parts of Quebec. 

Vaudreuil-Dorion mayor Guy Pilon led the tax revolt, using terms like ‘illogical’ and ‘almost illegal’ even though the current taxation formula has been in place since MRC mayors signed the deal — behind closed doors — in 2005.

What Pilon chose not to mention is that Hudson taxpayers were subsidizing SQ policing in Vaudreuil-Dorion and several other Vaudreuil-Soulanges municipalities to the tune of $610,000 in 2020 — and would have continued to subsidize V-D’s SQ bill for the foreseeable future. 

The formula under which the 23 member municipalities in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC are taxed for SQ policing is part of a Quebec-wide equalization scheme that has wealthy regions subsidizing the cost of policing in rural regions where sparse populations are spread out over vast areas. 

On average, Quebec municipalities policed by the SQ pay 53% of the cost, Quebec the rest. But wealthy MRCs (we’re one) are assessed approximately 112%. Under the original deal, individual municipalities were refunded half of the difference between 80% and 112%. 

Originally, each MRC municipality received and budgeted for SQ rebates. That was changed to the current system provincewide. Rebates are no longer refunded to individual municipalities but to MRCs, which distribute them on the basis of a formula which considers a municipality’s richesse foncière uniformatisée, or RFU, along with population and density. 

Holding cell at the eastern sector SQ detachment. The MRC is divided into two patrol areas covered by detachments in Vaudreuil-Dorion and St. Clêt. At any given moment on a quiet weekday night, there might be two patrol cars, each at the far end of their respective detachments. Legally, this satisfies the SQ mandate. Is it enough in practice?

Hudson, with about 5,300 residents and 37 square kilometres, has an RFU of close to $1.4 billion, a number based on the triennial property value assessments and registered real estate transactions. As a result, Hudson leads the list of generous donors to the cost of SQ policing in the rest of the MRC. 

On Nov. 30, I asked council to mandate the mayor to vote in support of the resolution in favour of a more equitable redistribution of the MRC’s overpayment of its annual SQ policing bill. I’m happy to say Mr. Nicholls voted for equitable sharing and against delaying it.  

The MRC did the right thing in turfing the current system. It makes no legal or ethical sense to maintain a system that burdens Hudson taxpayers with the cost of policing services they themselves don’t receive — especially when the lack of SQ presence in our municipality requires us to budget an additional $100,000 for private security over and above those inflated SQ costs. Until we know exactly how this happened, it bears watching closely to ensure it doesn’t creep back in.

SQ St. Clêt detachment holds Open House for residents. Try as the SQ did to replace our municipal police forces, there was never the buy-in from our municipalities. Again, whose fault is that? (Hudson Gazette photo)

Bylaw 735: fixing the fix

Note: This post has been updated after it was first published Monday, Nov. 3/20

Hudson, St. Patrick’s Day 2014: the challenge before us is maintaining the look and feel while fixing what needs fixing, starting with sidewalks and the road itself.

Hudson’s iconic Main Road is the quintessential small-town gathering place, a venue where Hudsonites and their guests visit, shop, socialize or hang out. For those of us who live here year round, it’s also a reminder of what was and a tantalizing glimpse of what could be if we can reach a consensus on what needs to be done.

Hudson’s downtown core underwent its last major facelift in the mid-eighties, when new water mains, storm sewers and sidewalks were installed. The project dug up much of Main. It would have been the ideal time to have installed a sewer system but the administration of mayor Taylor Bradbury — the same crew who decided against buying Sandy Beach for $275,000 — decided it would be too expensive. It was also decided not to install or replace steel waterline connections with bronze fittings even though steel has a shorter life in clay soil.

In 2006, mayor Elizabeth Corker’s administration landed federal and provincial funding to push forward with a sewer system, treatment plant and major upgrades to the potable water network. Repaving and new sidewalks were left for the Elliott administration, but the economic downturn — and the imperative to replace the 50-year-old firehall in response to warnings from health and safety inspectors — led to unsubsidized debt which effectively ruled out downtown revitalization. Instead, it was decided to repave Côte St. Charles at an unsubsidized cost of $600,000. Despite decades of complaints about the lack of an adequate shoulder for pedestrians and cyclists, the facelift didn’t include any substantial improvements.

Jump to now. At the Nov. 2 council meeting, I presented a notice of motion for Bylaw 735. If adopted at the next regular council meeting, Bylaw 735 will authorize the expenditure of not more than $3,805,000 for the repaving and other infrastructure works on five Hudson streets — Bridle Path, Carmel, Roslyn, Seigneurie and Main Road between Oakland and Beach.

Bylaw 735 wasn’t born yesterday. Here’s a rough timeline of how we got to this point and why it has taken this long to accomplish what should be a simple task.

Spring 2019: Council adopts long-delayed intervention plan and directs administration to draft a five-year repaving program based on Maxxum report.

Summer 2019: council agrees to make Main repaving and sidewalk reconstruction its first priority. The new DG and finance team present plan allowing this to be done by reallocating operating revenues instead of adding long-term debt.
DG informs council that $1.32M has been earmarked for Main rehab.

Fall 2019: Council agrees to delay Main a year to allow public consultation with stakeholders, citizens. Mayor proposes use of $100,000 from CMM to fund consulting process. After two months of debate, council majority agrees. Council approves proceeding with paving of Bellevue and Main between Quarry Point and Vaudreuil.

Spring 2020: Engineering cost estimates double the likely cost of repaving Main east and Bellevue. Council votes to rebuild Bellevue and a small section of Main to solve the ferry lineup issue.

January-March 2020: Stantec presents analysis of constraints to major reallocation of width on Main through the core. Council agrees to sidewalks on both sides, measures to slow traffic through the centre of town, safer crosswalks and less on-street parking in sectors with off-street public parking.

March 2020: Stantec presents constraints and options to business owners and citizens at back-to-back public consultations.

March-September 2020: Stantec, Mayor Nicholls, urban planning and public works directors draft cost estimates based on consultations.

Above, Stantec’s vision of the downtown core as presented by Hudson mayor Jamie Nicholls Oct. 27 — 1,550 metres of linear plantings on both sides of Main Road. Below, the concept elevation, minus space for garbage bins, crosswalk or loading/unloading zones.

Last Tuesday, Oct. 27, Mayor Nicholls presented the proposed project to citizens. Council was provided with the mayor’s powerpoint 48 hours prior to that. The proposal included elements not approved by council and overlooked essential components such as space for garbage and recycling bins outside businesses, curbside space for vehicles to load and unload and safety zones for cyclists.

Since then, council has been meeting to discuss and debate revisions based on ongoing citizen input. Major changes: adding service pullouts to accommodate garbage and recycling bins, ensuring safety areas where traffic can pull over to allow passage of emergency vehicles and loading/discharging. The mayor agreed to cut by half the 1,550 metres of linear plant beds contained in the original cost estimates and shown in the powerpoint.

Still in contention: where the remaining 775 metres of ‘hell strips” will be located. I should emphasize that the re-greening of Main with plantings and trees was part of council’s orientations when Stantec was hired. The linear plant beds will be reduced by at least half but will be retained where other space requirements allow.

Council won’t know the exact configuration until the location of service pullouts, crosswalks and loading/unloading zones are established by engineering studies.
Issues to be addressed in the traffic engineers’ plans and specifications:
— The downtown core has more than 100 sidewalk cuts of all sizes to allow access to public and private parking, businesses, residential projects and everything else in the core. Many require wide radii to accommodate delivery vehicles.
— The need for garbage and recycling trucks to be able to access the blue, green and brown bins now parked on sidewalks two or three times a week. This will require pushouts — extensions of the sidewalks out to curbside. How many? Where?
— The need to plan loading/unloading zones at dozens of locations through town. Does it make sense to narrow the town’s main commercial artery without adequate pullover space?
All this to say that the location and length of linear planters will be determined by the engineers.

Some residents are pushing for a further delay to allow more consultation. A council majority agrees it would be a mistake to delay the reworking of Main for another year. The pandemic shutdown has reduced traffic in the core and allowed the town to make the economies to complete this project at a time where the impact is mitigated. Now is the time.

Water leak on Main at Lower Maple: this project will include replacement of corroded connections to the water system we’ve known about for decades.

Others insist that the enabling loan bylaw be made subject to approval by referendum. Quebec requires that we adopt a loan bylaw even if we don’t borrow a penny, but because it’s for infrastructure maintenance, it isn’t subject to approval by referendum. As for more consultation, the project has already been the subject of two public consultations; what would more accomplish, other than delaying a project already delayed long past reasonable. The cost (approximately $2.8 million of the $3.8 million total, with the remainder going to repave Bridle Path, Carmel, Roslyn and Seigneurie) will be borne by operating revenues and assigned surpluses.

That doesn’t mean the project is cast on concrete, to mix a metaphor. Once Bylaw 735 is adopted, the Town will invite engineering firms to tender on the plans and specifications required for all five projects to be posted on SEAO, the government’s official tendering website. The intermediate step will ensure that traffic engineers sign off on all aspects of the project, from drainage and aqueduct accessibility to public security considerations.

At this point in the project, the minimum width of Main at choke points through the core will be the same as Cote St. Charles. That may change. We already know there cannot be a dedicated cycling lane because Stantec warned us that there would not be sufficient width to ensure the 1.5-metre minimum buffer. Instead, council has agreed that the repaving of Lakeview include a dedicated bike lane to allow cyclists a safe alternative. Council has agreed the repaving of Lakeview should be given priority once the Main project is completed.

A personal note: I cycle most of the year. I recognize that many of us would prefer a dedicated cycling route through the core. At the same time, I respect the need to make our town friendlier to pedestrians. Stantec and Town staff did good work in generating the data required to make fully informed decisions; I know from experience that the traffic engineers drawing up the technical plans and specifications for the actual construction bids will see things that we didn’t.

We need to get this done and I’m optimistic that the outcome will be a vast improvement on the current shabby state of the core of our beloved village. I do not believe we should delay the best possible in a quest for perfection.

Oct. 5 1970

Fifty years ago today marked the start of the October Crisis, a pivotal moment in Canadian history. Half a century later, we’re no closer to the story of what really led to the kidnapping of James Cross, the imposition of the War Measures Act and the truth surrounding Pierre Laporte’s murder.

The following is one of my contributions to Fish Wrapped, David Sherman’s anthology of Canadian journalism published by Guernica Editions this past spring. The usual public events that would have accompanied its publication were drowned in the chaos of the COVID pandemic.

By day, I was a sociology sophomore at Loyola College. At night, I was a Montreal Gazette police reporter. I spent most of my shift working the phones, asking cops whether they had anything going on. Usually the answer was nothing. Occasionally I’d write a filler on a holdup. Once in a while I’d get a tip on a big story, usually ending up reassigned to a general reporter. We had a term for it: bigfooted.

The Gazette police desk competed fiercely with our opponents at the Montreal Star. Usually, we beat them because we worked our butts off. The police desk was the newsroom’s go-to Rolodex. We knew how to get the names of owners, and occupants, neighbours, addresses and phone numbers. We called next of kin. We had an ancient bell wired to the fire department’s alert system. We chased sirens with our Bearcat police scanners cranked up. 

We were three of us on the Gazette police desk — Eddie Collister, Albert Noël and me, the rookie. Collister was terrific at talking to people. He could reach police brass and mob lawyers. His contacts were everywhere. He would meet a Station 10 detective in the privacy of a X-rated film house near Atwater and a Mafia mouthpiece above a drug den. Albert and I had worked together at the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, where I spent a summer learning Quebec’s official language from its glorious women. When he quit the Chronicle to join the Gazette, Albert didn’t drive and I was still picking up québécois French, so we’d double team — Albert because the cops took to him like a brother, and me because I had a fast car and a camera.

I was between classes on that Monday when my Pagette beeped. I ran for the closest pay phone and called the desk. Eddie answered. “A British diplomat (James Cross) has been kidnapped from his house on Redpath Crescent. How fast can you get over there?”

“Twenty minutes, tops.” 

The poor man’s Maserati, my burgundy Volvo 123GT with the whip antenna poking out of the centre of the roof, was illegally parked nearby. I shot around the foot of the mountain, then past the Montreal General as I headed for the ritzy enclave of brick half-timbered homes a brisk walk from downtown. The street outside 1297 Redpath Crescent was packed with reporters, photographers and cameramen. The high point of the stakeout was watching the cops apprehend two men engaged in a personal activity on the mountain. By then it had gotten too cold to sleep in the car so I headed back to the newsroom.

Gazette photographer Garth Pritchard was asleep on my desk, a Montreal phone book as his pillow. He’d turned down the police radio; I turned it back up. He woke up spouting threats and grabbing for his photo gear. We jumped into the Volvo. I cranked up the Bearcat and we headed across the Jacques Cartier Bridge to Montreal’s South Shore.

We had no clue what we were looking for. We drove streets we didn’t know, looking for police activity, something, anything.

It was past midnight when Garth put his hand on the gearshift. “Duffer, this is stupid. We don’t know what we’re looking for. Let’s go get Dilallo burgers.”

As it turned out, we didn’t have to go looking for news. For that first week we ran — to the SQ’s brutalist bunker on Parthenais, to RCMP headquarters in Westmount, to CBC studios in the old Ford Hotel where an announcer read the FLQ manifesto, to Canadian Army command at Longue Pointe. By the end of that long first week, we came to realize the cops had no more idea of what they should be looking for than we did. I didn’t return to university for the rest of 1970.

On the 10th, four Chenier cell members snatched Quebec’s deputy premier, labour and immigration minister Pierre Laporte while he was tossing a football with his nephew. A week into the crisis, the Gazette police desk was a 24/7 operation; we napped and ate on the fly as Ottawa and Quebec fought over how far society should go in appeasing terrorists to free Cross and Laporte. By now, the newsroom was spread so thin that I was assigned to cover pro-negotiation rallies and demonstrations at Centre Paul-Sauvé and Université de Montréal. I saw for myself the groundswell of support for the FLQ, for negotiating the release of 23 convicted terrorists in exchange for the lives of Cross and Laporte, for a provisional government to replace Trudeau and Bourassa.

Oct. 15 was a Thursday; at around 10 p.m., I got a call from a usually reliable source — Claudia, the gun-toting wife of SQ tactical squad’s Albert Lisacek: get my ass down to the entrance to the underground garage at the SQ’s Parthenais bunker.

Others got similar tips. When I got to the garage, reporters and photogs were gathering. The word in the crowd was that we could expect a huge police operation. We huddled for warmth in the shelter of warehouse loading docks until 5 a.m. Friday, when an armada of police cruisers roared up the ramp to mark the official start of the War Measures Act’s imposition. By noon on Oct. 16, 1,200 police officers had arrested approximately 450 individuals and carried out 170 searches.

That Saturday I was taking a few hours off with my date. We were watching Love Story at Place Bonaventure when my Pagette went off. I called the desk. No answer. I called the newsroom. They’d found Laporte’s body in the trunk of a car near the St. Hubert airport on the South Shore. Pritchard was there. He had photos of Laporte’s body. 

The next night we received another call from Mrs. Albert. Drive to St. Hubert’s Armstrong Blvd. Investigators had found the house where Laporte had been executed. We jumped in the Volvo. Garth was riding shotgun. TorStar photog Graham Bezant was in the back seat. I saw an SQ cruiser and pulled in behind it as men in plainclothes swarmed us. I rolled down the window and was digging for my driver’s licence when the cop on Garth’s side told us to freeze. Bezant, who didn’t speak French, reached into his jacket. The passenger-side cop cocked his .38 and put it to Garth’s head. 

Suddenly, we heard Lisacek’s familiar voice: “What the fuck are you boys doing here? Good thing my guys were feeling relaxed. You could be dead.” He told us a Volvo like mine had been posted to the SQ watch list after a patrol saw one cruising through Longueuil the night Cross was kidnapped.

I asked Garth if he was okay.

“I will be once I get my hands around your throat. You were laughing, you moron. You thought it was funny.”

— from Fish Wrapped: True Confessions from Newsrooms Past, Guernica Editions, May 2020


Jim’s Montée Manson Rally

Barrelling through the mud: this driver is one reason Montée Manson should be closed and turned into a linear park.

With today’s closure of Bellevue for repaving, the only alternative to Cameron and Montée Cadieux is Montée Manson, especially for motorists bound for the Oka ferry. So I biked over to Hudson’s oldest road to watch the rally.

Montée Manson stretches for about three kilometres between Main Road and the traffic light on Harwood Blvd. at Bédard. There’s a consensus among local historians that the road predates the Conquest and likely follows a track that existed before the European invasion. If so, Montée Manson hasn’t seen much improvement in all that time. It’s your typical rutted, muddy farm road, wide enough for a tractor and haywagon, but certainly not for two-way traffic most of its length. Apart from the approaches to the train-a-day-each-way exo rail crossing, it is unpaved. It’s not ploughed in winter, giving snowmobilers and ATVers a route to and from the Lake of Two Mountains. This time of the year, hunters make up most of the out-of-town traffic.

The Vaudreuil-Dorion end of Montée Manson. Winter ploughing stops at the Hudson border.

Over the years, there’s been talk of making Montée Manson into a useable thoroughfare. A 2006 plan called for ending the AMT line at a transport terminus to serve St. Lazare and Hudson commuters. That would have allowed the line west of there to be converted into a recreational corridor. Of course, Vaudreuil-Dorion mayor Guy Pilon didn’t like it. He still wants everything to terminate at the grossly congested terminus on de la Gare and he sits on the CMM public transit committee. Hudson’s train may be a deuce, but it’s a wild card in this poker game. There may never be a Montée Manson terminus, but there will be a railway crossing as long as there’s a train.

Above, the $200,000+ culvert the MRC wants Hudson to pay to replace. Below, the canalized stream carrying runoff from St. Lazare and surrounding farm fields.

Latterly, Hudson has come under pressure from the Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC to upgrade Montée Manson. About a third of the way down from Bédard, there’s a concrete culvert that can no longer handle the flow of water coming down from St. Lazare, Added to that is the runoff from adjacent farm fields since the advent of government subsidies for agricultural drainage. It allows farmers to work their fields earlier, but all that runoff has to go somewhere.

The result is a spectacularly muddy and potholed stretch of maybe 500 yards. You can tell the drivers redirected to Montée Manson by their GPS plotters. They’re the folks sitting bolt upright, white knuckles death-gripping the steering wheel at 10 km/h as they try to avoid the massive washouts in their once-pristine vehicles.

White-knuckle driver spinning the wheel as they try to keep the car clean on the worst stretch. Forget it.

Then there are the locals. A woman at the wheel of a white GMC Yukon drove the gauntlet of mud like it was any Hudson street. Not fast, not slow, just steady.

The daredevils revel in the challenge of blasting through the gumbo. My favourite photo from today, at the top of this page, was the sport in the black pickup who gunned it so he could splash me as he barrelled through the filth. I was already filthy, so I stood my ground to get the shot. He reminded me of Hudson’s great rallies and wonderful times driving roads like this.

A minority wants Montée Manson kept open. If we do nothing, the culvert will eventually wash out. Replacing it represents a cost to Hudson taxpayers of somewhere north of $200,000, and that’s to keep it as a muddy three-season farm road. Widening, draining and repairing the surface would easily swallow a million bucks and that doesn’t include paving. Even gravel roads need annual maintenance — grading, adding gravel, spraying dust suppressants in summer and ploughing in winter.

Best vehicle for negotiating Montée Manson. Why should Hudson have to foot the bill to keep it open to all vehicles?

Add to that the cost of patrolling and cleanup, because roads in uninhabited areas become dumps for those who have no scruples against dumping construction waste, junk and trash to avoid having to truck it to an eco-centre or pay to have it removed. A pile of junk is an open invitation for more piles.

Rather than trying to maintain Montée Manson as a public road, I believe we should turn it into a linear park, a tangible tribute to the footsteps of all those who have walked this track through the centuries.

Mayor Jamie and I are among those who think Montée Manson should be closed and turned into a linear park. Farmers with fields adjacent to the road could be given keys to the gate and responsibility for ensuring that nobody else has vehicular access. It would be open to pedestrians and cyclists. That failing culvert could be replaced with something less expensive than the structure the MRC wants us to pay for.

There’s a magic to Hudson’s oldest road, a timelessness that reminds us of what our world used to be like for those who walked before.

I guess the question is whether we’re losing something if we close Montée Manson to vehicle traffic. I don’t think so, and I suspect the majority of Hudson taxpayers would agree it’s the best path forward. There’s something timeless about Montée Manson, especially when there’s no traffic. I’ve felt the same feeling on the Old Gosford Road between Quebec City and Sherbrooke, on the Old Stagecoach Road between Knowlton and Lake Memphremagog. There’s something magic in walking a path used over the centuries.

In the mist that settles into the hollows after a fall shower, one can conjure up visions of native families, French and English soldiers and settlers, making their way to and from the protected bay that gives onto their highway, the Ottawa River. A road like this deserves better than traffic in a hurry to get elsewhere.






Hudson’s roads: Where to begin?

Hudson’s public works crew replacing a broken manhole in late 2019. This year, they’re replacing the remainder while it’s still warm.

Global’s Brayden Jagger Haines was in Hudson this morning to report on the state of our roads and citizen pressure to fix them. I met him at the corner of Como Gardens and Shepherd, one of many stretches of Hudson’s nearly 80 kilometres of roads with chronic pothole problems.

I showed him the patchwork of pothole repairs at that corner. It tells a story repeated all over town. The road was built with inadequate drainage and never upgraded. Cracks went unsealed, allowing the freeze-thaw cycle to pry asphalt apart down to gravel. Crumbling shoulders were never built up. Subsequent repairs never went deep enough to last.

Our residents should be aware that Hudson has never adopted a formal plan to invest annually in road maintenance and upgrades. It wasn’t until I began covering municipal politics that I learned that cities and towns try to anticipate problems before they occur with constantly updated preventive maintenance programs. Nor do we invest in essentials, such as safe walking and cycling shoulders alongside our major arteries so that citizens have a secure alternative to risking their lives. Our sidewalks are a public disgrace. Our storm sewers are approaching the end of their useful life cycle. Our potable water and wastewater collection and treatment systems failed to receive the regular maintenance and hardware/software upgrades essential for their dependable operation. In short, one can’t correct decades of neglect in four years. And where to begin?

I explained to the Global reporter that Quebec requires municipalities to draft a plan to prioritize what needs fixing first. An intervention plan rates infrastructure according to the work required to bring it to a townwide standard. The plan’s metrics rank roads as A, B.C or D, A being the best. Hudson has no A roads and a few B’s. The rest are C or D.

Until this council took office, the town didn’t have an infrastructure plan to address this infrastructure deficit. Our previous DG and council had started the ball rolling, but they still went ahead and paved streets before the intervention plan was in place. We got it done, thanks to the efforts of our new DG and infrastructure department director, but those years of dereliction cost us credibility with MAMH and MELCC, Quebec’s municipal affairs and environment ministries. Trust, once lost, requires scrupulous attention to reporting requirements in order to be restored. 

I sympathize with residents angry about the state of Hudson’s roads. I ran for council because I wanted to fix this mess once and for all, not just by applying a coat of asphalt, but by going as deep as necessary to repair and upgrade storm sewers, water connections and anything else down there that needed work to bring it up to acceptable standards. Only then should it be repaved. 

Estimated cost of bringing Hudson’s Cs and Ds up to an acceptable standard is somewhere between $20 and $40 million. The same federal/provincial fuel excise tax rebate program which covered part of the cost of the 2007-2010 drinking water network upgrades and the sewer treatment system may cover part, but not all. Taxpayers can count on $1.6 million every four years. The rest has to come from loan bylaws.

In a perfect world, we would not be forced to borrow to pay for paving. I see borrowing to pay for paving as akin to buying groceries on credit; sooner or later, one runs out of food and must tap the line of credit yet again. Hudson takes in approximately $12 million in tax revenues every year but with more than 80% of that already spent on downloads, salaries and services, there isn’t that much disposable income, which is why previous administrations incurred $36 million in long-term debt.

Thanks to strict fiscal discipline, an extremely competent administration and yes, COVID-19, Hudson is in good shape fiscally. (Details will be released following our meeting with the auditors prior to next week’s live-to-air September council meeting, which will include an interactive question period via Zoom Webinar.) We have the funds to leverage a certain amount of infrastructure renewal every year. It is sustainable as long as revenues maintain their current level, but as we all know, that can change in a heartbeat.

At our August meeting, Council approved a $100K expenditure to repave Main between Cote St. Charles and Oakland as well as a badly degraded section of Como Gardens and several other bad stretches of side streets. This went to tender and Council awarded the bid. As of this morning, our Public Works crews were replacing broken manholes prior to the contractor starting work. Some of them have been broken for years.

Originally, we had hoped to repave Main Road through the downtown core this year. The administration assured Council we had the funding to leverage a $1.32 million infrastructure upgrade and repaving contract. This fell through because Council wanted the commercial community and residents to be consulted on what they wanted the downtown core to look like. This led to the $100,000 Stantec contract and decisions regarding parking, sidewalks, cycling lanes, trees and streetscaping. I’m hopeful that council can agree on those factors in time to adopt a downtown-core repaving bylaw in time for the November 2021 municipal elections.

Instead of redoing Main through the core, Council then proposed to spend the $1.32 million on repaving Main between Quarry Point Road and the Vaudreuil-Dorion border, plus all of Bellevue. This option died when two reports from consulting engineers placed the total cost at well over $5 million.

In the end, Council approved a $2.2M loan bylaw to repave Bellevue. The contract went to tender, the low bid was accepted and work can begin as soon as we get final approval from MAMH, the municipal affairs ministry. I have been told we can expect it by the end of next week. The bylaw covers base remediation, culvert work, widening and repaving of Bellevue and a section of Main Road in Como. The loan bylaw doesn’t include an emergency bypass lane which will be opened to vehicle traffic in the event of another flood similar to those in 2017-19 which forced the closure of Main at Sanderson; this will be funded out of general revenues.

As I said, I don’t blame residents for bitching and moaning about Hudson’s roads. Our neighbourhood and all of District 5 has some of the crappiest roads in town. My constituents joke about this being the price for electing a shit-disturbing councillor, but as long as the process of ranking what needs doing most is impartial, I’m okay with that.