Gore Bay POA Office faces COVID-19 deficit, urges support

GORE BAY – The Provincial Offences Act (POA) local management board in Gore Bay, which oversees the POA for the Island’s nine municipalities (including Cockburn Island), is lobbying the Ontario attorney general for funding to make up for COVID-19 budget shortfalls due to the province’s pause on collecting fines and the addition of new expenditures to prepare a jury trial space in Gore Bay that complies with public health restrictions.

“The province has given municipalities and companies and everything else a hand with covering COVID-19 costs with grants and (other programs). With POA, there’s nothing. It doesn’t qualify for anything and it’s a provincially downloaded thing, so there should be something there,” said POA management board chair Derek Stephens, who also serves as a councillor in the Municipality of Central Manitoulin.

At the end of 2020, the unaudited financial statements showed a deficit of $22,513.23; outgoing POA manager Annette Clarke attributed this to the pandemic and said the problem was occurring across the province. This is the second time Gore Bay POA has posted a deficit in 20 years.

COVID-19 has led to deficit

The factors going into this deficit, according to a report Ms. Clarke made to the Gore Bay POA board on January 22, included an inability for the POA office to collect and enforce fines because Ontario has extended the time limits for POA appeals until April 12 due to the pandemic.

This means that any person charged has extra time to file an appeal; until that period closes, the POA office cannot move to collect any fines owed, unless the person charged voluntarily pays the ticket.

In addition, any tickets issued after March 1, 2020 have until February 26, 2021 to choose an option for proceeding as per the choices on the back of the ticket. This is a deadline that has been extended a few times. Until that date, the local courts cannot pursue collecting the fines.

Ontario has also closed in-person court sessions, which has further impacted the Gore Bay office’s ability to process cases.

Expositor readers will recall the search over the past several months for an alternative space on Manitoulin in which to hold court after the province determined the Gore Bay courthouse could not be set up with enough physical distancing for jury trials.

The Gore Bay Community Hall became the choice for a larger space and Gore Bay POA has used considerable expenditures to cover supplies for the space, including a desk for the justice of the peace, computer equipment and connectivity utilities, Plexiglas barriers and PPE. Staffing costs at the new space are also higher.

Due to the provincial stay-at-home order, that space has yet to see any use. The province is encouraging a virtual resumption of services first and it allowed early resolutions (meetings before an accused’s trial date where the courts will attempt to get a plea in lieu of going to trial) to resume via audio teleconference in October.

Virtual hearings are a considerable challenge in a place like Manitoulin especially, where cell phone coverage is spotty in areas, let alone high-speed internet.

It’s been a challenging time for Pam Fogal as she takes over as the new Gore Bay POA manager from Ms. Clarke. Her term officially began on January 1 but she had been transitioning into the role before that date.

“We are in the process of trying to (hold court) virtually with Zoom, but with that said, we have to make sure we have the infrastructure in place,” Ms. Fogal said, acknowledging the local connectivity challenges. “Zoom does seem to be a decent platform, though, because you can set it up for audio only.”

Parking tickets also a problem this year

As reported in the February 10 edition of The Expositor, the Island’s POA office is having difficulties collecting parking infraction fines from drivers who park in prohibited zones on highways, especially near some of Manitoulin’s tourist hotspots like Bridal Veil Falls and Cup and Saucer hiking trail.

These issues are separate from the above-described issues the local board is facing regarding collecting fines, but will also contribute to the larger deficit. Parking tickets are considered ‘part II’ offences, whereas ‘part I’ offences refer to circumstances when tickets can be issued, such as charges of trespassing, infractions against the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, or violating the Highway Traffic Act through actions such as speeding.

Part III offences are reserved for more serious proceedings, including animal cruelty, businesses that violate the liquor licence act, Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks infractions such as altering shore lands and serious Highway Traffic Act charges such as stunt driving or driving with a suspended licence.

The province has been hampering efforts to advance part II cases because if a driver is not present when their illegally parked vehicle gets a ticket and police do not look up the information themselves, POA has to request driver information through Ontario’s attorney general.

Over the past year, the province has not been fulfilling as many of those requests, citing an added workload during the pandemic that has made it difficult to keep up with demand.

Without basic information like the driver’s name, the ticket cannot be put into the POA system, which means those tickets will remain unprocessed until officials can research and verify the missing information.

Provincial data also suggests that the total number of tickets is down because police are being called for other matters during the pandemic.

POA system supposed to be profitable

Ontario downloaded responsibility for the POA system to municipalities in November 2000. It was always intended to be a revenue-neutral operation or even a small source of profits for the member municipalities. A budget note stated the year-end profit is normally close to $15,000, which can either be sent into reserves or redistributed to municipalities.

Gore Bay POA has had positive cash-flow for nearly every year since its inception, with last year’s massive deficit showing a direct correlation with the onset of COVID-19.

Fortunately, the office identified a few years ago that it had some expenditures coming up and chose to bolster its reserve fund with any year-end surpluses. When the pandemic hit, it was serendipitously better able to face the $22,513 deficit with its $49,848 reserve.

Board members discussed whether to use the reserves or bill the member municipalities for the shortfall; the municipal representatives indicated most Island townships had already used up the bulk of their COVID-19 funding from the province and did not wish to add the burden on Manitoulin ratepayers.

Gore Bay Mayor Dan Osborne, a POA member, raised the idea of lobbying the province for money to cover the shortfall. Billings Councillor Bryan Barker, another member, agreed and added that the municipal COVID-19 funds came with considerable restrictions and they might not be permitted to go toward POA costs.

Gore Bay POA penned a letter to Premier Doug Ford, Attorney General Doug Downey, Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha, all POAs in Ontario and all Island townships, to explain the situation and urge provincial funding support to all POAs because Ontario had yet to provide any grants to POAs.

The Gore Bay group also approved a draft 2021 budget at the January meeting, with an expected deficit of at least $6,500 for this year. If revenues continue to be interrupted, though, that number may be higher, but if all public health and fine enforcement restrictions ease, the Island’s POA may have a better-than-average year.

“We don’t know how (2021) will impact our operations. This year, we took money out of our reserve funds to cover the (2020) deficit. If there’s any deficits after that, it will have to be covered by the municipalities,” Mr. Stephens, the local POA chair, said.

Politicians respond

Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha, a member of the Official Opposition NDP, received a copy of the letter on Friday, February 12.

“This is something that we’ve seen with many organizations, businesses, municipalities, and now we’re seeing the constraint that the COVID-19 pandemic has put on the Gore Bay provincial offences board and management,” he told The Expositor that day.

He vowed that on Tuesday, February 16, he would walk to Attorney General Downey’s office, deliver the letter and hopefully have a discussion about what his ministry would do to help POA courts across Ontario.

“They have been left out, they have been forgotten and are in need,” he concluded.

The Expositor contacted the Ministry of the Attorney General for insight into the challenges local POA boards are having with collecting fines, as well as what supports it would be offering to those boards.

Spokesperson Brian Gray said the government has moved to allow more virtual hearings, adjourned all in-person POA proceedings scheduled between March 16, 2020 and January 22, 2021 and adjourned all POA appeals with a judge with the Ontario Court of Justice until April 9, 2021.

“The Ministry of the Attorney General is working with the 59 municipal partners who administer POA courts to facilitate a province-wide recovery plan. Municipalities have received guidance from the ministry to ensure that POA courthouses can safely reopen with health and safety measures in place that are consistent with provincial courts.

“Prior to reopening for in-person appearances, each POA court location will undergo a virtual review by the Public Service Health and Safety Association to verify the presence of appropriate health and safety measures.

“The ministry will continue to work with the Ontario Court of Justice and municipal partners to support the safe and gradual reopening of POA courts,” Mr. Gray stated.

He also cited Ontario’s existing commitments of $695 for municipalities in addition to the first phase of the safe restart agreement of $1.6 billion for partners. Mr. Gray added that municipal safe restart funding can go toward a municipality’s highest-priority COVID-19-related needs.