Oxford Mayor Cautiously Optimistic for 2022
At Oxford Town Council’s last meeting of 2021, held just a few days before Christmas, Mayor Greg Henley and his fellow councillors welcomed financial statements that showed a turnaround in the town’s fortunes.
The town went from a deficit of $180,000 to a $15 thousand dollar surplus during a challenging year.
Henley has high hopes that his team’s efforts at cost-cutting over the past year will continue as a trend.
Henley says the combined efforts of councillors, who took over direct oversight of town expenditures in key areas, questioning existing practices and putting everything under a microscope, paid off in the end.
But it was a lot of hard work—by councillors, some of whom have work commitments outside of town hall, and by staff who Henley says “rose to the challenge.”
Mayor Henley says a new auditor has helped town staff put the house in order, and commends the work of senior accountant RuthAnn Brookins in helping council make sense of the books.
Henley gave particular praise to Town Clerk Linda Cloney, who took over affairs at the town office following the dismissal of former Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Rachel Jones.
He says the results of the past year’s efforts have shown that a CAO model doesn’t work in a small town. Mayor Henley says Cloney has been diligent in keeping him on the right path with municipal guidelines and regulations during his first year as a municipal leader.
Henley notes there are challenges in running a small town that many folks don’t see. With the positions of Economic Development Officer and Recreation Director unfilled since the beginning of the pandemic, the town saved money on wages and some programming. But the work done by the former CAO and those two staff positions was handed down to existing staff and councillors.
The mayor says the workload is enormous, particularly with the ongoing struggle to meet provincial demands for reporting and the bureaucratic paperwork that stresses existing capabilities. He says that alone would keep a full-time employee occupied, if there was room in the budget to add staff.
Focus on Recreation
The Town will be hiring a recreation director in 2022 to oversee programming. Henley says while Councillor Chrystal McNutt did “a wonderful job” overseeing the recreation programming last year, a full-time staffer is needed. Oxford is looking for funding for that position.
Recreation has been one of Oxford’s greatest challenges in recent years, with an expensive community facility—the Oxford Lion’s Arena—responsible for significant costs in wages, maintenance, and upgrades.
This is the second year running that a community group has been in charge of arena programming and upkeep, not to mention upgrades, which Henley is very pleased to see. He says the town is negotiating a five-year leasing agreement that will result in continued recreational services for the community while bringing significant savings to the town.
Cooperation in Cumberland
Looking back on 2021, Mayor Henley is pleased with measures taken in tandem with Oxford’s municipal neighbours. The sale of the solid waste management services and assets, he says, was a win-win for taxpayers, avoiding a multi-million dollar investment needed in the Little Forks facility and securing stable Consumer Price Indexed tipping fees over the life of the 25-year contract. The deal will also mean a share of the landfill’s sale will end up in Oxford coffers.
Henley shared a personal observation from early December, when he had occasion to walk to work for a couple of days while his car was in the shop: an amazement at the number of newcomers to his town, particularly children. He is pleased to see the population growth—no figures are available yet—but can be inferred by the volume of home renovation and construction, and the limited availability of rental units. The town reaps benefits from that development in the form of deed transfer and property taxes.
Henley says that residential growth is wonderful to see, and hopes it also translates into future commercial growth. He points to the newly-rebuilt downtown building beside GJDE Enterprises—the “Alphabet Store”—where Eric Mosher plans to open an eatery and garden centre in the new year, and another planned restaurant and outdoor patio space across the street along Black River. Both of those projects will bring new life to the downtown core that he hopes could spark new entrepreneurs to set up shop as well.
Hoping to see new “boutique” shops open in the post-pandemic environment, Henley says the town has little financial ability to offer incentives to the business community, but has and will work to help in other ways.
The Challenge Ahead
The challenges facing Oxford in the coming years are also on Mayor Henley’s mind. Ongoing discoveries of aged infrastructure—like 80-year-old sections of the town’s water system—are among the items that are being planned for replacement, as capital funding allows.
Close to home for the town administration, the Town Hall represents a future money pit, requiring over $800-thousand-dollars to bring up to code, according to one assessment. Henley says that’s money the town simply doesn’t have.
Many hopes are being pinned on the realization of a community effort to build a new Community Centre, where Henley expects the town would decide to lease office space to provide that project with steady income while offloading the existing town hall building to private developers. Given its prime location at the heart of the downtown, Henley hopes it would be picked up for conversion to apartments and/or retail space.
The former Bank of Nova Scotia building was built in 1908, and requires significant repairs to the foundation and masonry. Relocating the town’s administration to a new community centre—planned for the former Oxford Regional High School lands on Little River Road—would enable another developer or group with access to funding an opportunity to revitalize one of the community’s oldest heritage buildings.
Mayor’s Wishlist for 2022
Henley’s wish list for 2022 and the coming years includes new housing construction. He thinks there are some seniors who would jump at the chance to move into a smaller unit, such as the Thompson residential facility on Foundry Street, or the Gullens’ properties on Foundry and behind the Community Medical Centre. That could potentially free up larger homes for folks moving to Oxford with families in need of space.
Henley raises another long-held desire for the town: that an assisted living facility be built to provide an alternative to care, and to enable seniors to stay “close to home”.
The mayor also has concerns about the future of medical care provided to Oxford residents. The ongoing effort coordinated with Amherst, Cumberland County, local political representatives, and health care management faces continued challenges in the era of COVID.
Henley says the town could benefit from a medical clinic in which doctors could be recruited to share patient loads. The concept of nurse practitioners would also, he said, help lessen the load on the regional health infrastructure.
As always, the challenge is in recruiting and retaining those professionals. Henley says it is important that local residents who need to see a doctor have access to one in their community. He notes that Oxford once had three doctors serving the population, down to just one today.
Henley expressed some concern with the potential for “COVID fatigue”. Folks who have been dealing with public health orders and social distancing for so long, may stop caring as much about protecting one another. This is personal for him—with family members currently in hospital waiting for surgery under threat of delay due to overwhelmed hospitals. Services have been reduced and some surgeries outright cancelled as health networks deal with staff out sick with COVID.
Henley says it’s been a rough year, but he hopes that in the face of this current COVID variant, people continue to wear their masks and have their booster shots.
As he looks forward to the challenges coming in 2022, the mayor hopes we will make further progress. He believes the community is “on the road to wellness,” and he is optimistic that the new year “will be good to Oxford.”
Henley hopes that this year, “we’re all good to each other.”
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