Regional Chair and CEO John Henry [supplied]

Durham CEO on $100m saved, new hospital, broadband, taxes…

Durham Region managed to save some $100 million by changing the way it worked, according to John Henry, Regional Chair and CEO Durham Region.

In a wide-raging interview with Durham Post, Henry spoke of the need for a decision on Airport Lands in Pickering and his take on them, funding for the new hospital, storm damage costs, taxes, Durham Broadband, urbanization, and much more.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

Durham Post (DP): What are the major achievements of this term of regional council?

John Henry (JH): I think the first success we had with the new council was when we collectively decided to remove a building that was planned for construction. We cut $100 million in cost. It was always our intention to build another building here beside the regional headquarters to meet our needs. But, with the change of technologies, and our ability to do different things, council voted to remove that forecasted cost. That was the signal that we were going to do some really big things.

We’ve also invested within the organization because of covid. Our world is basically a whole lot of laptops and docking stations now. That allows us to be ready to change how we’re doing business on a moment’s notice. We’ve approved the technology here to allow us to deal with any potential emergency – covid or other – and still maintain all the services.

The end result was in how we managed the recent windstorm and tornado that went through the region. There was no disruption in service. We relied upon electricity, helping stations, wells. We switched over to our backup systems and were able to continue to support the needs of the residents of drinking water, wastewater; we were able to get our crews out to deal with the challenges, especially challenges in Uxbridge and Scugog.

DP: Where do you think Durham is heading?

JH: You’re going to continue to see the growth. With the tolls being removed off 412 and 418, it will help us move traffic north and south. It will help us deal with some of the challenges related to growth.

I think the announcement of GO train – finally after about 30 years – to go east, is a great story. If you look at the increased cost of housing and effective transit system partnered with the GO train to move people in and out of our communities, it is really a good story.

Work on Lakeshore East Expansion should start later this year
Work on Lakeshore East Expansion should start later this year

I’m excited about the on-demand [bus] system that Durham put in place. We’re not really running big buses all the time, but have a service pick you up for the same price as the bus fare. That has been recognized as one of the best on-demand services in the province.

I’m very proud of our Net Zero Program to get our buses to diesel-electric hybrids and then eventually to electric within 10 years.

And recently we won a couple of awards; one was related to our road project on Victoria Street and Bayly Street in Whitby and Ajax. We redid that road and flipped bicycle lanes to make it safer. That road was made of concrete that is lighter than water.

National recognitions

And we are really excited about our new 311 system that is a voice app. You can now say Alexa connect me to the Region of Durham. It’s being recognized as well. Durham has had a number of national recognitions. Our home energy retrofit plan has been recognized as one of the best in the country. Our climate adaptation plan was recognized. Other municipalities are taking from our plan and utilizing it in theirs.

I’m happy to say we have growth in all eight municipalities which is exciting because people are choosing to live in Durham.

Ontario Tech, Trent University and Durham College have all received great news in recent months.

We’re home to the small modular nuclear reactor (SMNR) program in Clarington. Durham keeps the lights on for 33 per cent of the Province of Ontario and is really the energy capital of Canada. SMNR program is a world changer and Durham will now be the energy capital of the world.

With the challenges around the world, people are looking to alternate sources to generate clean electricity. And Durham is a great place to make that happen.

DP: You mentioned the storm. Do we have an estimate of the damage in value terms?

JH: We don’t have a dollar value yet. We’re still working through some of those costs. And then there is the cost that you cannot really measure like the number of trees that were lost. It is a huge problem. We have 80 per cent of Durham Region in the greenbelt. It’s been a very big challenge. Uxbridge, Blackstock were hit very, very hard. We haven’t got a final cost to it, but I’m sure we’ll have a final cost related to operations and our staffing problems shortly. I’m not sure if we can mention our cost in Uxbridge as we’re still cleaning up there. It’s been a challenge. I can’t give you the answer yet but I’m sure probably by the end of the August it will be totalled.

We’ll make our applications, where we can, for cost recovery.

On May 21, a derecho storm left lasting impact across Ontario, including in the Region of Durham
On May 21, a derecho storm left lasting impact across Ontario, including in the Region of Durham

DP: Do we have any solution in sight for shortage of drivers for waste collection?

JH: We have contracted operators that are picking up our waste. We’re working with them to make sure that they maximize their abilities. Right now, in Durham Region, we’re seeing help-wanted signs everywhere. Businesses are struggling to find trades. We, at the region, are struggling to find people. The economy here in Durham is so busy that there is a shortage everywhere. Finding qualified drivers to pick up waste is a challenge for contractors and we’re working to find ways with them to improve the situation. I know they brought drivers and crews in from other regions to help meet our needs. It is a contract and we’re doing the best to make sure that we get value for everything that we need in the contract.

DP: Why is the margin of tax rise high in face of covid relief programs from federal and provincial governments?

JH:  We have almost 6,000 unionized employees. Our contractual obligations are negotiated every year. We’re the same as every other agency. Unions negotiate and I absolutely believe employees need to be paid fairly.

The other part for us is we own almost $15 billion of infrastructure – water, sewer, roads – all that needs to be maintained. The cost of materials for all of that has gone up.

We found ways to eliminate costs. We found the money within the organization to make sure that we can manage the covid bills that came in and weren’t covered by the federal or the provincial government.

We have a team of people that are really dedicated to every funding opportunity that comes from both levels of government. But the application process is tedious and difficult.

Funding key sectors

Residents have told us that there are key issues like the challenges related to broadband. We’ve created a Municipal Service Corporation (MSC) to deliver broadband through the region and areas where it wasn’t being delivered. Our first trunk of broadband was installed in the ground on time and on budget from Pickering to Uxbridge.

Durham Region put money into Ontario Tech, Trent University and Durham College
Durham Region put money into Ontario Tech, Trent University and Durham College

We’re now doing things that typically wouldn’t be something that the region would normally do. We’re partners with the municipalities on how we fund healthcare. People will tell you that hospitals are the obligation of the province. But to get the services that our residents need we also have to invest in healthcare. The $37.5 million the region approved to invest into Bowmanville hospital expansion would be part of how the province came in with their money.

We’re funding things that we normally wouldn’t have done before – broadband, healthcare, same with education. We’ve put money into all three – Ontario Tech, Trent University and Durham College. When there’s a shortage of tradespeople in this country, helping to create more opportunities for tradespeople at Durham College makes absolute sense because the spin off from that is having the people within your community to meet the growth and needs of your community. When you look at the tradespeople or people in the nuclear industry to support the SMNR program, our investment in Durham College and Ontario Tech and Trent University is now paying off.

It is one of those things that traditionally would have been funded by the other levels of government. But there is a need to fill those gaps, to give people those opportunities.

DP: Why can’t Durham Broadband MSC sell directly to users and cut out telecom providers?

JH: What we’re doing is putting the fiber in the ground so companies would be able to lease that from us. So indirectly we’re a delivery service to small businesses that provide to the neighborhoods. We can do that, but that’s not our specialty and nor should we compete with those small organizations. We’re getting into places where there just isn’t enough in it for big companies to do it.

Durham Broadband allows us to get connected into all rural properties
Durham Broadband allows connections into rural properties

Our goal is by the end of next year to have almost 200 kilometers in service that would be leased out to different organizations. The payments that come in from the leasing will help fund the next opportunity for growth. I’m excited about that.

We don’t want to create an entire department where we’re installing it, maintaining it, and doing the buildings. It’s much easier to lease it to those small businesses to do all that work.

No big companies

There’s no intent to give it to the big companies. This is for those businesses that are in those communities where they may be able to be successful with 300-400 homes, where the big players in this industry wouldn’t look at them. But a small business or an entrepreneur could do that. It allows us to get connected into all our rural properties too.

It’s been an exciting project. MSCs are different than government – the monies you make in a MSC has to be used to expand the MSC. Municipal and regional governments are not allowed to lose money by statute – and we’re not allowed to make money.

DP: Why is there still a debate over Whitby’s selection as the site of the new hospital?

JH: They went through a process and Pickering and Oshawa have challenges with the process.

For me, it’s important that if you double the population of this community by 2051, you need to double the capacity of hospital care. For us it’s important that the new hospital gets built, and then we will work with our partners to make sure that the region is there at the table to make sure it happens as quickly as possible.

Eventually we’ll all be able to work together for a common cause – and that’s to deliver the absolute best healthcare that we possibly can to residents of Durham Region.

For us as a region working together, it’s investing where needed. There’s talk that Pickering Ajax Hospital still needs a reinvestment. We have Uxbridge Hospital and the Brock Community Health Centre where we’ve invested as well because our residents deserve great health care. In the end it doesn’t matter how we get there as long as we get there.

DP: How much is the region’s share of investment in the proposed hospital?

JH: We have formula for doing that and it could be as high as $300 million. We did budget to be ready to go forward. We put 0.25 per cent in our base budget which will continue to grow in the base budget every year. And if we continue to do that for the next ten years, we would have enough money to fund that without having to come back with a debit of $300 million to our residents.

Proper planning to get us to where we need to with minimal impact to our residents, is key. I’m really proud that council, for the most part, agreed to it and voted for putting money into hospitals and body worn cameras, things that our residents have been asking for, with a minimal impact to our [tax] rate.

Durham Region wants best healthcare for residents
Durham Region wants best healthcare for residents

I’m a taxpayer too and I understand the challenges with trying to raise families and making your payments and do all the things that you need to do. Fiscally, I’m trying to work with council to keep the increase as low as possible and still meet the needs that are expected by our residents.

DP: Some residents seem skeptical about big projects like the new hospital, the airport and train to Bowmanville. Will these ever happen?

JH: The Bowmanville train is finished. The [provincial] government made the announcement. They should start working on the GO Train East Expansion, at least do some groundwork later this year. We created a transit-oriented development office here in Durham.

The Pickering airport? This been going on for over 50 years now. The challenge is that it’s out of our control. This is a federal issue, and they need to make a decision, and then we need to go forward.

You can see with the challenges of what’s going on in Toronto right now around the airport. We could talk about that. But I think in order to deal with the challenges going forward – and especially the challenges related to climate – that we’re going to have to start to grow more food indoors.

Vertical farming

Vertical farming is a different type of agriculture, and I believe it can be done on those lands and it should be done, so that we can make sure that our residents have that food security.

Growing food vertically around the world is not new, but the science surrounding it is improving every day. You can grow a tomato in vertical garden inside a building using 95 per cent less water than you would growing a tomato outside in a field. There is a merit to this.

Durham Region is a huge agricultural community. Our farmers are good at what they do. With those lands we have an opportunity to use them 365 days in a year.

I really wish the federal government would make a decision and then we can go forward. The public deserves that. They put it off, and put itoff, and off put it off, because they can’t decide.

Durham population to double by 2051
Durham population to double by 2051

Plan for the future

The report that was generated around building the airport said you would need an airport in about 16 years. An airport cannot be built overnight. If you started today, I doubt you could be ready in 16 years.

When you plan for the future, you plan for the doubling of the population of Durham. But not only that, the population of Ontario. When you look at our immigration and the people that are choosing to come to Canada, we know that half of the new immigrants who will come to this great country will be in the GTHA (Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area).

Great growth is there, and the government knows that. They know our population is going to double. So doing the right things – getting the GO train built, deciding what they’re going to do with the Airport Lands, watching our world change in the manufacturing of vehicles, going electric – there’s all these great things happening, and we just need to think of the challenges.

We get caught up in thinking about the length of a term of council. We need to start thinking about 5 to 10 to 15 years as politicians so we can get ahead of where we need to. It’s better to do that than continuing to play catch-up.

DP: Is vertical farming an option for the airport or is it in addition to the proposed Pickering airport?

JH: We’ve always talked about that the airport needs to be much more than an airport. Those lands are agricultural lands, and they should still be farmed. But they should be farmed 365 days in a year. Vertical farming is a way to do that. You can do that in partnership with the construction of the airport.

If you look at airports around the world, it’s not uncommon to see an agricultural component adjacent to an airport. It only adds to it. We’re not speaking of an airport that would be like Pearson – that’s not what we’re looking at.

Vertical farming should be done 365 days a year on Airport Lands
Vertical farming should be done 365 days a year on Airport Lands

We’re speaking of an airport that would support some travel, but mostly the aerospace industry as well, and the people that are in that business. The business is slowly being squeezed out of Pearson.

It comes back to a number of things. In Canada we were leaders in the aerospace industry once upon a time. We should be leaders again. When you look at building an airport, the aerospace industry, vertical food, the components that are around an airport, the moving of goods, it really makes for a very good conversation.

This is something that has been going on for over 50 years. It’s time to just make a decision.

DP: Regional Council has been criticized for approving a developer-led proposal to urbanize over 9,000 hectares of farmland. Do you really need that much land?

JH: If you think of to 2051, Durham growth is going to double. You look at those lands, some of them were farm, along with some that had been previously purchased and there was nothing happening there.

So, recognizing that not everybody is going to want to live in a condominium. People move to Durham to live in homes where you’ve got backyard, where your kids can play soccer.

The plan that we utilized would have been up for debate again in 10 years. By doing this, you can start to plan out to 2051.

I understand that it’s very controversial, but most of those lands were purchased. Very few were farms.

DP: What is happening with the Wave autonomous vehicle project?

JH: Durham was part of the autonomous vehicle experiment. The experiment ended well. However, the vehicle was in an accident while under manual control. Unfortunately, that brought some challenges to the end of the program. It was a very good start for us.

Technology is up there now, especially in new vehicles. There’s a lot of things happening in vehicles today that are coming from experiments, trials that were done in the past to improve the driver experience.

The autonomous WAVE
The autonomous WAVE

DP: A city like Dubai is talking of having autonomous vehicles on the road by 2030. When can we expect them?

JH: I think there’ll be a time when you’ll see them. The transit technology that we utilize in the region is something that’s evolving very quickly. If opportunities come up again, I’m sure we’ll take advantage of it.

Our learning experience throughout this challenge was successful. Technology is really changing the world. You look at what you could do on your iPhone now that didn’t exist 15 years ago. In Durham we’re very lucky. We have schools that are graduating some of the smartest young minds when it comes to green energy technologies, in terms of nuclear engineering, or some of the basic programs. Some of our schools are receiving national recognition.

Taking that talent pool and utilizing is very different than when you and I started to work.

DP: Any new major project announcements coming from Durham?

JH:  Not at this point. Our council has finished for this term. Next meeting is in September. The new council will be sworn in later this year. We’ve been very successful during this term, working together and with the awards we have won. I’m really proud of the staff for the great work that they have done.

Durham is being recognized as the fastest growing region in Ontario. We have growth in all eight municipalities. We’re becoming a destination, a place of choice for people to move here. That’s a great story for this region.

DP: What would Durham look like in 2030?

JH: You’re talking of a very short period of time, but I think it’ll be very different. I think that as we build towards the world-changing climate-related challenge, our planning for communities is going to change.

By 2030 we should see that our buses are net-zero, that we’re investing in communities to improve our healthcare.

I think the best days are in the great minds of those young people that are in public schools, and as they travel through the colleges and universities with the change in how we manage technology – they’re going to change the world. And, that’s going to happen right here in Durham Region.

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