Category Archives: Collingwood

Comments, thoughts and musings about my hometown: Collingwood, Ontario. And some local politics, too, with my comments as a municipal councillor.

Gated Communities

Mariner's HavenI’m not a big fan of gated communities, but even if I don’t personally want to live in one myself, I understand the reason for them, and sympathize with homeowners in those zones.

Apartments are basically gated towers that restrict access to residents or keyholders and no one complains that they isolate the residents. Few people who live in one would welcome strangers walking up and down their halls.

If a home owner in other parts of town has the right to fence in his or her property and keep people out or otherwise restrict access, then why shouldn’t a part of community have that same right – especially if that part is entirely on private land, with no public roads, trails or other access?

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Abdicating Responsibility

IrresponsibilityCollingwood Council has, in its short time in office, abdicated much of its responsibility to the business of government and to the people of this town. Council has sloughed off the duties they were elected to shoulder with remarkable alacrity. Some of that responsibility landed on staff, who assumed control of the budget process and drive most of the initiatives that come to the table. But some of it is being passed along to un-elected residents.

It began early on when this council decided not to put a council representative on the BIA Board of Management. This way, no one can raise issues about the downtown at the council table, or regularly bring the BIA’s messages, events, issues and concerns into the public forum (where it can also reach the media). No one at the table can champion downtown issues or events. Nor can council’s agendas and initiatives be raised at BIA meetings.

Council sidelined and abandoned the BIA, arguably the town’s largest employer (collectively speaking) and the heart of the community, by refusing to have a council representative sit on its board. This is the first time in its history there has not been a council rep on the board, and as far as I am aware, the only BIA in the province that does not have council representation.

The message to the public is clear: this council doesn’t give a damn about the downtown.

Then came the decision to extend the interim CAO’s contract another year – when hiring a new CAO as had been planned last term. This could have saved the town $50,000 a year or more. This was the result of backroom discussions by some members of council long before it was brought to the public. Your tax dollars wasted, and a total lack of openness and transparency by those at the table who promised quite the opposite. But they shrugged off the responsibility to be open and transparent, too.

And then council replaced the experienced, respected CEO of Collus with the town’s interim CAO on the PUC board, and in doing so created a confrontational and highly politicized environment at the utility. Plus the interim CAO is considerably less experienced in critical water and wastewater issues than the CEO was. Council shirked its responsibility to ensure we have the best staff in critical positions.

The 100-year-old relationship with the PUC and the town that worked so well and smoothly for a century, is now toxic. One senior employee has already left for a less-confrontational work environment. The rapidly deteriorating relationship is being further exacerbated by demands to call in the promissory note given when Collus was partially purchased by Powerstream (and is currently paying a handsome dividend in interest).

Council must ensure the municipality operates smoothly and efficiently. They shirked and shrugged while staff took the lead again.

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Closed for Business, Hostile to Seniors

ClosedClosed: that’s the message Collingwood Council sent to business during its recent budget discussions. We’re making it more expensive to run a business here, and by the way, we’re hostile to seniors and low-wage earners, too.

Under the tissue-thin pretense of keeping taxes low (which they aren’t, really), council approved a staff initiative to remove the costs for maintaining hydrants from the general tax levy and add them into your water rates – where they will do the most harm.

Councillor Madigan made the motion to take the costs from the fire department’s budget – where it has traditionally been, which means it came from property taxes, and dump them on your water bill. Other councillors who had previously resisted this move were suddenly turned into nodding bobbleheads, voting as staff directed.

Only a courageous two – Lloyd  and Edwards – voted against it.

These hydrant costs represented approximately 0.5% of the existing property tax levy and would not have increased taxes because they have always been calculated into our taxes. Now it will make your water and sewage rates go up by 5.8%!

An alleged tax saving that shifts the costs onto utility bills is NOT a savings at all: it’s an expense.

For renters, this means a huge increase in their utility costs. Rental rates are controlled and kept low by provincial legislation. Utility rates, however, are not. This will make living here much less attractive, and less affordable for anyone who rents.

So the people most hurt by this move are seniors, people on fixed incomes, low-income earners and the many people who rent their home. This is a remarkably hostile blow towards a large and vulnerable percentage of our population.

And it’s a double blow against business and industry, since they pay the lion’s share of water costs. It just makes it more expensive to run a business in Collingwood and will further deter industry from relocating here. Workers and businesses get hit at the same time.

This comes at a time when businesses are already struggling and Canada’s economy is in trouble. Retail chains are closing and more are slated to close. The governor of the Bank of Canada, Stephen Poloz, recently warned that “…the first quarter of 2015 will look atrocious…”He added that Canada’s economy was unlikely to meet even the scaled-back predictions and hinted the bank could implement “extraordinary measures” – which suggests a significant increase in interest rates. He called our economic outlook “atrocious.”

Apparently most of council doesn’t care. Collingwood Council’s move just adds to existing business and industry woes. Kick ’em when they’re down.

So much for trying to attract more of them to this town. Close the business doors, I guess Council doesn’t want anyone else to come in. And maybe it wants those already here to leave by making it too expensive to operate economically. Attrition by user fees.

But here’s the kicker: there’s no indication that money moved from taxes will actually be removed from the fire department’s budget: it seems like it will be kept there and used for other purposes (maybe that new pumper truck that’s been requested the past few years?). So it looks like the money will stay on your taxes AND your water rates will go up!

So you get punched twice.  Thanks, Councillor Madigan.

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Email and Confidentiality

CouncillorA story in this week’s Connection titled “Private talk with CAO leads to Collingwood integrity commissioner complaint” sparked the following comment.

No, this is not about what strikes me as the unethical and secretive behaviour of the councillor in question and his defending that behaviour in the media as if the town’s Code of Conduct did not state at its outset that all members of council (emphasis added):

…are held to a high standard as leaders of the community and they are expected to become well informed on all aspects of municipal governance, administration, planning and operations. They are also expected to carry out their duties in a fair, impartial, transparent and professional manner.

Which it seems to me his behaviour was not any of those. Or that the code – which they all signed – also says (emphasis added):

…there are open and proper channels for decision making and approval of policy,

I do not believe having private discussions with senior staff over their employment and emailing one another to build consensus outside the public forum fits the “open and proper channels” requirement.

Or that the Code also says members will:

…conduct and convey Council business in an open and public manner so that the process, logic and rationale which was used to reach conclusions or decisions are available to the stakeholders.

Which clearly cannot be done if you hold your discussions via email or in back rooms. So far this council has not shown itself to adhere to the spirit of the Code, let alone its letter. But council’s hypocritical lack of ethics is something I’ll save for another post.

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Why Elvis Matters to Collingwood

Elvis festival

There are some things that are pointless to argue, it seems. Creationism with a fundamentalist. Anti-vaccination with a New Age wingnut. Reason and logic with local  bloggers. The value of the Elvis Festival to Collingwood with a closed-minded resident.

I recently heard complaints about the cost of the 2014 festival: $74,000. More than double what the Integrity Commissioner cost taxpayers to investigate bogus, politically-motivated claims last year.

And what did we get for that $74,000? International recognition and widespread media coverage, more than 30,000 visitors, increased revenue for our hospitality sector, a full downtown, busy restaurants and hotels, people shopping in the stores…

One cannot help but be reminded of the Monty Python skit in Life of Brian on “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

And what did we get for the almost $33,000 we spent on the Integrity Commissioner last year? Aside from humiliation, puerile finger pointing, adding another smear on our reputation and titillating the sycophant bloggers? Nada.

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Councils and Their CAO

A good relationship between a municipal council and their town’s CAO is crucial to smooth, effective and efficient governance. The CAO is the liaison between council and staff, responsible for directing staff to implement council’s direction and overseeing internal personnel issues. If the relationship is rocky, then governance and Council’s interactions with staff – and therefore the entire public’s interests – all suffer.

To fill this role well, a CAO has to be scrupulously objective and neutral, calm and wise – not push any one person’s or side’s agenda, and certainly not promote his or her own, act Solomon-like with both council and staff, and never be a bully.

The CAO has to balance staff needs and goals with council’s and manage competing demands equitably, all balanced on the teeter-totter of taxation. Councillors, however, not the CAO or other staff, should drive the strategic process, and  the initiatives, but the CAO has to steer this boat through the competing shoals of wants and needs. A good CAO can do all of this and still remain calm.

There’s always a learning curve for any new council members: they have to learn to work with staff, and they depend heavily on the CAO to make it a smooth process. Councils inherit staff and few ever have the opportunity to set up the relationship their way. There’s also a learning curve for staff to get to know what the new council wants and expects. It can often be prickly if a new council is elected with different goals or agendas from a previous one, forcing staff to make changes in direction.

It can be more difficult for everyone if departments heads or administrative staff like the CAO are replaced mid or late term. There is seldom enough time for both sides to gel fully and build constructive relationships.

Last term, Collingwood council made a deeply ethical decision mid-term when the contract with the former CAO ended: not to impose its choice of a permanent CAO on a new council. Regardless of who might be elected, the decision was made to allow the new council to make its own choice.

It would have been easy last term to hire a new CAO and make the new council work with that choice. But that was seen as ethically inappropriate, at least by most of the former council.

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The tail wags the dog again

In January, the CAO coupled a ‘sky-is-falling’ presentation about the town’s debt with a proposed 5.11 percent tax increase. *

Councillor Kevin Lloyd made a motion to have staff bring back two options for council to consider: a one and two percent increase to the general tax levy, with comments on how these would affect services.

Council approved the motion and directed staff to prepare them.

Instead, what council got at its Feb. 24 budget meeting was a wish list from staff for additional spending. The direction from council for a report on 1% and 2% increases was totally ignored by placing this material ahead of the report. (This report should have been presented this week so council could assess the wishlist in context, not as an afterthought.)

Council did not even get to see any department’s full, line-by-line, preliminary budget so it could make an informed decision on whether these items should be budgeted.

As a result, council wasted five hours wrangling over items and requests without even the slightest understanding of how these decisions would affect the overall departmental budgets or what their impact on our taxes would be. This is backwards.

Council also received a brief notice that the overall tax increase would start at 2.37 percent, but these additions are on top of that. All the savings made by the last council could be wiped out in a single budget this term.

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What’s Wrong with Municipal Bonusing?

OntarioUntil the early 1970s, municipalities in Ontario were involved in a free-for-all competition to attract business and industry. They offered tax breaks, free land, free infrastructure, utilities or services, housing — whatever it took to get a plant or office to open within their boundaries. A lot of small Ontario communities were able to attract businesses that way, and many got major industries.

Of course, the local taxpayers paid for these benefits, but the towns subscribed to the theory that eventually the extra jobs and tax revenues coming into the municipality would pay for the up-front largesse through increased revenue across the community. The plants would bring jobs, which would translate into new homes and property taxes, and the increased population would create a demand for other businesses such as retail stores, restaurants, and the service industry, themselves creating new jobs.

For a while, that system worked, mostly to the advantage of municipalities which could both afford the largesse, and had the land and services readily available. Not everyone considered such competition the best way to run a province, however, and there were arguments that through bonusing, municipal taxpayers were increasing the profits of private enterprises.

Then, in 1974, the provincial government stepped in and said the practice wasn’t fair. All municipalities, the province decided, should compete on a level playing ground: bonusing of this sort was made illegal in Section 106 of the Municipal Act. The Act even makes loans illegal:*

Assistance prohibited
106. (1) Despite any Act, a municipality shall not assist directly or indirectly any manufacturing business or other industrial or commercial enterprise through the granting of bonuses for that purpose. 2001, c. 25, s. 106 (1).
(2) Without limiting subsection (1), the municipality shall not grant assistance by,
(a) giving or lending any property of the municipality, including money;
(b) guaranteeing borrowing;
(c) leasing or selling any property of the municipality at below fair market value; or
(d) giving a total or partial exemption from any levy, charge or fee. 2001, c. 25, s. 106 (2).

David Sunday, a lawyer writing on the Sorbara Law website, noted in late 2014:

Section 106 of the Ontario Municipal Act, 2001 is a much worried about “anti-bonusing” provision of broad application. It is worrisome because its limits and applications are far from clear. By its terms, the provision purports to create an unqualified prohibition on municipalities directly or indirectly assisting any manufacturing, industrial, or commercial enterprise through “bonusing”. The scope of prohibited “bonusing” extends to the giving or lending of any municipal property, including money, guaranteeing borrowing, leasing or selling any municipal property, or giving a total or partial exemption from any levy, charge, or fee.

The change was made more than a generation ago. Since then, the Auto Pact has become defunct, the Canadian dollar has risen too high to offer the economic benefit that once attracted U.S. firms and its recent slide came too late to turn things around. Many factories closed in North America and reopened in Asia, creating massive unemployment everywhere. Consumer buying trends have shifted from quality products to the least expensive on the big-box store shelf. Wages, especially in unionized plants, have escalated to uncompetitive levels compared with Asian workers. It’s a different, more challenging world today.

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