Category Archives: Municipal Politics

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 Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The ModelYou can’t help but think, when you read that title, of five block-thinking, dysfunctional members of Collingwood Council. But, relevant as that description may appear in our political sphere, it is actually the title of a book by Patrick Lencioni, about how teams fail to coalesce and work together. I found it at a local bookstore this week and read it in a single night. Unlike many of the self-help books on management and leadership I’ve read over the years, this one actually made sense and explained itself well.

As I read it, I realized quickly that Lencioni’s model of team dysfunction applies equally well to politics as to business. And, of course, it applies to Collingwood council as much as to any management team in the private sector. Everyone but the sycophant bloggers observing this council recognize that ours is a highly dysfunctional council. It is not a team, as much as it is a collection of angry, inept ideologues. And it suffers greatly from the dysfunctions Lencioni has outlined.

Now, I’ve long said that in non-partisan municipal politics, we elect a group of individuals, not a team. A team is built, not elected or appointed. Creating a team takes work and commitment, neither of which is in great quantity at council, with a couple of notable exceptions who had some previous experience on council.

As much as the groupthink slate of candidates tried in the campaign to present a coherent platform, all they really offered was ideological opposition to everything the former council stood for. Those who gained a seat in the election have proven both calamitously unable to collectively articulate – let alone implement – a vision for the community, or practice any sort of leadership. They flail, they flounder, they bluster. They have no common, shared vision. They do not function as a team.

Back in 2007, I wrote on my old blog comments that have relevance today:

There’s no real sense of teamwork here because we weren’t elected as a team. Personally, a municipal team at the table is the pig’s ear while the individual freethinkers is the silk purse.
Despite what some special interest groups imagined they were getting when they promoted a slate of what they assumed were their pet candidates, they didn’t get a team. Personal agendas, private goals, independent visions all come into play to make this more like a nine-person tug-of-war. Sure, sometimes we all tug in the same direction, but that’s not necessarily a sign we’re a team, merely that we collectively agree at that moment that the direction is the most appropriate.

Management consultants often like to raise the metaphor of a sports team when trying to build a team from a group such as our council. In Collingwood’s case, imagine if you will its members each wearing the gear of a different sport – one in hockey gear, another in football, one in cricket, one with an oar, another with a bat… then put blindfolds on them all, put them in a room full of balls, pucks, nets, hoops, bases, trampolines and wickets, and tell them to figure out what the rules are. The winner is the last one standing.

That’s the sort of “team” we have in this council. Most of them still haven’t learned the basic rules of procedure yet and blunder about, doing more damage to our municipality than good.

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Openness and Transparency?

Closed door policy

Legitimacy is earned through accountability. Accountability is produced through transparency.

Those words are from an opinion piece by Ian Lee, published in the Ottawa Citizen, back in 2008. Important words; words that should be carved above our own council table in large letters.

Although it seems like he was writing about Collingwood Council, Lee was actually writing about the need for more accountability and openness in the public sector, especially about stating expenses and costs of federal government projects and initiatives. Lee wanted to “…ensure the accountability of public policy expenditures to Canadians – who pay the bills – thereby ensuring the legitimacy of our democratic system.”

Prescient words they are, given the current investigations into the Mike Duffy and the Senate entitlement, spending and expense scandals currently in the courts.

But of course, his comments have parallels here, in the local municipal sphere.

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Rethinking Parking

Parking in Collingwood – especially downtown – has been a contentious issue since at least the mid-1980s. Numerous studies have been done advocating a variety of answers, none of them entirely satisfactory to everyone. The factions of free versus paid parking have been warring as long as I can recall. No council has managed to fully come to grips with the issue.

To compound the issue, town staff have tended to weigh in on the side of paid parking in no small part because of the revenue it brings in, which helps offset the expenses of the bylaw department (and justifies having so many bylaw officers on staff).

As the council rep on the BIA board last term, I can say this issue continues to be debated with as much vehemence and animation today as it was 25 years ago (something the current council cannot appreciate, since it became the province’s first municipality not to put a council rep on the BIA board, thus abandoning any pretense to care about the downtown…).

On the free parking side, advocates argue that downtown businesses have to compete with malls, shopping centres and First Street restaurants that offer free parking. Paying for parking discourages consumers. And receiving a parking tickets certainly make people much less likely to shop or eat downtown. They want to encourage more people to come downtown by making their visit less stressful.

On the paid side, advocates argue that downtown business staff and residents will fill up all the spaces if parking is free, making it impossible for consumers to find a space. Paid parking discourages people from parking in one spot all day. And, they argue, it brings in revenue (although the revenue goes into the parking reserve and is not used for general expenses).

There are middle-grounders who advocate for a mix: paid parking on the main and side streets, and free in the back-street lots, or vice-versa. I personally tend towards the former, trying to encourage more traffic circulation on the main street but offering longer stays in the lots. I don’t think all of the downtown should be made free parking, but perhaps a mix of paid and free would work better.

Last term, Councillor Lloyd brought forward a plan to give out courtesy (warning) tickets, which would allow people a 20-minute overage. That way, people visiting downtown wouldn’t find themselves so easily ticketed when a shopping spree or a meal went a little over the paid time. I supported his initiative and it has proven successful. I expect he will revisit the idea of changing the parking fee structure again this term.

Reports have vacillated between saying we had enough spaces and we didn’t, sometimes wildly contradicting one another. One report sounded such dire warnings about parking demand that the town purchased two properties at St. Marie and Simcoe Streets for parking lots. Subsequent reports said the opposite: we had enough for current needs, and the new lots were superfluous. One now houses the new library and the other was sold and has a restaurant and artist studios.

But temporary parking for shoppers and staff is only one part of the picture. Businesses and residences all require parking spaces as per the zoning bylaw and Official Plan; the number of spaces depending on the type of business or residence. In some commercial zones, these policies have resulted in great, plantless, deserts of environmentally-hostile asphalt; no more than a quarter full most of the year.*

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Cold Camembert, Collingwood Style

Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth made comments last week about how awful it is to eat normal airplane food as an excuse why she billed more sumptuous meals to her taxpayer-funded expense account. Cold camembert and broken crackers, she whined, were not acceptable breakfast fare for the likes of a Senator. As the NatPost quoted her:

“There are a couple of times when my assistant put in for a breakfast when I was on a plane, and they say I should have not claimed because I should have eaten that breakfast… Those breakfasts are pretty awful. If you want ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers, have it.”

Oh, how trying it is to be a Senator, having to dine on mere first-class fare at taxpayers’ expense. Her arrogance only made Canadians agonize more over how we really need to abolish or reform the patronage cesspit of our appointed Senate.

Her words also sparked a wave of Twitter and Facebook comments about the Senate’s entitlement and its ‘let-them-eat-cake’ mentality. Barbed editorials appeared in the media and social media. This comes at a time when Mike Duffy is on trial over the very issues Canadians abhor in the Senate: abuse of privilege and self-righteous entitlement.

The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente commented sarcastically about Ruth’s words:

It’s hell to serve your country. Just ask Senator Nancy Ruth, who often finds herself on early-morning flights, schlepping here and there to make the world a better place with nothing to sustain her but crappy airline food. “Those breakfasts are pretty awful,” she explained the other day. “… Ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers.”

But a sense of entitlement among our public officials – elected and appointed – is not limited to Ottawa. Snouts are in the trough at every level of government. Yes, even here: we have our own Senator Ruth.

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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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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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