By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
That’s what Stuart Kiar says about the possible closure of the Chatham-Kent municipal service centre located in Dresden’s iconic clock tower building.
“The timing is not good,” said Kiar, a local lawyer and one of the leaders of the Dresden Shines community group.
“This comes a week after the announcement of the potential redevelopment in downtown Chatham.
“I am supportive of that development, as are many Dresden residents I have spoken with,” he said. However, Kiar noted it “seems ironic” the potential closure of Dresden’s Municipal Centre follows so closely after the downtown Chatham announcement.
The deputation by Kiar, co-chair of the Dresden Shines community group with Cindy Brewer and Liz Kominek, was one of 105 submitted to Chatham-Kent council June 20.
The deputations –which took more than two hours to read aloud – oppose the idea of removing in-person municipal services in Dresden, Ridgetown and Tilbury, along with the end of municipal help desks in Bothwell, Thamesville and Wheatley.
What has Dresden residents alarmed is the proposal recommends the municipality divest itself of affected buildings; meaning Dresden’s historic brick landmark would be sold.
The clock tower has long been a focal point of the town, Kiar noted, and since Dresden Shines formed in 2020 after the May 16 Miracle, a unique lighting system on the heritage structure is routinely used to mark special occasions and highlight causes.
The report explains requests for services have dropped dramatically over the course of the pandemic with services increasingly moving online, but Kiar said the conclusion is misleading.
Municipal information desks located within the Wheatley, Thamesville and Bothwells libraries were closed for over two years, he said.
In Dresden, where a blend of municipal and ServiceOntario services such as licences and health cards are provided, foot traffic is restricted to appointment only for provincial services.
The appointment-only practice for ServiceOntario in Dresden and Chatham began during the pandemic and has continued.
However, residents are able to access municipal services on a walk-in basis.
Cathy Hoffman, Chatham-Kent’s chief human resource officer, said the municipality runs the ServiceOntario offices in Dresden and on Grand Avenue in Chatham, whereas Blenheim and Wallaceburg ServiceOntario outlets are operated privately.
Hoffman said the practice of requiring appointments was continued in order to combat frustrating line-ups, a situation that can be exacerbated by the weather.
ServiceOntario has a contract with the municipality, but that’s set to expire at the end of 2022. The proposal recommends the municipality not attempt to renew the agreement unless the province opts to pay the entire cost instead of subsidizing a portion.
Along with Kiar’s submission, deputations were received from the Dresden BIA and many leading citizens and business owners in the community.
Access for seniors, the fact that ServiceOntario draws critical foot traffic to the downtown, the fact that not everyone has Internet access, the price of gas and lack of transportation to other ServiceOntario outlets were among the concerns pointed out.
North Kent Coun. Jamie McGrail, said she’s unhappy local groups weren’t consulted as part of the review.
Stakeholders, such as local BIAs, should have been included, she said.
“The community and business groups should have been forewarned and brought into the loop,” McGrail said adding the services supplied by the municipal centres are “essential services.
“I think there’s a flaw in how we get our message out,” she added.
McGrail said she agrees with some of the items in the customer service review to improve services and cut costs. However, she said savings for Chatham-Kent should not come at the “detriment” to smaller communities.
North Kent Coun. Joe Faas said the Dresden municipal building is an “anchor of the community,” adding the deputations “speak for themselves.”
The customer service review came about as a result of a motion made by South Kent Coun. Clare Latimer in March 2021. Council directed administration to find efficiencies and cut costs by possibly altering services provided through its municipal service centres and information desks.
It also examines how the municipality delivers information to residents through its 3-1-1 telephone system and details how online services can be enhanced.
A 14-member committee comprised mainly of Chatham-Kent administrators and some private sector members met weekly for a six-month period in 2021 to determine how municipal services could be changed.
Kiar said Dresden’s community groups are exploring the issue, but noted the “ball is back in council’s court.
“It’s up to council,” he said. “Administration simply acted on a recommendation from council.
“They did exactly what they were asked.”
The matter returns to council July 11.