A conversation with Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley

Lambton Shield Publisher/Editor J.D. Booth met with Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley shortly after his re-election to the post, discussing issues of importance to city residents (and as it became clear) those who very well might see Bradley as county warden some day.

Lambton Shield: With your re-election, how does it feel? You've been mayor for 22 years now [elected in 1988]. And is this is for Mike Bradley as far as mayor is concerned?

Mike Bradley: I never saw this term, which will take me up to and past Sarnia's 100th anniversary, as the last hurrah. What I'm saying is that the decision to run again won't be made until 2014.
 
I'm getting from across the province the comparisons between my longevity as mayor with Hazel McCallion of Mississauga. I'm 55 now; Hazel was first elected as mayor when she was 57 [she'll turn 90 on February 14, 2011].
 
The key is, and I made it very clear in the last four years, is that my sense of community has come together—and when I say community I mean Sarnia Lambton. It's become a collaborative community.
 
I sensed it very much in the last couple of years when we went through the international recession.
When we went through it in the 1990s, there was all kinds of finger pointing, scapegoating, business fighting with labour and labour fighting with business and everyone fighting with government.
 
This last time it was totally different. Our unemployment rate was half of Windsor, which was the highest in the country. There was a sense of community. We'd had community summits; we had listened to the public. We had clear strategies on alternative fuels, on the existing chemical industry, on biofuels.
 
Again, there seemed to be a sense of cooperation.
 
The (Sarnia Lambton) Economic Partnership is a good example of that—you've got business, labour, agriculture, First Nations, government, (Lambton) College, the Research Park, all working together with some common strategies—and all doing what they do best.
 
That's one of the things we've learned at the city is that we're sticking to our core mission. We don't run marinas very well—the private sector is running it. The same thing with arenas [the RBC Centre] and the airport—the private sector is running it.
 
They're taking the risk and they reap the rewards. So I think we're very focused on it as a community.
There's a sense of purpose and I've used the expression more than once in the last few months—about being a purpose-driven mayor and a purpose-driven community. I greatly sense that now. Going into the next four years, that's going to be the key message.
 
Lambton Shield: How optimistic are you, especially with some saying that the recovery is still somewhat fragile?
 
Bradley: There are going to be setbacks—but I really think that, especially when I see what's going on at the Research Park, when I see what's happening with existing industry how they're redeveloping their sites, that there are all kinds of opportunities.
 
There's also mounting interest from outside the country in Sarnia Lambton, from the Asian market.
 
Lambton Shield: One issue that seems to resonate with most people locally is the rising cost of electricity and water, which people tend to lump together in that it appears on the same bill.
 
Bradley: I realize that, but it's important to note that hydro rates are totally controlled by the Ontario Energy board.
Water is a different story and here's the quick version.
 
In the last seven years, water and sewage accounts have run massive deficits. And because it's a user pay system, those deficits have to be passed on.
 
The projection this year was a 10 percent deficit if the system wasn't changed. The price of water was dropped by almost 80 percent but the fixed charges went up substantially to offset that.
 
What was happening was (in general numbers) about 80 percent of the cost of water and sewage was fixed costs.
 
It's really no different than your phone bill; you pay for the lines whether you make a call or not.
 
In the case of water, what we were trying to do was each year project how much water would we use—and we were usually wrong, for a variety of reasons, including what the effect of various things such as conservation would be.
 
But I want to be very clear—there's the cost to pay for water and sewage, which is totally a user pay system and those funds are not diverted anywhere else.
 
And then there's the issue of conservation. The communities that move big time into conservation realize that when they do that, the downside is that there's a loss of revenue.
 
If we can get to where we at now, there won't be any 10 percent increase this year, because there's no deficit for the first time in seven years in water and sewage.
 
We're looking at best a modest increase of around 2 to 2.5 percent (and I think it will be lower).
As painful as it was to do so, the system has been fixed.
 
Lambton Shield: And that's firm?
 
Bradley: The only thing I'm crossing my fingers for the consumer is, many of the things that have forced council to raise water and sewage rates were not generated by the city.
 
They're generated by events like [the] Walkerton [water scandal], new rules and regulations, new staffing, all mandated costs that I call it stealth downloading—passing on the responsibility but not helping to pay for it.
 
Hydro is different, and I do separate them out. Council has asked the provincial government to take the HST off hydro. HST doesn't bring any value. You can't conserve more to cut that value.
 
On the water accounts, unless there's some strong external forces put on us, but I think we've stabilized the costs.
 
Lambton Shield: And as far as the cost of electricity is concerned?
 
Bradley: Hydro concerns me because most of those costs are generated by Queen's Park. Bluewater Power's role is to deliver the power. And unfortunately they're the messenger.
 
I personally believe that if the McGuinty government falls next year, it will do so on the issue of hydro and the HST. What they're trying to do is transfer the whole green energy strategy to the consumers, which is different than what's happening in the U.S. where it's part of the political process. What they're doing is transferring the green energy cost to the little old lady on Brock Street who right now can't afford it.
 
Regarding these 60 or 80 kilowatt deals, if that's a political policy goal, they should have the guts to do it through regular methods not doing it on the hydro bill.
 
The only compensating factor with hydro is that we've had the hottest summer in 30 years, consumption in some cases doubled. One of the reasons we're trying to come in with a low increase in budget, is to reduce the impact to people from things like HST and hydro.
 
Lambton Shield: From a local standpoint, what issues do you see wanting to tackle in the next few months?
 
Bradley: Among the issues we'll be dealing with are the decommissioning of Sarnia General Hospital. That is a major issue and we'll be working with the hospital to deal with that. One of the aspects to that is that we don't know the cost to demolish the structure. And we need to determine the cost of the land.
 
Certainly, we'll be involved because we own the land. But so will the hospital and the provincial government.
 
Lambton Shield: Why so late in the game?
 
Bradley: We were negotiating on this 10 years ago, but the issue was put on the back burner until we dealt with financing for the new hospital. But we have a cooperative relationship with Bluewater Health and this represents an opportunity to renew an older part of the city but we also need to respect the neighbourhood.
 
Whatever we do with the property needs to be compatible with that.
 
Lambton Shield: And other issues you see taking centre stage?
 
Bradley: In some respects, it feels like dealing with an invading army; there are a bunch of different things going on, but the big thing is going to be economic.
 
There's reason to be optimistic in that regard, especially when you look at the new bioinnovation centre and the Research Park.
 
In a few years, we'll see those initiatives leading to investments in the Valley, I'm quite sure of that.
 
Lambton Shield: What other areas do you see becoming key?
 
Bradley: One in particular is that I see the opportunity for the city and the county—the entire region really—becoming more assertive about image and reputation.
 
There's a lot that's going on here that is unique and we are building a reputation for innovation across the country.
 
Lambton Shield: One of the issues that we continue to hear about, especially coming off the last election campaign, is the city's debt load.
 
Bradley: That's an issue that's always frustrated me because it's always been under control.
 
When we went high in debt, in the early part of this decade, it always had funding, in other words it was supported by a steady revenue stream. Remember the $96 million debt had a lot to do with the sewage plant and the new arena.
 
Today the debt load is $46 million, half that amount and by 2014 it will be $20 million, disappearing completely by 2018.
 
What's significant is how the reduced debt level is impacting the city. We used to pay between 12 and 13 cents for every dollar on the debt; now it's six or seven cents.
 
In 2003, I couldn’t get a fiscal fitness plan approved by council. A year later, we passed one and we've stuck with it, borrowing from ourselves when we needed to, but paying it back.
 
Now, this is the first year that we didn't borrow from ourselves, because we have the reserves in place.
I think that's a legacy will live on with future councils. Unless something extraordinary, happens, I can't see us taking on that level of debt again.
 
Lambton Shield: And what could derail that?
 
Bradley: One of the things that continues to be worrisome is what I call 'stealth downloading,' which has happened before: the federal and provincial governments transferring costs but not revenue to municipalities. We went through that in the 90s.
 
Court security is an example of that. Now the province says it will pay part of the cost but it won't come close to covering the total cost.
 
Lambton Shield: On May 7, 2014, Sarnia is 100 years old. How would you like to see that recognized?
 
Bradley: What I really would want to see for the community is to demonstrate how this community has changed in 100 years. We've gone from being a one industry community to a community that has diversified even though we've still got a long way to go.
 
A centennial year is always very special and it deserves some thought. What I hope to do early in 2011 is put together a committee that can engage the entire community in deciding how that should be celebrated for Sarnia.
 
It might not involve a capital project. One of my fond memories in Canada's centennial year was the distribution by the Observer of 12-inch tree seedlings, which people planted throughout the community. A number of those trees have been city hall Christmas trees.
 
But I think the celebrations should include recognizing how we've changed, not only in the last 100 years but in the last generation.
 
Lambton Shield: Let's talk about the overall sentiment in the community. You mentioned earlier about change—how do you see that coming together?
 
Bradley: I've always believed, that you can't change people's perception with advertising or rhetoric. You do it by demonstrating that you've changed. When you can demonstrate with the word's largest solar farm, the largest ethanol plant in Canada, the largest private natural gas plant, the research park, the bioinnovation centre of Canada is here.
 
Those are pretty substainial achievements. That's why I want to be more aggressive moving forward. It's going to be an exciting time for the community.
 
Lambton Shield: And you see people coming together to achieve some of those results? I'm talking about city council now.
 
Bradley: Certainly, everyone comes back at the beginning says they're going to cooperate. I just hold people to that benchmark. I 've got a different attitude than some mayors in that I don't lobby council.
 
Lambton Shield: So you've mellowed?
 
Bradley: No, it's not so much mellowing; I think I've matured. I've still got the passion. I respect them as colleagues. But I'm not afraid to have my ideas rejected. Ten or 15 years ago, I might have taken it personally. I think now I have a better understanding of the role of mayor.
 
Lambton Shield: There's an election for warden of Lambton County coming up. Your name, along with that of Jim Burns, the current warden, and Steve Arnold, mayor of St. Clair Township, have been mentioned.
 
Bradley: I haven't made the decision as to whether I'll run, but I can say that a lot of the things that the warden does, I'm already doing, like being on various boards.
 
If I do decide to run, I think I'm a realist. But I think the real issue in my case is it's been 20 years since the city rejoined the county. And I think it's time to recognize that the relationship works and has worked well.
 
Where I think I could be helpful is raising the county's profile outside the county. I'm not concerned about losing. If you lose, that's part of political life.
 
Lambton Shield: This is something you've given some thought to though?
 
Bradley: Actually, I hadn't thought much of it until a couple of years ago when I had some of the county mayors come to me and say "it's time." I've built some good relationships out there and I've got an idea of how many votes I might have.
 
Lambton Shield: Any final words for now?
 
Bradley: I'm reenergized for the next four years and I'm looking forward to developing this collaborative community to an even greater level.

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