Committee wants OMB inquiry of Pelham finances

by Allan Benner, The Standard

The Ontario Municipal Board may be asked for an inquiry into Pelham’s finances, after Niagara Region’s audit committee members heard from concerned residents Monday.

Committee members approved a motion by Niagara Falls Coun. Selina Volpatti to call in the OMB following delegations from residents Nancy Beamer and Bernie Law from taxpayers group Pelham DEBT, as well as former Pelham town councillor Marvin Junkin, who said a KPMG audit of the town’s finances related to the construction of its $36.2-million community centre and arena in east Fonthill left too many questions unanswered.

“All we want is the truth and the proper representation of it,” Beamer said.

Regional Chair Alan Caslin offered to help the residents learn the truth.

“As Niagara regional chair, part of my responsibility is to make sure that all 12 municipalities are healthy, financially healthy, and working together,” Caslin said. “And when there’s a problem, to make sure that those problems are heard by the community. We do the best job we can as an oversight body of the Region to make sure that we help in anyway we can.”

The motion, supported with a 7-2 vote, asks the minister of Municipal Affairs to direct the OMB to conduct an inquiry into Pelham’s finances from 2008 to present, including into the town’s east Fonthill development.

“We have significant concerns as a Region,” Volpatti said, adding she tried to stay within the boundaries of the upper-tier municipality’s jurisdiction when developing the motion.

The motion also expresses “disappointment” that the town did not respond to a request for an in-camera financial report presented to the town Sept. 5, and “significant concern” regarding the use of municipal credits and its reserve fund balances from 2015 and 2016.

The committee also supported a motion to ask Niagara municipalities to develop taxpayer affordability guidelines in response to concerns in Pelham.

Beamer told committee members that Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn promised “everything would be cleared up” at a special council meeting on Nov. 29, when KPMG representatives presented their findings regarding its audit of town finances.

Despite his assurances all is OK, she said residents remain concerned.

Although Pelham town council planned to hold a meeting to answer questions from the community, Beamer said town councillors later decided it wasn’t necessary.

“The people had not even had time to see the report much less study or digest it. What kind of accountability and transparity is that? It seems that council members are all-knowing and they can read people’s minds, however, they read wrong because many questions have arisen since the report was put out for study,” she said.

Law, for instance, pointed out questions based on information that was included in the KPMG audit.

“My question: Looking forward to the next 10 years, how will the town be able to fix its aging infrastructure and fund cancelled projects … when its reserve fund is depleted and we are at our ARL (annual repayment limit) ceiling?” said Law, an accountant of more than 40 years.

“There are so many more questions relating to the report that we never got to bring out in a public forum,” Beamer added.

Beamer said members of her group have met with town staff members and are making progress address some of the concerns. She added, however, they have not met with the mayor or councillors to discuss political decisions related to the finances.

“I think by now they realize our questions are based on intellect and not emotion,” Beamer said.

While discussing his concerns about increasing debt identified within the KPMG audit, Junkin pointed out other infrastructure needs in the town that have been deferred for years, such as Sulphur Springs Drive which was closed in early 2016 for emergency repairs.

“It’s been deferred until 2020 and if it does indeed get fixed in 2020, it will have been closed for four years,” Junkin said. “A public road in a town closed four years because there is no infrastructure money to fix it. How pathetic is that. And yet we have a mayor who says it’s OK. The town is in great health. It’s pretty hard to swallow sometimes and that’s why we’re here.”

Augustyn emailed regional councillors Monday morning saying he would not be attending the committee meeting, citing a recent motion by Port Colborne council opposed to the Region’s involvement in town money matters, as the reason for his absence. He couldn’t be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Port Colborne Coun. David Barrick called Augustyn’s absence a “dereliction of duty,” adding he “is trying to position himself as the victim.”

Barrick said the people of Pelham “are the victims of bad decisions, poor leadership and, again, a dereliction of duty.”

Beamer said Pelham residents do not feel like victims.

“We are people who are very strong and we’re working to help our community to get through this time period and this financial struggle. We are not victims,” she said.

Committee members also approved a motion by Niagara Falls Coun. Bart Maves that asks regional staff to verify if development charges were paid to the Region for projects that were part of the Pelham’s east Fonthill project.

The motions require final approval by regional council, which meets Thursday at 6:30 p.m.