Allumettes Island council relies on resilience, flexibility

STEPHEN RICCIO
L’ISLE AUX ALLUMETTEs March 31, 2021

EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next several months, THE EQUITY will be reporting on the progress each municipality within the Pontiac has made since the last slate of municipal elections in 2017. This series aims to uncover and expand on what key accomplishments, challenges and notable events each community has dealt with over the past four years.

When reflecting on the last four years of progress in the Municipality of L’Isle aux Allumettes, members of the council spoke with pride and optimism regarding the accomplishments and challenges that they dealt with.
Having handled devastating flooding in 2019, the COVID-19 lockdown, and an ongoing effort to receive financial assistance for infrastructure, the municipality had no shortage of difficulties in its operations.
However, the key to success has been a diverse council that has stayed on track with a collective commitment to taxpayers and working well with other levels of government.
“I think we’ve accomplished a lot,” explained councillor Nancy McGuire. “We’re a diverse group, most of us are brand new councillors at that table … so it’s a lively group.”
According to Mayor Winston Sunstrum, the council’s major accomplishments include a lowered mill rate, new quad trails, a major government infrastructure grant for $4 million, a new gazebo, a new sewage pumping station, the effort with four other municipalities to establish the Résidence Meilleur du Haut Pontiac seniors’ home and various partnerships with non-profit community groups.
Among the biggest challenges was the municipality’s continued struggle to get road work 90 per cent funded through a provincially-offered program called PIIRL, or the local road infrastructure intervention plan.
While engineering work has been done on many of the projects that have been submitted to PIIRL for funding, the lack of support from the program had caused delays in the council’s desired road improvement plans.
In an email to THE EQUITY Director General Alicia Jones explained that the municipality had lowered its road investment amounts over the previous three years due to the hope that PIIRL would come into play. The council elected to adopt a new approach this year, with the budgeted amount for major road projects in 2021 sitting at $675,000. This is up from just $180,000 in both 2018 and 2019, and $300,000 in 2020. Jones said the allotment of $675,000 is part of a significant spending plan.
Councillor Louis Lair said that the council saw a need to create a new approach in 2021, as waiting and hoping for the PIIRL program was becoming fruitless, and because the council had been elected to do work on roads, as he put it.
Sunstrum said that the municipality’s PIIRL application for $5 million in road work assistance could still be approved.
Councillor Pat Montgomery said that he was proud to have played a role in the recent acceleration of road improvement throughout the municipality.
A big reason why the council had been budgeting less money on road projects was due to its inability to use the gas tax, the 2019-2023 TECQ program, on roads.
According to Sunstrum, the municipality was not allowed to use gas tax money on roads as long as it wasn’t up to par with regard to its water and sewer infrastructure.
For this reason, the September 2020 funding announcement for $4 million - $2 million from both the provincial and federal levels of government - for water and sewage in the island village of Chapeau was a much-needed shot in the arm for the municipality.
“That’ll bring us right up to scratch and we’ll be able to redirect that [gas tax] money to roads,” Sunstrum explained.
Despite the situation with road work, he said that the municipality still prepared and paved 400 m of road surface and double surfaced 5.1 km. An additional 8.8 km of roads have been prepared for surface treatment, with a good amount of that expected to be treated this summer.
The creation of an employee administrative program in 2018 was an unexpected achievement thanks to the initiative of councillor McGuire, as she explained that she immediately saw a need for it upon her beginning her first councillor term in 2017.
“We did a very detailed pay equity and job evaluation with the help of the ministry, very, very detailed, and I was a part of that,” she said. “And it will serve our municipality forever.”
Lair praised McGuire for coming up with the program, and he credited her past experience in the human resources field as integral to the program’s success.
McGuire explained that the program takes into account a municipal employee’s responsibilities, working conditions, qualifications, and many other variables to help ensure that they work in a positive work environment.
She said that the successful creation of the program was thanks to a determined director general in Jones, as well as a commitment to transparency from everyone on the council.
The reduction of the mill rate was something that Sunstrum, Lair and McGuire were happy with, as the municipality decreased its mill rate per $100 of evaluation down from $0.65 in 2018 to $0.56 in 2019 and 2020.
According to Jones, the new assessment roll in 2019 was higher for properties around the island and therefore municipal officials emphasized reducing the rate to compensate for the increased evaluation. The municipality will be given a new assessment roll in 2022, as it typically runs on a three-year cycle.
Montgomery said that he wished that the council could have reduced rates for tax payers in other areas. He added that the next council that is elected during the 2021 fall elections will have its fair share of areas to get to work on.
Having served as councillor for one term and mayor for almost three full terms now, Sunstrum said that the nature of municipal politics is that projects often carry over.
“Governing from one mandate to the next is a continuous process,” he said. “Projects may have been started before this mandate and got completed in this mandate and then projects may have been started in this mandate and won’t get completed until the next mandate. It’s just to get the groundwork done and ready to move with it.”
Some issues on the island are recurring and are difficult to address for the council alone, such as the presence of power outages and the struggle for quality cell phone reception.
The number of power outages went down in 2020 from past years, and recent government funding announcements for potential internet projects such as the Connexion Fibre Picanoc venture signal a possible path to improved service.
Sunstrum also said that Bell has recently started putting high speed fibre optic cable down in some municipalities throughout the upper Pontiac, including L’Isle aux Allumettes.
With COVID-19 continuing to impact life over a year into the pandemic, McGuire was optimistic about the path forward.
“The residents of Allumettes Island, they’ve been very supportive, they’ve been understanding,” McGuire said. “They volunteer their personal time, they have been very good at giving us advice based on their knowledge and working with us, helping neighbour to neighbour, and this goes [for] the flood, the border closure and the COVID lockdown which we are still in. So I’m new, but it’s been quite the whirlwind. Well this is unprecedented right, but I really feel like we held our ground.”

The municipality contains a population of roughly 1,334 (as of the 2016 census). In the last three years alone, there were 37 new homes and cottages built.

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