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Niagara Falls
Tuesday, July 23, 2024
Draft strategic plan ready for resident input
Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa and deputy mayor Erwin Wiens chat during a council meeting. EVAN LOREE

The town’s draft strategic plan is now ready for resident feedback and suggestions.

The plan – meant to be a roadmap of council’s priorities for the next four years – is available for residents to review and comment on at public information sessions around town until May 30.

Residents can also provide feedback by filling out surveys on the town’s Join the Conversation forum.

While the plan is far from finalized, the town has identified some initial priorities, including youth programs, health infrastructure, urban planning, economic development and tourism management.

The full list of proposed priorities can also be found on the town’s forum along with a staff presentation outlining some of the topics covered in their brainstorming sessions.

Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa wouldn’t declare what he’d like to prioritize, saying he wants to hear from residents first.

He made an exception about managing the town’s growth, which he said was “going to bubble to the top.”

Some councillors questioned the large amount of input staff have had at this stage in the plan.

Coun. Wendy Cheropita said senior staff brainstormed their own ideas for the strategic plan and then brought those suggestions to council.

Staff and council then held a joint brainstorming session April 19 and the various topics that came up were given to staff, who drafted the plan based on what was discussed.

Victoria Steele, the town’s new director of strategy and government relations, then presented the draft to council May 16.

“We looked at some potential priorities and goals. Our senior management team had come up with some they wanted to finish from the previous term,” Steele said.

Cheropita pointed out there was a lot in the draft that had already “been in the queue for a couple of years” and said plans like these are supposed to be looking ahead.

“It’s a highly unusual process,” she later told The Lake Report. 

In her experience, council usually sets priorities and provides its own vision and staff is in charge of implementing it, she said.

After seeing the drafted plan, Coun. Gary Burroughs wondered if it is being designed by council or by staff.

“Really, strategic plans are council’s strategic plan, not staff’s,” he said. “It’s way too staff-driven.”

Despite his concerns, Burroughs voted with the majority to start getting feedback on the draft plan.

Cheropita and Coun. Sandra O’Connor both voted against sending it out for feedback, arguing it would have been helpful to first refine their ideas with a short meeting.

Coun. Erwin Wiens, on the other hand, said the process for this term is “very similar” to what he remembers from his first term.

“For me personally, it’s been a lot easier because I understand the process,” he said.

“I have no concerns with our strategic plan whatsoever,” he added.

Chief administrator Marnie Cluckie told The Lake Report developing an effective plan “requires engaging as many people as much as possible.”

The previous council hired a consultant to oversee the strategic plan but she said this council  decided to have a staff member facilitate it.

That responsibility belongs to Steele, who was previously acting town clerk.

The whole point of the plan “is to get everyone rowing in the same direction,” Cluckie said.

“That requires having a shared vision and common goals, open communication and buy-in at all levels.”

Zalepa said council is going to hold “an extra workshop following the public feedback.”

He said this will help councillors feel like their goals and priorities are part of the plan.

In the current draft, the priority projects are subdivided into four categories, the fourth of which contains items that will help staff optimize service.

O’Connor thinks residents may focus too closely on this category and that it might “detract from the more important messages that we’re trying to develop.” 

She also was concerned there were no environmental stewardship projects in the draft of strategic priorities.

This is partially because staff are planning to address all town projects from the environmental perspective. 

O’Connor called this “an attempt to keep the environment in there,” but felt it was being relegated to a “second priority.”

For Burroughs, short-term rentals need to be addressed in the strategic plan.

“To me short-term rentals are a big deal in this town,” he said.

Burroughs sat on the former short-term rental committee and he feels the solutions proposed by the committee would “fit this town very, very nicely.”

He said council has not seen an update on the committee’s suggestions since July 2021.

Cheropita, on the other hand, got a few of her top concerns into the draft plan. 

One of them was the town’s capital reserves, which she said the previous council decided not to top up two years in a row.

It’s important, she said, to turn inward and look to “operate more efficiently, where we might find cost savings.”

Wiens, well-known for his advocacy for the agricultural community, also listed responsible spending as a top priority.

“You know the old adage, and it’s cliche, but every day is budget day,” he said.

These concerns would be covered under the town’s sustainable budget program, which was listed as a priority in the plan’s second category.

In their discussion of the strategic plan on May 16, councillors decided to not hold another meeting to discuss it.

Coun. Nick Ruller said the town needs to stay on schedule with the plan.

“This is intended to be a community-driven strategic plan,” Ruller said.

“The more time we spend as council trying to refine and narrow the focus, the more problematic that will be as far as accurately capturing the broader community’s interest,” he said.

Ruller noted pushing the schedule into the summer could decrease community engagement because many residents leave on vacation.

He also said he wants an approved strategic plan before councillors get into the budget.

“Arguably, we will be the biggest impediment to a strategic budget if we don’t continue to move this along,” he said.

UPCOMING SESSIONS

The town’s information sessions for the draft strategic plan started Tuesday.

There will be two more May 29, the first at Virgil Sports Park from noon to 2 p.m. and another at Sparky’s Park in St. Davids from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.

The remaining three will be May 30, at the Glendale outlet mall’s food court from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the second at the old Court House from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. and the last one online at 6:30 p.m.

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