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Shelburne CAO helping to guide municipality into fruitful future

August 15, 2019   ·   0 Comments


As part of a new series, the Free Press will take an in-depth look at some of the community’s most important and fascinating characters. First up is the municipality’s CAO Denyse Morrissey.

Denyse Morrissey’s office is more like a sitting room than the official residence of the Chief Administrative Officer of Shelburne. 

It reflects the woman who occupies it, warm and inviting, but somehow still forthright and very much a place of decisions. On one of the few filing cabinets, reside a collection of magnets. They reflect the values and beliefs that drive Denyse’s day-to-day approach to life and to her job. They appear  colloquial  and yet are perfectly insightful. 

This is the business home of a very multi-faceted problem solver. A woman who has a dog and a husband and two rescue cats and the inate ability to rise to every problem that crosses her desk. She is hands-on in her approach and is the first one to tell you that she has the best staff imaginable behind her. 

Denyse may decide the priorities, but her dedicated staff provide the source of her successful outcomes. The Mayor and Council may provide the direction the Town will follow, but it is the CAO and Staff who make it happen. Council may present their wish lists, but it is those behind the scenes who try to guide the progress in the intended direction and who provide the guidance and advice as to the overall feasibility of each endeavour. They provide the pros and the cons and how much it will cost, not only the Town, but the taxpayers. Guiding all this and the day to day affairs of governance, is the CAO.

Denyse came to Shelburne from Meaford and before that from Oshawa,  Niagara Falls, St. Catherines, the Ontario Parks Association and initially, The City of Dartmouth. She holds a Bachelors from Brock University and a Masters from Dalhousie and, along the way, a whole lot of experience in municipal governance. She has a strong grasp of what is important to a small town, but a deeper understanding of small town limitations and how to work within and around them, to try and achieve the goals placed before her.. She understands the limitations of a very limited tax base and of the high costs of overextending one’s debt load. Shelburne has both and this will need to change if the Town expects to realize it’s potential. 

Potential is what Denyse talks about frequently. Though small geographically, Shelburne occupies a mere 6.6 square kilometers, the Town offers almost all the amenities that a resident might require and is a shopping hub for many of it’s surrounding communities. There are two banks, a Trust Company, two grocery stores, a pharmacy, several doctors, dentists and even a large hardware store, not to mention Tim Horton’s, optometrists, agricultural retailers and several restaurants, with more retail expected soon. Residents can walk from one end of town to the other in under an hour. 

Shelburne has several parks, good recreation facilities, a library and a Legion, as well as several varieties of churches. It has been a growing town and will soon reach the magic population number of 10,000 people, which is the get-to point for most larger retailers and commercial enterprises. All of this, says Denyse, bodes well for making Shelburne a go-to, come-to destination, for the future. She points out that what Shelburne may not have, is readily available close by, in towns such as Orangeville and Alliston.

But getting back to her responsibilities, the challenges are tremendous and, well, challenging. Denyse came from a much larger community, where many services that Shelburne contracts out, were in-house. In Shelburne, there is also the problem of multi governmental jurisdictions to be considered. Residents have long complained of the truck and tourist traffic through the main street. They want a bypass and therein, lies one of the biggest problems. Shelburne’s main street is actually, Hwy 89 and it’s northbound thoroughfare, Owen Sound Street, is Hwy 10, both of which are owned and controlled by the Province. Similarly, the roads which would be considered for the bypass, are not owned or controlled by Shelburne, but rather by the County of Dufferin and surrounding municipalities, like Amaranth and Melancthon. 

As a result, the building of a bypass requires not only provincial approval, but also the approval of all the other parties involved. Add to this that none of these roads were constructed for sustained heavy traffic and the complications grow and grow. 

For Denyse and her staff, this all presents an ongoing and frustrating debate with the realities on one hand and the residents wants and wishes on the other. For now, the Town will have to suffice with lowering the speed limit, on the connecting link, to 40kph and hoping that strict traffic enforcement will reduce the level of traffic or at least slow it down and reduce the noise and safety issues. Even this small change, took several years of negotiation, with the provincial authorities, to achieve. It is all a balancing act and The CAO is the lead acrobat.

Dealing with other governments, dramatically affects other aspects of Shelburne’s day-to-day functioning. With it’s limited tax base, the Town must borrow for a lot of it’s budgetary needs, or apply for grants to offset the costs. In the past, these grants have been easily accessible and in some cases guaranteed. This is no longer the case. 

The Provincial Tories have reduced and in some cases cancelled many grants and others are much harder to receive. This year, Shelburne and communities across Ontario were informed that the expected OCIF top ups would not be provided as the program was being cancelled. Instead, the Town received a one-time grant of less than half of what had been expected. In addition they were refused, for the third time, the connecting link grant, which would have allowed the municipality to repair and upgrade the Main Street/ Owen Sound Street corridors , which have been in desperate need of attention for several years. 

All of this required considerable rethought and reallocation of funds to try and achieve the Town’s priorities. 

With the continued reduction in available funds, Shelburne’s debt requirements over the next five years are going to be substantial. Past Councils had adhered to a zero tax increase policy approach and in so doing, created, at least in part, the current debt problems. This approach relied on the Town’s reserves, or savings, if you will, to make up the shortfalls. Now, these reserves are low, and the only recourse is to raise taxes or borrow. 

Taxes will go up, but because of the population base and the geographical size of Shelburne, a 1 percent tax increase on an average assessment, equates to an additional $69,000 dollars. Compared to the amounts of money required, this is a drop in the bucket. By comparison, in larger municipalities, that figure would perhaps be in the region of $1.5 million dollars. 

It is clear to see, that to raise the funds through only taxes, would not be an acceptable answer. For Denyse, the solutions will be formidable. The Town cannot borrow beyond it’s means, by law, it must present a balanced budget, it cannot run a deficit and it cannot tax it’s residents to the point of moving on. The solutions will have to be a mix of responsible borrowing, grants and tax increases with a realistic approach to meeting expectations. 

Many things on residents’ want list will not happen in the next decade. Things like indoor pools and splash pads are hugely expensive, as are basketball courts and sports fields. However, other amenities are not and members of the community have always been generous with their time and efforts to provide events and opportunities. As CAO, Denyse sees a lot of possibilities materializing for Shelburne. She emphasizes the trail networks and the road share initiatives  as examples and the Town’s ongoing efforts to provide access, to information, for the residents, through things like the new website. There needs to be a Master Plan established for Fiddle Park, which is still highly under used and the professional level theatre inside Town Hall, could become a major community focus if it were maximized. 

Presently, the Town lacks a large commercial tax base with which to offset residential taxes, but it is coming. Residential taxes will always constitute the majority of Shelburne’s tax revenue, but all available commercial land, in the community, is currently in the hands of developers. 

The largest of these is Fieldgate, in the east end, where over 11 acres is slated for retail/commercial development. several retailers have already expressed interest and Fieldgate intends to develop the commercial side ahead of the close to 400 homes in the development. To Denyse, this is the tip of the iceberg, that will eventually see Shelburne rise above its current fiscal dilemmas. 

However, to facilitate this and other developments on the horizon, Shelburne’s infrastructure must be brought up to appropriate levels, with water and waste water treatment being the biggest issues. Quality of life is a touchstone in Denyse’s strategic planning approach for the town. Her approach is governed by what she perceives as essential services, as opposed to extraneous benefits. Having a flexible plan and following it, regardless of it’s popularity is a key component to the sustainable future of Shelburne. No one is going to get everything they want, but everyone is going to get a Shelburne that is affordable, livable, vibrant and a place to call home.



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