To say the relationship between the City of Oshawa and the Oshawa Port Authority (OPA) is sometimes a tumultuous one would be an understatement.
Over the years, the two organizations have had their differences, and there is a contingent of city residents who hold a very low opinion of the Port Authority.
When looking at this relationship, one must remember the port authority is not a committee of council or affiliated with the City of Oshawa.
The organization is a federal agency under the arm of the Ministry of Transport, and along with 17 other port authorities across the country, is regulated by the Canada Marine Act of 1998.
It was known as the Oshawa Harbour Commission until 2012 when it was re-branded under its current name.
The OPA is governed by a board of directors comprised of four representatives nominated in consultation with port users, as well as members appointed by the federal and provincial governments, and the City of Oshawa.
Donna Taylor serves as the current president/CEO and harbourmaster, while Gary Valcour is the board chair. Bruce McArthur serves as the City Of Oshawa representative.
Over the past decade, there have been several hot-button issues involving the OPA.
The failed ethanol plant and proceeding $4.1 million arbitration reward to FarmTech still hang over the organization’s head as readers of this newspaper will know very well.
The effect of that arbitration award can be seen in the port’s recently released 2017 financial audit.
The audit shows the port authority incurred a net loss of $230,306 in 2017 and its current liabilities exceeded its assets by $5,862,735 as of Dec. 31, 2017.
The authors of the audit, DeLoitte LLP, stated these conditions, along with other factors, “indicate the existence of a material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt about the Port Authority’s ability to continue as an ongoing concern.”
At the OPA’s 2017 general meeting, several residents, some long-time critics of the organization, question its future.
Longtime waterfront user and activist Larry Ladd said the port’s progress under Valcour has been one of the “biggest financial failures on the public purse.” He not only pointed to the failed ethanol plant but also the installation of the rail spur which came in at approximately $4 million over budget.
Resident Suzie Boyle called for a public apology from the board for getting Oshawa into such a situation, while resident Hugh Peacock insisted that as the port moves ahead with development, that no industrial projects be undertaken on the historic Gifford Hill, which sits adjacent to the port.
In an interview with The Oshawa Express, Valcour said he understood why the port’s 2017 financials may be a cause of concern, but pointed out it has almost been a year since the numbers were crunched.
“It has to be borne in mind like all financial statements, they are snapshots of a point in time,” Valcour says. “The reality is when you look at those numbers you are looking at numbers from essentially a year ago.”
In fact, Valcour said 2018 had been a rebound year so far.
“We’ve had a good year this year. We’ve had some great tonnage,” he says, adding the financial position “is different if you took the snapshot now.”
Valcour’s claims of a strong year tie into another issue of great importance facing both the port and the city.
About a year ago, Taylor notified the city that the port would like to increase access to industrial and commercial harbour lands through an extension of Harbour Road, which currently ends at Farewell Street.
In 1976, Oshawa’s council of the day signed an agreement with the former Oshawa Harbour Commission stating that at the port’s request, the city must construct a full-service roadway, and incur 50 per cent of the associated costs, which have been estimated at more than $1 million.
According to the agreement signed in 1976, it stipulates the road would be 1,983 feet, asphalt pavement with complete concrete curb and gutter work, storm sewers, and sidewalks. The agreement also states construction must begin upon six months of the written notice from the OPA.
However, Taylor initially indicated the port wouldn’t necessarily be looking for a full-service road.
“Since it’s going to be a joint venture when it is developed, it doesn’t need to be developed in such an expensive manner, which would be beneficial to the city and beneficial to us as well,” Taylor said last November, noting that downscaling the road to a type of “laneway” could be more appropriate.
When staff returned with a report on the port’s request this past spring, it was clear it would be a divisive issue between city councillors.
Those against the idea said it would have an extremely negative effect on the nearby Second Marsh.
Former councillors Gail Bates said she wouldn’t “hesitate to chain myself to a fence to protect the lands,” while Amy McQuaid-England likened it to playing a “game of Russian roulette” with the Second Marsh’s future.
At that time, McQuaid-England also pointed to the port’s financial situation.
“They’re not in a financial position to trigger that portion of the agreement,” she stated. “The port authority doesn’t have money, they are not going to be able to build their portion of the road.”
However, Nester Pidwerbecki cautioned the city had “made a commitment” and going against that could prove troublesome.
The port’s proposal for the laneway was approved at the committee level in late-June and brought back to council on June 25.
What followed was one of the most spirited and polemical debates ever witnessed in council chambers.
First off, several residents appealed for council to vote against the port’s proposal.
Tom Mitchell said there had been no formal chance for citizens to provide their feedback.
“This is a matter that cries out for public consultation,” Mitchell said.
The same was said by Ladd.
“I think it’s raised a lot of questions in the city…it’s only proper that you take the opinions of your residents,” he said.
Initially, the majority of council agreed with them, voting down the proposal by a 5-4 vote.
“Under no circumstances can I vote in favour of this recommendation,” said Bates. “I do not have any faith in the port authority going ahead with anything that will benefit the city in any way.”
However, the 1976 agreement was still looming and bound the city to build the road, a fact firmly pointed out by staff.
“There really wouldn’t be anything that would stop us from building that road,” said city manager Jag Sharma. “If they triggered the agreement, then we would have to fulfill our obligation.”
Less than 20 minutes after turning down the proposal, council reversed its stance and supported it by a 6 to 3 count but with a notably added condition.
The city requested it be conveyed a 120-metre strip of land to act as a buffer for the Second Marsh.
Over the next few months, then mayor John Henry and Pidwerbecki along with city staff met with port officials in hopes of finding a mutual agreement to get Harbour Road extended.
At the last official council meeting of the 2014-18 term on Sept. 24, city council received the port’s counteroffer.
The OPA stated it had approached the federal government regarding the possibility of the buffer land being given to the city. However, the port said the message from the feds was clear – there was no surplus land to be given.
Therefore, the port offered to extend a land use agreement with the city for an extra 25 years to help protect the Second Marsh.
McQuaid-England immediately took issue with the revised offer.
She questioned why there was no documentation of the federal government’s stance on the issue and reasoning for declining to convey the land to the city.
“I just feel we’re missing a huge piece of this, which is the public crown’s decision,” McQuaid-England said, adding she didn’t “trust” that what the OPA was telling the city was “accurate.”
“All we have is broken telephone with the port…,” McQuaid England said. “I just don’t think we have enough information to make this decision.”
However, then-Mayor John Henry said the new proposal was “the best deal we could get” in terms of creating a buffer for the Second Marsh.
During a lengthy and sometimes heated debate, councillors on both sides of the argument pleaded with their colleagues.
But at the end, council eventually voted six to five against the amended proposal.
After the vote, former councillor John Aker could be heard saying “there’s a year’s work.”
Councillor Joseph Kolodzie, who took over for Bob Chapman who stepped out to run for provincial politics, immediately moved to have the original proposal reconsidered but failed.
One day later, the city received a letter from Taylor stating the OPA was enacting the 1976 agreement.
Valcour told The Oshawa Express council’s decision had tied the port’s hands.
“First of all, this agreement was triggered now because we had no choice really. The reality was, it was made pretty clear that if the port needed a road, the city had to build it. It’s very straightforward,” he explained.
In fact, Valour stated he was “appalled that council can’t figure out what was on the table and negotiated in good faith by the mayor, deputy mayor, ourselves and members of city staff.”
Henry called a special council meeting on Sept. 28 to discuss the matter, urging council to reconsider its decision at the beginning of the meeting.
Despite his plea, the majority of council voted against reopening the discussion, essentially leaving the matter in the hands of the city’s next council.
Henry told The Oshawa Express it would serve as a “burden” for the incoming group.
He also wondered if the consequences of the 1976 agreement had been fully considered by all councillors.
“I’m not sure all members of council understand, or they may and this was just their decision. That was a binding document that goes back to when I was 16 years old.”
So the city was now, in theory, on the hook to build a full extension of Harbour Road.
But former councillor John Shields pointed out the majority of the costs for the road may already be accounted for.
The project was included under the city’s 2014 development by-law charge for 90 per cent of eligible costs. The rest will come from another city reserve or the city tax levy.
And while the figure of $1.3 million was thrown around as the city’s share of the project, Henry said it will likely be more than that.
“Don’t forget it is an environmentally-sensitive area, so that doesn’t include the EA that would have to be done, it doesn’t include what water and sewer will be,” he stated.
And while the issue was a contentious one during the last few months of the previous council term, October’s municipal election put it on the backburner at least temporarily.
Oshawa’s new council is now sitting and looks much different than the one that voted against the extension proposal.
Henry has moved on to become Durham regional chair, while McQuaid-England, Aker, and Kolodzie did not seek re-election.
Pidwerbecki, Bates, Shields and Doug Sanders were unsuccessful in their re-election attempts.
Only John Neal, Rick Kerr and Dan Carter have returned.
It remains to be seen how the new council will address this issue.
And while the OPA triggered the 1976 agreement, Valcour has said on several occasions that it doesn’t mean the conversation is totally closed.
“I would never say no to the idea of some discussions that might benefit everybody,” he says. “I don’t think my board members are going to say that, and I don’t think our CEO is going to say that.”
Whatever direction the situation goes, it is surely one of the more important decisions Oshawa’s latest city council will face in the early days of its term. And at the end of the day, Harbour Road will be extended in one way or another.
BEHIND THE WRITING
By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
It’s often said we can’t escape our past, and that saying came true for The City of Oshawa earlier over the past year.
It was just over a year ago when the Oshawa Port Authority approached city council stating it wanted to extend Harbour Road past Farewell Street.
On the surface, it is a simple enough request.
However, some 40 years ago, the city signed an agreement with the then-Oshawa Harbour Commission that bound Oshawa to build a full extension of Harbour Road.
Port Authority president/CEO and harbourmaster Donna Taylor made it clear the organization would be accepting of more of a “laneway” than a full road.
However, over time the two sides hit a couple of snags.
A number of councillors were concerned about the future of the Second Marsh should the road be extended.
This is indeed an important issue and needed to be considered.
However, when the city asked for land to be conveyed by the port to create a buffer for the Second Marsh, that’s when the issues began.
The federal government turned this request down and instead the port authority offered to extend a land use agreement for another 25 years, claiming it would help protect the Second Marsh.
To be fair, considering the past relationship between the city and port authority, it is understandable why some councillors and residents may be wary of this.
At the time in September, I felt it was the wrong choice for council to decline the port’s second proposal.
While it may seem the city is taking on just the port authority, it could also potentially provoke the attention and wrath of the feds, something that can never end up good for a lower-tier municipality.
However, with a few months to reflect, while I still believe it was not the right choice, I can appreciate the motivation.
It appears that the port authority is willing to reopen the discussion. This is a good thing because a full-service road will cost the city in the multi-million dollar range, while a laneway, which the port originally was happy with, will cost a lot less.
Hopefully, the two sides can find common ground and get the project done without any damage to the Second Marsh, and minimal costs to the city and its taxpayers.