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. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s