Belleville Strong Mayors: decisions and Building Faster Fund performance

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| Published , updated March 1, 2024

Strong mayor powers give heads of council the power to set budgets, veto bylaws, and pass bylaws with just one-third of their council’s support, only if these bylaws deal with provincial priorities outlined in O. Reg. 580/22, which include the province’s goal to build 1.5 million homes by 2031. They’ll also take charge of appointing senior civil servants in their municipalities.

The legislation marks a significant change in how municipalities are governed, from a “weak mayor” system that requires compromise and concession between all members of an elected council, to a more centralized “executive” power in the office of the mayor.

Strong Mayors housing targets

Belleville was added on August 21, 2023 and was assigned a housing target of 3,100 new homes by 2031.

Belleville exceeded its 2023 target by 284%, receiving $1.2M from the province Building Faster Fund. The funds will be used to support the $55M Avonlough Sewage Pumping Station project support developments to accommodate 20,000 new residents in the west end.

However, there has been a decline in housing starts by the private residential building sector in 2023 despite record approvals by the City of Belleville.

More: Ontario Housing Target Tracker

Strong Mayors decisions

The Mayor is required to exercise these powers in writing and make them available to the public, subject to the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA) which the city publishes on their website.

  • Feb. 12, 2024 – Rezoning The Bridge Integrated Care Centre Mayoral Directive – 2024 ZBL Amendment to rezone the subject lands (proposed The Bridge Integrated Care Centre to be established at 1 Alhambra Square) from Highway Residential Fourth Density (R4) Zone and Open Space (O1) Zone to Highway Commercial (C3-62) Zone with special provisions.

Timeline

February 12, 2024 – Mayor Ellis uses Strong Mayor powers for the first time to rezone the former Banquet Hall property at 1 Alhambra Square for “The Bridge” social and health services hub, council agrees unanimously

The rezoning would allow for medical offices.

The usual rezoning process would make approvals from Canadian National Railway (CNR) necessary since the railway is next to The Bridge Integrated Care Centre and existing zoning guidelines could take anywhere from 6 months to 1 year.

Even to hold it up a month now is too long.  They have gone through architect plans that they have now and they’re working through that process and it’s time to get this in gear.

Mayor Neil Ellis

I originally said that I would not use them, I guess maybe I should have backtracked and said I would only use them for the good of the community

Mayor Neil Ellis

Council agreed unanimously

if there was ever a time to use Strong Mayor powers, our homeless situation cannot wait another year.

We are in crisis right now, this is an imperative piece of leading the city. We’re very much appreciative of you stepping forward and being able to do this. Having the support of us I’m sure is also indicative of moving forward.

Councillor Lisa Anne Chatten

We didn’t like [Strong Mayors powers], it was a bitter pill to swallow but the levers of which allowed us access funding.

in this case, I agree with my colleague Councillor Chatten. Knowing the slow manner in which these approvals can come from CN and any of the major utilities like that they’ll rag the puck on this one until we have people literally dropping in the streets

We cannot take our foot off the gas on this issue. We have to move forward on the hub issue.

Councillor Chris Malette

February 12, 2024 – Belleville formally asks the provincial government to provide $2 million to The Bridge

February 8, 2024 – Belleville declares State of Emergency for overdose crisis

Before October 15, 2023 – Mayor Ellis accepts Strong Mayor’s powers

Mayor’s signature on a letter of acceptance is all that is required to invoke the strong mayor powers on behalf of the city.

October 4, 2023 – Mayor Ellis acknowledges meeting targets depends on the economy

Right now, this year, we would have made our targets

it’s sometimes a challenge, but it depends on the economy.

We have people that are still purchasing homes and buying new homes so as the economy turns around, I think these numbers are attainable.

Mayor Neil Ellis

September 25, 2023

Council passes motion 6-2 opposing the intent of the Strong Mayors powers

That the CAO’s report be received; AND,

That the Mayor and Council of the City of Belleville oppose the intent of the Ontario Government’s regulation to grant strong mayor powers within the City of Belleville; and,

That the Mayor and Council of the City of Belleville believe that preserving our current system of governance, which emphasizes democratic checks and balances, is essential for the well-being and representation of our community members; and,

That the Mayor and Council oppose the intent of the concentration of power in a single executive office and advocate for the continuation of our current form of government; and,

That this motion be forwarded to Premier Doug Ford, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra, Minister Todd Smith, MPP for Bay of Quinte, Hastings-Lennox & Addington MPP Ric Bresee and municipalities within the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

Motion opposing the intent of strong mayors legislation

Councillor Paul Carr authored the motion to oppose the strong mayor powers, said he understands why Ellis is accepting, but feels that the province is trying to shut local councils out:

What it’s saying essentially, or how I looked at it, is that council is an obstacle to development, and we need council out of the way, and we’ll just deal directly with the mayors. Then the mayors will become an agent of the province, and they’ll implement those priorities.

Basically we don’t have a voice, and so the intent of the motion was simply to express council’s view on the strong mayor powers that the province has

But it’s important that we at least express our displeasure with legislation that flies in the face of democracy.

Councillor Paul Carr

I would like to support the motion but by supporting the motion and then taking the powers because we do need the money – and I do think we’re going to meet the targets – I think it makes me hypocritical. So, I cannot support the motion due to that fact.

Mayor Neil Ellis

Since the decision of whether or not to is solely the mayor’s, the vote was symbolic.

Mayor Ellis says he will use the powers to build more homes and bring provincial funds to the city

If we make our targets, it’s about $2.4 million. If we make 80 per cent of our targets, then it does decline.

If we make our targets, and exceed that, then there will be more money. It’s possible that over $3 million could come to the community.

Very low vacancy rate, the same as eastern Ontario, affordable housing, rental properties and housing in general.

Our population has expanded since the last census by about 7,000 people, and it’s growing. People want to be here, which is great, but we haven’t got the housing stock.

Mayor Neil Ellis

Council passes motion 6-2 requesting changes changes to the Building Faster Fund, separating the responsibilities of the municipality and the builders, requesting “Use it or Lose it” provincial zoning policies and monetary penalties to developers for failure to meet the housing start targets

Whereas the Ontario Government has assigned the City of Belleville with a Housing Target of 3100 housing starts by the year 2031; and

Whereas the City of Belleville does not actually build housing units; and,

Whereas the Ontario government has not taken any specific actions through regulations to make developers develop and builders build; and,

Whereas the Building Faster Fund municipal performance is evaluated based on the municipality’s number of housing starts and not municipal approvals; and,

Whereas there has been a decline in housing starts by the private residential building sector in 2023 despite record approvals by the City of Belleville; and,

Whereas the City of Belleville wants to see the supply of new housing starts meet affordability market demand; and,

Whereas the City of Belleville has taken and continues to take result oriented-actions to improve the conditions for increases to the housing supply in our municipality; and,

Whereas the City of Belleville is required by the Ontario government to render decisions on zoning applications within 90 days or otherwise be subject to financial penalty; and,

Whereas the City of Belleville would prefer to see a provincial funding program based on the merits of new residential unit growth plan approvals versus the quid pro quo nature of strong mayor powers; and,

Now therefore be it resolved that the Mayor and Council of the City of Belleville request that the Building Faster Fund be corrected so that municipal performance be based on housing start approvals for which the municipality has direct control; and,

That the Ontario government create “Use it or Lose it” provincial zoning policies so that it prevents land speculation, creating unnecessary delays in the development of land for residential housing; and,

That the Ontario government set housing start targets for the private residential building sector and that significant monetary penalties be set for failure to meet the housing start targets; and,

That this motion be forwarded to Premier Doug Ford, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra, Minister Todd Smith, MPP for Bay of Quinte, Hastings-Lennox & Addington MPP Ric Bresee and municipalities within the Ontario Municipal Association.

11.1 Motion to Deny Strong Mayor Powers from the Province of Ontario to the City of Belleville and Proposed Changes to Building Faster Fund

Councillor Paul Carr: Belleville has taken considerable measures to assist with increasing housing supply, province must build accountabilities and stringent guidelines to get the private sector to build

We received a letter from the Quinte Home Builders [Association] expressing concern over this portion of the [Building Faster Fund] motion and I have actually met with the Quinte Home Builders earlier this summer and I made it very clear to them that if there are obstacles in the way of which Council has control over I as chair of the Planning Advisory Committee are willing to take those on, bring them forward to council, and knock those obstacles off so that building can occur.

I did also make it very clear that on the flip side, the expectation is we need builders to build, we are under-supplied across our community and right across the nation quite frankly.

Having said that, the home builders did write a letter to Mayor and Council and in it, it says that they understand the motion includes a request “to punish developers and builders who don’t build”.

Now I did respond to the Quinte Home Builders and members of council were copied on that, again not for the purpose of debate, but to clear that up. I really want to clear it up in the sense that, as I look back, those statements were made by two news agencies who reported or filed on the story, but as members here know, and I did provide a copy to the Quinte Home Builders, at no time had I said the words punishing builders or developers for not building. It was not in the motion, and two weeks ago as procedurally introducing a motion or notice of motion, there is no debate, so there’s no opportunity to make such comments. So I just want to clear that up here to make sure that there is no ill will in that regard.

We heard earlier the CAO say that in his time since 1998 maybe the city of Belleville has built five houses. I’d like to hear more about where those houses were built and why they were built, but clearly over that period of time we’re just not in the house building business.

I think sometimes in the last few years I think the municipalities, we haven’t been good at defending ourselves. You turn on the news and senior levels of government, opposition parties, we become the whipping post. We’re the gatekeepers, we’re the people that stop building from happening. If they would just get out of the way, everything would be so much better, right?

We need to understand that municipalities are following provincial processes. I think it needs to be set out loud, the Planning Act is provincial legislation. The Official Plan is per Section 16 of the Planning Act – provincial legislation. Zoning Bylaw is Section 34 of the Planning Act – provincial legislation. Plan of Subdivision Section 51 of the Planning Act. Municipal Class Environmental Assessment is derived from the Environmental Assessment Act – Provincial Legislation. The Building Code is a regulation of the Building Code Act, the Building Permit is derived by the Building Code which is regulation under the Building Code Act, and the Occupancy Permit derived by the Building Code and is a regulation of the Building Code Act. All that provincial rules that municipalities must operationalize, so when the province talks about red tape, it’s their red tape, we’re simply holding it because they don’t give us a choice.

We’ve taken considerable measures to assist with increasing housing supply as it relates to the process and approvals.

We started that with the Housing Summit last term, but I want to just kind of blow the horn here in terms of what our planning staff and the different departments do in terms of moving things along.

The city’s initiated pre-consultation meetings to provide feedback on what’s required for a complete application as well as providing a list of outside agencies etc that will need approvals.

We’ve hired additional staff within the Approvals Department, we’ve worked towards modernizing key planning documents including the Official Plan, we’re working on the Zoning Bylaw, we’re looking at a corridor study of Bell Boulevard and North Front.

We’ve also looked at the West Belleville or the Loyalist Secondary Plan. We have approval for reduced parking guidelines, substantial completion of the the Zoning Bylaw, which is taking all those zones into three Urban residential zones which is a leading initiative for Ontario municipalities, we’re actually leading something here.

Development of a development manual to assist in defining processes and community expectations to get further buy-in. So in other words, if everybody knows how things are going to be developed, the less likely they’re going to be surprised and come here and object.

Hosting quarterly meetings with the Quinte Home Builders. The Home Builders have asked me to attend those, I made it very clear when I met with them that as an elected official I will not step into the operational realm. That line is there for a reason. Certainly we can have meetings, but when this is an operational meeting between staff and a stakeholder as an elected official I cannot be in that room.

Implementation of monthly meetings between development engineer and the developers engineer for the subdivision lands that have draft approval.

It goes on and on, and we’re looking at Infrastructure Phasing Plan and a Background Study.

We’re doing our part in terms of moving the needle for more housing.

But we still have delays in construction, I want to touch on that very briefly because as much as we are hitting our targets, and we will hit our targets I believe, we still are slow.

A very prominent address is 40 Yeomans Street, the old Ben Bleaker property at the North End. Originally we zoned the north half of that as one block in November 2021. Nothing happened, I’ve heard that the property has sold and then has now been repurchased and the north half has now been rezoned into two blocks in February 2023. There’s no site plan application to date, so that land sits.

In 2019, a capital budget item was walked on in the amount of $1.8 million dollars, adding the Avenue Road Sanitary Sewer Extension Project and it was funded from the Sanitary Sewer Reserve fund at $1.8 million and I know Councillor Thompson brings up water and wastewater all the time and you know this is a significant amount of money that goes towards the Village of Avonlea. The Village of Avonlea was approved for zoning for 750 homes. Right now, with the sanitary sewer leading that way, and the rezoning, that property is now up for sale, you can look on the listings locally, for $29 million dollars. So is that building or is that land speculation? It sits.

Another one is 660 Sidney St, two apartment buildings just near Battlefield. Building permits were actually requested pre-COVID and then were suggested or were asked to put on hold, and and now they’ve just been issued as of July 28th, and let me tell you as of this date that ground is as flat as flat can be. There is no development.

While builders have said – and I’ve got a long list here and I won’t go into it – they say they’re building, but yet we can point to examples where we’ve done what we have to do, or we’ve done what we can do, to the point where there’s nothing coming forward from a developer or a builder to move those approvals on, that’s a concern.

… So when I cite examples where we’re approving things, but yet it sits, that’s a problem in terms of the permits. In essence, we are getting evaluated, if you will, based on what’s being done in the private sector to get it to a building permit. That’s a concern. We should be evaluated on what we can control, not what others can control.

In a letter that the minister of Municipal Affairs provided you Mayor Ellis on August 22nd and it was shared with us on our agenda, it says: “Ontario will be consulting with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario the Housing Supply Action Plan implementation team and the City of Toronto on the program design details of the Building Faster Fund including eligible expenses and ways to track progress”.

They’ve announced it, they throw some dollars at it, now they’re going to design the program. What I’m suggesting with this motion here is is that we just get out in front of it, and that they actually design the program how it really should intended to be, and that’s measure the municipality for what they control, and what they can’t control, build accountabilities to the private sector.

The big talk right now is is inflation and yes, certainly interest rates are high, but interest rates have been high before. What the difference is, is the principle on these houses is astronomical. For example, you know on the resale market we’re seeing houses and I know an example right now where the house sold, it’s being rented, and then there’s a sub lease on the rental. Students are living there, so they’re overpaying the true costs, both the owner and the renter get an income.

Then we have a newly constructed two-bedroom two-bath home, 1400 square feet, unfinished basement in our city selling for $679,000. It’s not the interest it’s the problem, it’s the astronomical principle on that property that is making it unaffordable.

If we don’t see an increase in supply, and I don’t disagree with what the provincial government’s saying, what I have an issue with, and what I think we need to look at, is do we throw the suggestions forward in terms of how to make this program fair.

The parliament in 2019 passed the National Housing Strategy and they’ve made housing right. We have a legal obligation, I would argue a moral obligation, to ensure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to get houses built, but we need the private sector to build as well.

I think we’re at a turning point where the days of buying real estate because you don’t want to invest your money in the markets or in the stock markets and just build your wealth through real estate, that’s going to come to an end. Everybody’s sitting on that retirement nest egg if you will. Well if I sell my home you know that will fund my retirement.

Well who’s going to buy your home? The next generation coming behind us cannot afford the down payment and the mortgage payment for a house, so when we see people wandering our street with no place to go, and no place to live it is only going to get worse.

I think we’re all singing the same song in terms of building more houses, but we can’t play footsie around the corners in terms of how do we get this done. I’m simply suggesting here that the province needs to measure us – and we can certainly be accountable, for what we can control – but we need the provincial government to put in stringent guidelines to get the private sector to build.

The next thing that needs to happen quite frankly and it’s not in this motion, but I think it’s important to say, is that the senior levels of government need to invest considerably in affordable housing.

If we don’t and allow this so-called market to dictate it problem is, is if the market price is this high and we’ve seen it over the pandemic, everybody’s buying this high. The market doesn’t want to buy it, ask any buyer do you really want to pay $700,000, or would you rather pay $400,000? When you hear the private sector say: “well this is what the market’s calling for”, well if you set the bar there and you’ve got a scarcity commodity in terms of a place to live, then that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

What I’m asking here is that we just look at the program, have the province – look they’re suggesting even in their own letter the Minister is going to ask AMO in terms of thoughts on program design – this is simply suggesting that we throw in two cents here in terms of providing input from the City of Belleville’s perspective on this still to be designed fund.

Councillor Paul Carr, City of Belleville

Councillor Chatten asked if there was a way to use the Building Faster Fund dollars to incentivize builders

Provincial parameters around the program design, I fully agree with that, however, I also want to try and understand better how we can support our builders and help incentivize them in providing some investment into affordable housing. The dollars are funding that we may stand to gain from reaching the benchmark that has been outlined. Is there any way to use those funds to support our builders to incentivize them in some way to finish projects that they have started?

Councillor Lisa Anne Chatten

CAO Bovay: developers are a for-profit business, to overcome that, upper levels of government will have to support more affordable or attainable housing

I think the challenge that we have is builders, it’s a for-profit business, and they’ll sell as many houses as they can build if they get people to buy them. If people can’t buy them, or can’t afford them they’re not going to build them. The way that the city typically supports the builders, as Councillor Carr has mentioned today several times, we put in place the structure they need to be able to build their developments. We quickly process their plans of subdivisions, the rezoning applications, and we get we get out of their way to let them build.

Where we don’t have control is the market itself. Unfortunately, it’s a capitalist society, builders aren’t required to satisfy the housing demands of the community, they’re required to satisfy the demands of their shareholders and their owners.

The question is how to overcome that. I think it will take a combination of the upper levels of government jumping in to support more affordable or attainable housing, which hopefully will free up the market a little bit and allow some movement in the market.

Perhaps a correction in housing prices is what’s in the offing if we want a quick solution to a lot of the problems that we have today.

I’m not sure there’s a way to financially incent the builders to build more houses. Interest rates and the market itself will be required to drive that.

CAO Rod Bovay responding to Councillor Chatten regarding the use of Building Faster Fund funding to incentivize builders to build

Councillor Brown asked if they could get a similar pledge from the Quinte Home Builders Association, for at least a symbolic gesture

Habitat for Humanity traditionally built what we call the single doors, one door at a time, one house. Habitat for Humanity acknowledge that you can’t have a dramatic impact on the housing crisis when you build them one door at a time. Therefore the organization did a bit of a pirouette and now they’re working towards 66 to 72 units on a piece of property that was graciously donated by the city, but nonetheless we looked at we have to do it in volume. That we cannot do the traditional nice little bungalow on a nice little piece of land with lawn and a backyard, that we have to think differently.

I think we’re all very very clear about the fact that we have concerns about housing starts, so we can say that we hit the starts, we issued the permit, but it doesn’t actually have an impact on the outcome in terms of housing. My question is, based on the letter that Quinte Home Builders Association, whom I’ve worked with very closely over the course of the last number of years, they’ve indicated that they are about partnerships with municipalities. They value the partnership with the municipalities in terms of home building and creating residence.

My first question: would be is there an opportunity if we undertake and commit to the 3100 houses by 2031, whether or not there’s an opportunity to gain a similar pledge from the Quinte Home Builders Association, that they will partner with the City of Belleville to achieve that target.

I think it goes to some degree what we’re hoping to work towards, which is we can approve them, somebody else has to build them. If in fact it’s a partnership between ourselves and our home builders, then should they equally participate in a pledge? So that’s my first question, I think the question might be better directed to the city clerk about whether or not they have the potential to do that, alternately the CAO.

Councillor Kathryn Ann Brown

City Clerk MacDonald: Home builders would likely request funding in return for their pledge

I think anything that we requested to the Quinte Home Builders would be symbolic at best. Certainly we can ask them for a pledge. The Home Builders are a group of individual business owners who come together for collective good. That organization to have a collective voice with the city, probably with the Province, I don’t think certainly with the current Building Homes program and the fund they don’t have any standing, so they don’t stand a benefit.

I think any pledge that we would seek from them would likely – if I were in their shoes – would be sought with a request for us to reciprocally fund them for their pledge and I’m not sure the city is in a position to be able to flow funding to them.

I think it would be more of a goodwill gesture on their behalf at this point, but certainly I think it’s a conversation that can be can be had because I’m sure as you’re aware, staff have a regular meeting with them and are working on that relationship all the time.

City Clerk Clark MacDonald

August 21, 2023 – Mayor Ellis indicates he is not interested in special powers

He suggested that special powers that would give him the ability to override council with only one-third of votes could split council and was undemocratic.

In nine years of office, I have never wanted or thought about using that kind of power, and if I was to use the new Strong Mayor powers, it would just divide the Council.

Council is elected as a whole, and every vote counts. Democracy requires consensus.

We’ve got the whole Loyalist Secondary Plan. We have enough building lots to get us to 3,000 or 3,100 [new housing units], council has approved so, subdivision wise, that’s where we’re going

Mayor Neil Ellis to The Intelligencer, Quinte News, InQuinte

Strong Mayors impact on the Operating Budget

The 2024 Operating budget is prepared under the Strong Mayors legislation (O.Reg. 530/22), making changes to the timeline and requirements, but otherwise leaving the budget process fairly consistent with previous years.

Under the legislation the Mayor shall:

  • Prepare and present the proposed budget to each Member of Council and the Clerk by February 1st. The proposed budget must also be made available to the public.
  • Amendment Period (February 1 – March 1): Council will have the ability to provide amendments to the budget within the 30 day deadline
  • Veto Period (March 2 – March 11): The Mayor will have the ability to veto amendments (in writing) within 10 days after the expiry of the 30 day period above
  • Overriding a veto (March 12 – March 26): Council will have the ability to override the Mayor’s veto (if utilized) with a 2/3 vote within 15 days of the expiry of the veto
  • After the expiry of the time period for council to override the Mayor’s veto, the proposed budget is deemed to be adopted by the municipality and does not require a vote of Council.

Sources

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