Category Archives: Planning & Policies

Policies, plans, economic development, strategic planning, sustainability and future-looking ideas for local municipal politics.

The Airport Mystery

Collingwood AirportWhat’s happening at Collingwood Airport? Or better yet: what’s NOT happening? And why isn’t it?

Once touted as the role model for regional cooperation, and having the best potential for local economic development, it is now a topic for murmurings about a secret sale, and ugly rumours that this has become the worst regional relationship this town has ever had.

Every time the airport comes up on the agenda, our oh-so-open and transparent Collingwood Council scurries behind closed doors to discuss it. But while that may seal a few local lips, it hasn’t stopped people in our surrounding region from talking about it. And several are complaining loudly about our council and administration.

There’s a $150-million development (and potentially MUCH larger; it could reach $300 million, I was told… read the letter in this week’s consent agenda starting page 22) going on out there. Well, it got started, and when it turned to Collingwood, it got stuck in bureaucratic limbo because of council’s and staff’s inaction.

And, from what I’m told, our municipal partners at the airport are fed up (a sentiment overheard last night after council’s inevitable in camera meeting about it).

The once-golden regional relationship has turned toxic. Just like it did with our water utility and Collus/Powerstream. There may be a trend here… everything this council touches is turning bad.

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Our Know-It-Alls

Municipal WorldCollingwood Council obviously knows more than anyone else in municipal governance. More, in fact, than anyone else in the entire country. In fact, they may all be geniuses in local governance issues.

Otherwise, why would council cancel their individual subscriptions to Municipal World magazine at the start of their term?

Previous councils subscribed to an issue for each member of council, plus others for administration. While I can’t say everyone read them, the brightest and most dedicated politicians on council read them cover to cover.

Now the whole town gets one issue. ONE for the entire workforce;  for the dozen or so staff AND politicians. That suggests council must be brighter not only than all previous councils, but brighter than all other municipal politicians, advisers, consultants, lawyers, planners and administrators in the whole country, combined.

Since 1891, Municipal World magazine has been Canada’s foremost source of information, best practices, issues, ideas, challenges, policies and opportunities for local governance. Every issue – 12 a year – is packed with important, informative articles and columns. This is considered the “bible” of municipal governance by every other politician across the nation.

But Collingwood council doesn’t read it any more. Clearly our council are all atheists, when it comes to the municipal bible.

I guess it’s because they already know so much they have no need to learn more. Their heads are just bursting with knowledge and just can’t fit any more in. No need for the ideas of others. No need to obey their own Code of Conduct which states councillors are obliged (underlining in the original) to learn more about their roles and responsibilities:

Members have an obligation to promote, support, pursue and partake in opportunities for professional development…

This council doesn’t need more learning because clearly they all know it all, already.

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Climate Change and Collingwood

Climate changeClimate change is arguably the single most pressing, most important, most challenging issue to affect governments at this time. Our world is suffering and weather is getting extreme in many parts. It’s affecting crops, wildlife, safety, water… everything.

But what are Canadian municipalities doing to combat it, to reign in their use of fossil fuels, reduce their carbon footprint, reduce emissions, pollution, and embrace alternate energy systems?

Not much, according to a study done by the Ontario Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure. OCSI’s 2014 report, “When the Bough Breaks” has some discouraging statistics. According to their survey, only 38% of Ontario municipalities are “incorporating climate change into their asset management planning.” Climate change was a priority in only 13% of municipalities.

Scarier is that, when given a list of relevant activities to choose from, 22% of respondents admitted their municipality was doing nothing to address climate change impacts. Nothing. A fifth of our municipalities aren’t even preparing themselves for catastrophic or severe weather.

In 2008, Collingwood’s now-forgotten Sustainable Community Plan report had this to say:

Over the next forty years, the Town of Collingwood is expected to experience local forces of change such as unprecedented population growth and changing demographic and global forces of change such as rising commodity prices and climate change… Over the next 40 years, climate change may impact the topography, water supply, water levels and climate in Collingwood, and around the world.

The plan went on to address ways Collingwood might act to create a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly community that helped reduce the human impact on climate change. Some, but far from all, of these ideas were incorporated in later town initiatives.

Since then, there have been many initiatives to deal with climate effects implemented by municipalities worldwide (especially to mitigate the threat to municipal infrastructure), and there are whole new trends in areas like stormwater management that have developed and are being shared.

But what has Collingwood done since that report? Not much, if anything.

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Misunderstanding Local Government

A recent editorial in the Collingwood Connection underscores the need to have writers who understand the actual process of government, and not simply comment on politics from an ideological perspective. It also underscores that some of our council still don’t understand why they are at the table.

The anonymous writer of that editorial has penned this bit of cunning misinformation:

Council was not being asked to decide if residents should be able to raise chickens in their backyard or pass judgment on the merits of the idea. They were being asked to start a process of public input.

Well, we know that’s not quite correct. Although the standing committee recommended one option, council really had a choice between the two options presented in the staff report. Here’s what the staff report actually recommended (emphasis added):

THAT Council receive Staff Report P2015-34 for information purposes. OR
THAT Council authorize the initiation of an application for Official Plan and Zoning By-law amendments and the required public consultation process and allow a moratorium of enforcement for existing properties with backyard chickens.

So council could choose between two actions (a standing committee can only recommend, not dictate to council).

First choice: receiving the report and, after considering the cautions, concerns and costs identified by staff in the report, then relegating it to the dustbin as an issue not to be brought forward.

Second choice: start an unbudgeted, expensive, time- and resource-consuming, legal process to change our Official Plan and bylaws to accommodate a small special interest group, while allowing those people who are currently breaking the law to continue doing so without penalty.

Council wasn’t being asked if residents could raise chickens because that is already illegal. Council could choose to do nothing, or to start the process of changing the laws.

But there was public input already: advocates made a presentation to the standing committee, several people spoke to the issue, and presented a petition. Anyone could attend, could stand up and speak to it. Why would you need more? Do you need more public meetings again and again on a single issue?

Public input is part of the latter choice because it is required by the Planning Act and Municipal Act when OPs and bylaws are changed. It wasn’t necessary in the first choice (you don’t say ‘No, we’re not going ahead. Now let’s hear from the public…”.

Frankly it’s a canard to make that the focus, because in the end the decision still remains with council regardless of the public input.

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Feathers A-Flying in Collingwood

Dead chickenChickengate: despite urban chickens being outre among the trendy these days; a fad long abandoned by hip who are now pursing some new form of glitzy hobby, some folks in town want to raise chickens in their yards. Seems we’re only a few years behind the trendsetters. What next? Urban cows? Urban sheep? Urban bison?

It’s a bad idea, but one this council will likely endorse – not simply because they are prone to nurture bad ideas, but because some of them owe hefty political favours to campaign supporters who, coincidentally, happen to raise chickens here already (in violation of the law, of course, but what are laws when you have friends in high places?).

The NatPost published a story back in 2013 that presages what Collingwood will see in the future if council allows residents to raise chickens in their backyards:

…municipalities across North America are just now starting to see the unforeseen consequences of allowing hipster farmers to raise chickens in their urban backyards: Hundreds of birds are being abandoned by their owners after they’ve become more of a burden than a blessing.
More than 500 chickens were dropped off at animal shelters across the United States, according to Chicken Run Rescue, an operation based in Minneapolis. At least 400 to 500 chickens turn up annually at the Farm Sanctuary, headquartered in Watkins Glen, N.Y. that has sanctuaries on two coasts. National Shelter Director Susie Coston told NBC there are around 225 chickens now waiting for homes.

That’s right: people give up their fad pets once their attention span gets distracted by the newest fad.

It has ever been thus. Pets have always been a fad among the fashionista; a trendy accessory to show off with. Remember the fad for urban (potbellied) pigs? Remember Collingwood’s Wilbur? That fad left thousands of the little porkers abandoned when they grew too big and proved inconvenient as pets. Remember when hedgehogs were all the rage? Ferrets? Gophers? Dalmations? Cock-a-poos? Sea monkeys? Tamagotchi? Now it’s urban chickens.

Imagine the local humane society flooded with unwanted chickens in a couple of years. And, yes, that will happen. It happens with every pet, fad or not, but especially with fads taken up by people entirely ignorant of the work, complexity and responsibility involved.

Hens don’t lay eggs continually: two to three years at best, but they live well past their egg-laying prime. And then what do you do with them once they’re not laying? Allow backyard slaughterhouses? Will parents teach their children all about killing their pets? Maybe let them kill their pet chickens themselves?

Or will the owners abandon them (just consider how many people already abandon their dogs and cats) and find some new, shiny thing to occupy them?

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The high cost of affordability

Affordable housing is crucial to the economic and social vitality of every municipality. Without it, people cannot afford to live here, which means they will look for jobs in places they can afford. Young people, especially, will move to places they can afford better.

Collingwood is especially vulnerable to housing issues.* Given that the growth trend in our area is in low-paying (minimum wage), and part-time employment, finding affordable housing has become increasingly difficult for many people. Simcoe County itself estimates that a “single individual on Ontario Works would need to spend 108% of his/her monthly income to afford to live in the County.”

And as the Simcoe County housing strategy continues:

The Southern Georgian Bay area, while home to a thriving tourism industry, is also experiencing an aging population, high market rental rates, and a higher incidence of low income in private households.

Skyrocketing real estate costs contribute to the devaluation of a community. They push up taxes, living costs, rent, and utility bills. It takes a mature, wise and compassionate council to find ways to counter rising taxes and keep their community affordable. **

As the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing notes on its website,

Decent housing is more than shelter; it provides stability, security and dignity. It plays a key role in reducing poverty and building strong, inclusive communities.

But housing is a complex, challenging issue for municipalities and municipal politicians. Solutions are often very expensive; more than a small community can afford.

Councils have no direct control over real estate values (a problem compounded by the out-of-control Municipal Property Assessment Corp – MPAC – which raises property values across the province by computer formula, from its ivory tower offices, without conversations with local officials).

Municipalities also lack the legal muscle to demand private-sector development of lower-cost housing and much-needed rental properties like apartments (few young people can afford to buy homes, especially in a community that offers predominantly low wage job opportunities, so a supply of affordable rentals is critical).

On top of that, jurisdiction for affordable housing usually lies with a higher-tier government. In Collingwood’s case, it falls under the authority of Simcoe County. There are already 4,113 social housing units in Simcoe County, including approximately 3,035 rent-geared-to-income units. The County provides rent subsidies to 28 housing providers for 2,878 non-profit units, 60% rent-geared-to-income and 40% market rent. The county has already invested $3.4 million in maintaining its housing assets.

Before we go further, let’s dismiss some emotional – and inaccurate – impressions. Affordable housing doesn’t mean subsidized housing (although subsidized housing is also affordable). It represents a range of housing types. As the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) defines it, it’s an economic condition:

Affordable housing generally means a housing unit that can be owned or rented by a household with shelter costs that are less than 30 per cent of its gross income.

Last Tuesday, Simcoe County Council heard a presentation on the county’s long-term plan for affordable housing. Given its importance, it’s unfortunate neither of our own council reps were there to hear it.

I, however, had the fortune of being there for what proved an eye opener.
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Apps are making us criminals

Uber protestAlmost every week you read in the news about another taxi driver protest against Uber and its drivers. Taxi drivers go on strike, some rage against Uber and attack the drivers or damage their cars.

Similar protests – albeit not yet as violent or large – have been made against Airbnb for its effects on local property values and changing social conditions like the loss of rental properties.

These are just two of the apps whose effect on our society and culture are challenging laws and policies. There are others now that attempt to clone the success of their competitors with similar service (like Lyft and Homeaway – but I’ll concentrate on these two as examples of what can and does happen).

And in the process making criminals of its users.

That’s right: using these apps, both as a service provider for the companies and a user of those services often breaks existing laws, such as zoning or licensing. Renting your home for short-term rentals through Airbnb, for example, is illegal in many Ontario municipalities – including Collingwood – because zoning bylaws prohibit short-term rentals in residential areas.

Municipalities worldwide are increasingly challenged by these and similar programs that function counter to municipal bylaws, policies and operations. And they eventually cost taxpayers money.

It’s not a small deal. These can hurt our economy, kill jobs, and put people and property at risk. The corporations that operate them don’t give a shit. They’re too busy laughing all the way to the bank every time you use them.

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The Hidden Agenda in the Strategic Plan

Hidden agendaMy final comment for the next while on the town’s committee-based wishlist (the so-called community-based strategic plan, of which it is neither) has to do with biased and partisan comments made in the document’s introduction.

This material was presented to council in the recent versions (approved by a 7-1 vote, as expected, with one councillor absent) but not included in all earlier draft versions. I believe it represents the influence of the former VOTE (Voters Opposed To Everything) special interest group and their later followers in the deputy mayor’s special interest group, known locally (and humorously) as Better If I’m Elected, Collingwood.

What sort of strategic plan contains politically-charged and clearly partisan statements about former councils? The comments in the introduction expose the hidden agenda behind the wish list, and for council watchers this helps identify the shadowy players who pull council’s strings behind the scenes. This was less a community project than one manipulated by special interest groups.

For example, the document notes:

There have been in recent years, however, some challenges in the manner that Collingwood has managed its financial obligations and communication with Town (sic) residents. This has resulted in cynicism and a loss of faith in local politics within the public-at-large (sic).

This, or course, is complete malarky. There has been NO loss of faith was among the public at large (what survey, or what community-wide poll showed this?).

The small group of naysayers who worked their followers into a froth of vituperation and anger over the previous council do not represent the public at large. This small group never lost faith because they had none to start with, and was cynical from the very start.

Their raison d’etre is and has always been negativity towards anything they alone did not conceive, plan, or accomplish. True, they managed to garner a biased media’s support for their agenda later in the term, but the media ceased to represent the community, and instead represented the special interests – the point being made when the outgoing editor/reporter personally endorsed the current deputy mayor during the election campaign.

The facts about financial management are quite different. Last term, council was able to pay down its inherited debt by $8 million with only a single year of increased taxes (less than 1% blended rate), while building reserves, and constructing two beautiful, efficient recreational facilities without adding to the debt.

The financial management last term was superb – better in fact than any council I was part of previously and better than any I reported on as a reported and editor since 1991. What is there to challenge? That it was done so well, and so efficiently? This council’s first major act was to RAISE taxes in order to give itself a pay hike.

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