Don’t be surprised someday to see a new town sign that says ‘Welcome to Midland, our bar is open’. 

A heated discussion occurred during the recent committee of the whole meeting when Coun. Bill Meridis walked a tightrope as he drilled into staff about revenue losses from serving alcohol at town bookings and events.

The report brought to council was to address the municipal alcohol policy, as staff had looked into updating software in recent years and found that many elements – such as alcohol handling and inventory, payment through payroll or by unrecorded cash, and more – weren’t being sufficiently addressed.

“As we started looking at that policy and procedure and were updating the software we use for that, other issues came up,” explained deputy CAO Andy Campbell. “We realized: Houston, we have a problem. We didn’t have good control – good fiduciary control or good policy control.”

Staff recommendations within the report covered several weak spots; some were to update procedures around event planning to fix problem areas, and other recommendations addressed the serving of alcohol through town services.

“This report is outlining the fact that: it isn’t about cost,” said Campbell. “When we look at the roles that municipal staff play and the jobs we have, is buying alcohol for a private party a core competency that municipal staff should be doing? 

“We’re actually undercutting the private sector by providing the services; we’re subsidizing it with taxpayer money as outlined in the report. And, it’s also against the law under the Municipal Act for us to be competing against the private sector for the provision of services that aren’t core to our business,” Campbell stated.

The report also aimed to align the 2010 town policy (first approved in 2004) with recommendations from the Liquor Licence and Control Act and Regulations, Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, as well as town insurance and council’s strategic plan.

Specific to the report were overall losses to the operating budget varying from -$2,200 in 2017 up to -$4,500 in 2019 and down to -$870 for the first half of 2023.

A question to staff about getting the town in compliance allowed CAO Rhonda Bunn to offhandedly throw out an admittedly-high arbitrary number of $50,000 as an example for the need to have experts do a service review and provide a report to council.

Meridis, who had wanted to defer the report due to late responses from staff but was chided by Mayor Bill Gordon on the deferral process, pounced on the comment immediately.

“I was in the bar business for 25 years,” stated Meridis. “To get your inventory levels and everything straightened out at the (North Simcoe Sports and Recreation Centre) would not come anywhere near $50,000. I would do it for free, I would bring a recommended team to come in, a local team that I worked with for 25 years with great success to implement those strategies. That number is way out to lunch.”

His comment established the next 25 minutes where his line of questioning had Gordon cautioning: “This is almost like badgering in a court. I know where you’re going with this, but it isn’t totally appropriate for us to try and hammer away on this.”

The overall point from Meridis was summed up when he said: “I think alcohol revenue is a great revenue stream, and to take it away from the rec centre, which is struggling with revenues, would be disastrous.”

However, like a dog with a bone, Meridis couldn’t let the 2017 through 2023 losses pass. 

“I don’t know how you can have those losses,” Meridis reiterated after debating with staff. “It’s almost impossible to have those losses.”

Gordon stepped in to say: “Be careful on this; we’re basically impugning the mathematical skills of either our software or the people that enter this stuff. I think we really need to be careful on this if we’re going to toss this around.” 

The response from Meridis was simply that he was asking for a detailed report with more granular information, but Gordon again countered his claim.

“We don’t get detailed reports though. This is our summary report; this is the information we’re being asked to go by, and unless you have evidence to produce that is suggesting staff are –” said Gordon before being cut off by crosstalk. 

The discussion lasted an hour, and resulted in an amendment wholly separate from the original staff recommendation. Whereas the original intent was to repeal relevant bylaws and approve a new policy immediately, instead council went a different route.

What was voted upon and approved was: for staff to investigate options for profitability in providing bar services at the NSSRC while ensuring AGCO regulation compliance; an investigation into third-party bar services for the rec centre; and for a revised alcohol policy to return at a future council meeting. Formal ratification will be brought up in an upcoming council meeting.

Of note in the brief recess while the amendment was being drafted, the vacationing pre-dawn Meridis was caught on a hot mic muttering “$50,000” under his breath and rolling his eyes before council returned to formal session.

The municipal alcohol policy report, including analysis and financial impacts, is available in the council agenda on the town of Midland website.

Council meetings are held every third Wednesday, and can be viewed on Rogers TV cable channel 53, or through the livestream on the Rogers TV website. Archives of council meetings are available through Rogers TV and on the Town of Midland’s YouTube channel.

By Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Oct 10, 2023 at 06:44

This item reprinted with permission from   Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
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