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A short while ago, I received an unsolicited email from the interim (and soon to be departing) CAO, John Brown, with the subject, “Ideas. Observations. Musings . Opinions . Facts ?” (yes, written just like that…). Although he says he never reads my blog, it inspired me to write this post.
He wrote (copied in its original form and punctuation):
I was wondering if you might be interested in the towns (sic) recent building permits statistics reflective of highly positive growth in the tax base during the recent past ? As you are aware from your time on council our financial position has not been robust in the past however you will be glad to hear that it is now showing clear signs of significant improvement .
Last year the total construction value was 115,560 999 dollars – the highest ever I believe . I am advised that this year is tracking , potentially , higher . A good news ‘ economic development ‘ story about the high level of investment in the town based on confidence in the local economy , based on facts , might be of interest ? You can let me know and I will have them forwarded to you.
(Yes, I too wince at his inability to communicate effectively in writing, but at least he seems to have learned how to use the shift key since his last emails to me, even if the apostrophe still eludes him. But proofreading and clarity are likely overrated… just assume it’s all labelled ‘sic’…)
Now, anyone who follows municipal politics at all knows that council has little if anything to do with private building or construction (unless you’re voting for your brother-in-law’s projects). It is the work of developers, it is not done overnight, but generally part of long-term planning and investment over several years, especially where subdivisions and large scale projects are concerned. So this council cannot take any credit for recent construction. Balmoral Village, just as a single example, was approved last term, although the fees are collected this term.
Plus the fact that none of The Block have ever advocated, championed or even suggested anything resembling the whisper of a ghost of a hint of an economic policy should be considered at any time this term. Not just growth-related: crafting ANY economic policy has so far escaped their attention and grasp. Not surprising, since the collective business and economic acumen of The Block is somewhat less than that of the average anteater.
So why try to pretend this growth is the result of anything The Block has accomplished? To date their greatest intellectual achievement is a bylaw that prohibits throwing birdseed on your driveway. Everything else they have done has been utterly negative, selfish and destructive.
What, then, was the interim CAO’s motive to inspire me to write about this? Surely he knew I’d present a factual counterpoint to his spin.
The growth he mentions is due in great part to factors well outside any council’s control. Changes – particularly skyrocketing property values in the GTA – in real estate markets outside the community drive people to look to communities where the values are still relatively stable and low in comparison. This story has been in media for several years (I know: The Block don’t read…).
Throw into that the province’s Growth Plan (another document they didn’t read) that identified Collingwood as a growth area in the county, while taking rural communities around us out of the mix. That set up Collingwood as a place to build – nothing to do with this council.
Plus the greying demographic across the province means retirees and seniors looking to have comfortable “golden years” are selling their properties in the GTA for high amounts, and downsizing to smaller communities where their financial profits will buy a nice home and still give them a sizeable nest egg. Again, another story that’s been in the national media for a few years. This migration out of the GTA has been building in size for the past decade, first to nearby communities near the GTA, then to Barrie and neighbouring centres, and now here.
There are other factors that affect markets and people, which in turn affect development and growth: the changing dollar, climate change, improvements in local health care services, influx of foreign buyers… Taking any sort of credit for these factors is not simply disingenuous, but painfully ludicrous and delusional.
And now the housing bubble has apparently burst, will they plan for a change in fortunes as the market slows and growth stutters? Or will they accept blame for the inevitable reduced revenues? Right… more likely they’ll blame someone else, as they always do.
A more far-sighted council might have made policies that plan for some of this growth, but to my knowledge none have done anything comprehensive in this vein. Certainly this lot hasn’t. Had they anticipated this growth, they might have at least come up with some plans to handle the extra traffic that now clogs our streets. For which they have done what they always do for the community: nothing.
In fact, a forward-thinking council would have foreseen the impending growth in fees and tax assessment base and not raised our taxes unnecessarily. Yet The Block have voted to raise property taxes here THREE TIMES already, solely because staff recommended it, without the slightest inkling of what they were doing at the table.*
Lest we forget: The Block also gave themselves and staff a raise for every time they raised your property taxes. But higher taxes work counter-productively against growth. Keep raising them, as this lot do, and it deters growth. This lot never thought that through, but to be fair they haven’t thought through anything this term. So while they can’t take credit for the growth, they should take credit for working against it and making the rest of us poorer.
Our neighbouring municipalities are experiencing similar growth in development charges and building revenues; will The Block take credit for that, too?
A recent story in the Connection underscores their shortsightedness. It has the headline, “Collingwood projecting $478,000 surplus” and it notes,
According to the second-quarter budget variance report presented at the strategic initiatives committee meeting on Aug. 9, the municipality is projecting a $478,000 surplus at year’s end.
Would a council with even a modicum of economic smarts raise taxes when they knew a surplus was coming? I know, I know: one cannot use the words “The Block” and anything like “smarts” or “intelligence” in the same sentence without creating an oxymoron. But clearly they hadn’t the slightest clue. The surplus surprised them.
But this, too, is disingenuous. That surplus might have easily been triple or even quadruple that – had The Block not approved spending more than $1 million of your tax dollars on sole-sourced consultants and lawyers to discredit and harass the hospital, Collus, PowerStream, our water utility, our airport and its developers. And had The Block hired a permanent CAO years ago instead of renewing the contract with our current $225,000-a-year interim CAO (more than the premier of Ontario makes!), they could have saved at least $100,000 more, possibly double that.
So the headline really should be something like, “Town’s surplus a disappointing quarter of projections.” Hardly something they should boast about.
The article adds:
About $294,000 will be transferred into the lifecycle reserve, as will the $1.7 million in proceeds from the promissory note from the sale of Collus.
That promissory note was paid to the town in December 2015. It was applied to reserves almost two years ago. It’s history now. Why would the reporter even mention that, except to help spin the town’s weak propaganda machine? We can only shake our heads at the collusion of local media in this spin-doctoring.
In his email to me, Brown adds,
As you are aware from your time on council our financial position has not been robust in the past…
Actually, no I don’t know, and besides, it’s not true. Our local economy was very robust last term. We didn’t raise taxes three out of the four years we served, yet services and facilities were retained and improved. And, unlike this term, we had an efficient, effective budget process where we were allowed to see all the details and questions figures. We didn’t blindly raise our hands to vote as the administration told us to.
I also know that last council we went a long way to paying down the town’s debt**, we built a new high-tech arena, expanded, enhanced and covered the swimming pool to give us year-round use (also a high-tech, energy-efficient building) without costing taxpayers a dime, we built a new fire hall, we initiated the asset management plan, we started the Hume Street reconstruction and put million of dollars of funding into it, we hired an economic development and marketing officer, we created the business/entrepreneurial centre downtown, we sold 50% of our electrical utility for almost $14 million while still retaining an equal share in it to provide accountability and openness to residents and customers… all sure signs of a “robust” economy and forward thinking.
This term, what have The Block done? Think birdseed, blocking the hospital redevelopment and an endless series of closed-door meetings…
But I suppose I must thank the soon-to-be-gone interim CAO for inspiring me to write this so I could pen a more factual view of the data than he seems to have a fragile grasp on. Hopefully, his replacement will know better.
* Higher taxes should, under an ethical council, be justified by increases or improvements in service from the municipality. This term, they haven’t. In fact, you pay more and get less. Your taxes pay for The Block to pursue their personal agendas and private vendettas, their sole-sourced lawyers and consultants (more than $1 million!), the unlimited expense account for Councillor Jeffrey to wine and dine across Canada, and, of course, their own increased salaries.
** See my previous posts here and here. In the former, I noted of the former council:
We started with a total debt of $46.17 million ($45.5 million in debentures) when we took office. As of Jan. 1, 2013, this council and staff had brought it down to $36.86 million. By the end of 2014, we estimate it will be roughly $38 million because we will pay down more this year, but we also need to borrow for two earlier projects).
At the end of our term, this council will have paid down approximately $7.5 million of our debt, as we have been saying for months now. These are the facts verified by the auditor.
So yes, we were in good financial shape last term and this term isn’t much, if any, improvement.
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