Letham feels good about city’s direction

By Kirk Winter

Letham wins: City votes to stay the course
Mayor Andy Letham won't be seeking reelection this fall. Photo: Erin Burrell.

After almost eight years as the mayor of Kawartha Lakes, Andy Letham feels “pretty good” about where the city is and where it is heading.

Letham, who is retiring from municipal politics in October, sat for a wide-ranging interview with the Advocate that touched on what he sees as his successes as mayor, what he thinks about the unfolding municipal election campaign, reasons why the city is having problems finding qualified staff, what if any regrets he has after serving in the municipal area for over a decade and what plans he has for the future.

“I think if we look back where we started eight years ago I feel good,” Letham said. “I promised to only serve two terms if the voters would have me. We have a number of big capital projects like the Bobcaygeon beach project and the Lindsay downtown revitalization that are wrapping up. We will be dealing with the Trails Master Plan in August. There is still a lot of catching up to time lost with the pandemic. Costs are skyrocketing because of the pandemic and we need to realize that this could be the new normal.”

Letham said that when he became mayor the city had no long term financial plan, and focused on short term goals moving from one budget to the next without a vision for the future.

“We now have a solid financial plan in place,” Letham said. “We have a debt strategy and a reserve strategy. We have to have a plan. We are a $350 million corporation and I am pleased that we have passed a new long term financial plan which will guide us for the next decade.”

When asked if there were other successes he wanted to discuss, Letham spoke about the reduction in members of council from 17 to 9.

“We have a smaller, leaner council. We are always looking for better affordable ways of doing business and we started with council first,” Letham said. “We had a wise enough council that said we can do this (municipal government) better. More government isn’t better.”

When the topic of the upcoming municipal election was broached, Letham had much to say.

“I am surprised and disappointed by what has happened so far,” Letham said. “I realize the candidates have until August 19 and some are waiting for others to declare. You need four to five months to campaign for mayor in a city of this size.”

Letham said that the key qualities a new mayor will have to have to be successful include the energy to run council and the ability to plan and organize so that council meetings run smoothly.

“The business of the city is hard work,” Letham said.  “I am more concerned that the new mayor has the mental energy and has a vision for a future. You need to be running for the good of the people.”

Letham added that the new council will be facing inflation and interest rate pressures that previous councils have not had to deal with for decades.

“I am not looking to endorse anyone,” Letham said. “I have chatted with a number of potential candidates. If I get excited about someone after August 19, I could change my mind if they so wished for my support. I am not looking to do it, but I am open to it.”

Letham feels that another challenge the new council will have is finding employees.

“We have tried to be competitive,” Letham said. “In the past a job with the city was a job for life. Work from home has changed a lot of things. We have had people retire early and we have holes to fill. We are competing with other municipalities and private industry. There are also a number of people who don’t want to go back to work unless they are making a ton of money.”

Letham pointed out that the city is short 30-40 summer students, and simple tasks like getting the grass cut in parks are becoming a challenge.

“The city is going to have to be more flexible in the future. I foresee a hybrid workforce working for the city so we can stay competitive. Increasing real estate costs haven’t helped either. It is hard to make $40-60,000 starting a job with the city and being able to buy a house.”

When asked to address disappointments as he leaves municipal politics, Letham focused on the inability of the city to rationalize its physical holdings like arenas, libraries and community centres to reflect actual need in 2022.

“I am disappointed,” Letham said. “We had a goal that our business model would focus on doing more with less. We inherited 16-17 municipalities with overlapping services. We know people don’t like change. We need to be able to provide services with less. If we had had the political will to do it, more could have been done. We should have pushed a little harder in finding different ways to do business.”

“It is a tough political battle,” Letham continued, “because we have too many councillors who won’t raise taxes but won’t cut services. Politicians know what to do but not how to do it and get re-elected. We can’t wait for staff. Council needs to take the lead. We need to make a list and have a discussion. Council needs to bring forward their own ideas and deal specifically with what services do we cut.”

When asked about his future, Letham said he is definitely not retiring.

“I am not looking at this as retirement,” Letham said. “I want to take some time off and go to Florida. I will see what comes up and will figure something out. I am excited about doing something different…maybe even part time. I am hoping to find something in the private sector.” 

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