The report The Block don’t want you to see

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Huge reportLate last year, BMA Management Consulting produced a hefty 517-page report called Municipal Study 2017* that examines a wide variety of socio-economic indicators in more than 100 Ontario municipalities: taxes, user fees, population, average home value, water/sewer, economic development programs and more. As Owen Sound notes on its website:

The study identifies both key quantifiable indicators and selective environmental factors that should be considered part of a comprehensive evaluation of a local municipality’s financial condition. Use of the study over a number of years provides trends to allow decision-makers to monitor selected indicators over time. Trend analysis helps to provide interpretive context. In addition, context can be provided by comparing a municipality’s own experience with the experience of other municipalities. In 2016, 105 Ontario municipalities participated in the Study.

Sudbury also notes on its website (with links to studies from 2011-17):

In 2017, 102 municipalities participated in the study which provides comparisons of financial information, select user fees, tax policies and rates, sewer and water services, and taxes as a percentage of income.

Collingwood data is listed among those 100+ participating municipalities (see pages 10 and 25 of the full report). But as far as I can tell, we were not presented with a copy – at least not for public consumption.
Did we even participate? If so, why hasn’t the report been released to the public? Are The Block hiding it from us? (I know what you’re going to say: because The Block encourages the culture of secrecy in town hall, they don’t ever like to release ANYTHING). A search for it on the town’s website turns up as much as you’d find in our Blockheads’ grey matter: no results.

Or was the data merely lifted from an earlier study BMA did of the town? By my count, we have used BMA for at least four such reports (Jan. and Dec. 2014, Nov. 2015, and Nov. 2016). I cannot find any record that these were actually put out to tender, but given The Block’s and the administration’s eagerness to sole-source everything and hand out contracts like party favours, I doubt it.

Maybe the town declined to buy it because some folks in town hall didn’t want it to be made public because it might reflect badly on their policies and practices.

Perhaps you’ve only seen the smaller report with a mere six comparators, not the larger one with more than 100 for a simple reason: it’s easier to fool your audience with a small group selected to present a specific ideology than a large data set that could contradict it.

BMA reports have a mixed history in this town. They were first used by the former interim CAO in early 2014 to present a sky-is-falling view of the town’s fiscal situation. Totally over the top view, given that the reports actually showed Collingwood was doing well when measured against the six comparators BMA chose to use, and that the figures he quoted for our debt in his own report were $8 million too high.

(Last term council REDUCED the debt by 17%, by the way, and did it without raising taxes. This term The Block have raised taxes three times already and will do it again in their final year and, as usual, gave themselves a congratulatory pay hike for raising our taxes each time.)

Previous BMA reports were used to present a we’re-in-desperate-straits-do-as-I-say-or-we’ll-sink approach to finances that suited the administration’s interests and caused The Block to go all fluttery and run around flapping like Chicken Little. The Block clucked it up during the election campaign, even though they never read beyond the cover to analyze or investigate – much less question – the figures. Too much work to think about it: easier to simply flap according to what your leader says.

Of course, every municipality has to watch its spending, but it’s not prudent to base your budget decisions on a single report by any consultant. The main take-away message in the BMA reports was simple: our municipal taxes are already too high. That, however, was conveniently ignored this term by The Block who love to show their utter disdain for residents, businesses, seniors and people on low or fixed incomes this term by raising already high taxes.

Six comparators pales against 100 or more. And when Collingwood is stacked against that many other municipalities, we get shown as an expensive place to live for a small town. Maybe that’s why The Block don’t want this report to get out: their fiscal management so far has been… well, they haven’t really done any, have they? Hell, they don’t even read their full budget documents. They just vote as they’re told.

Here are some interesting figures about Collingwood from the latest (2017) BMA report. Most of this is easily available from Statistics Canada, but the consultants also relied on Manifold Data Mining for some of their numbers.

First is the age range of residents: ages 019: 19%; 20-44: 26%; 45-64: 28%; 65+:26%. The comparable stats for the Simcoe-Dufferin-Muskoka region are 21%, 28%, 30% and 20%. The provincial averages are 22%, 32%, 28% and 17%. No median age was noted, only the average (the mean). And I have some issues with the coarseness of the age groups, but I’ll leave that for now.

What that shows, however, is that we have a lot more seniors (65 and older) here than most municipalities: more people retired, and living on fixed incomes. And we have and a lot fewer of those in their prime working age. Any reasonable, informed council would take that into account when establishing budgets and tax rates. But The Block are neither reasonable nor informed: they keep raising taxes every year.

Okay, I admit I’m not sure how relevant it is to compare our region with the aggregate because there is nothing to indicate that these counties are so similar they can be statistically lumped together. Plus, the growth rate in Simcoe County is higher than the other two. The report shows the aggregate growth average 2011-2016 was 5.5% where Collingwood itself was 13.3% – the highest of the ten municipalities in that aggregate. Innisfil, the second highest, was 10.5%.

Because Collingwood has a significantly higher-than-average number of people over the age of 65, those people will need a different set of services, facilities and healthcare than the younger residents. They are the most vulnerable to both tax increases and to The Block’s war on our hospital. And, as you know, The Block waged a successful (and ongoing) campaign to derail our hospital’s redevelopment.

The average household income here is noted as $92,375. This is misleading, since it doesn’t also indicate the median, nor does it indicate the salary range. Without those two figures, any average salary figure for any community is really meaningless noise. A median for the total group, however, is given: $93,418. But how many are in each level? And in each age demographic? Few seniors can claim that much income.

At the low end of the range will be a lot of people in the two endmost age groups: people who work the many minimum-wage jobs in this region, and the seniors living off their government retirement money – and there are a lot of them here. However, when rated on the scale of all 102 municipalities, Collingwood’s average wage appears at number 47: just under the middle of the bunch and below the group median. So we’re not as wealthy, comparatively, as at least 55 other Ontario municipalities. Another reason why The Block’s tax hikes hurt us: we’re not very rich. But wait, there’s more.

Our assessment values are in the report’s “high” category. There are two factors examined:

Unweighted assessment provides the actual current value assessment of the properties.
Weighted assessment reflects the basis upon which property taxes are levied after applying the tax ratios to the various property classes to the unweighted assessment.

For Collingwood, those figures are: unweighted: $165,763 and weighted: $172,626 (see if you can find a house here for that price…).

Those figures put us in the top half of assessments in the 102 municipalities, and above both the average (unweighted: $150,405, weighted: $154,216) and the median (unweighted: $137,410, weighted: $135,796). We are also in the high category for the aggregate Simcoe-Dufferin-Muskoka and above both the average and median assessments in both data points.

(Personally, I think that’s another questionable clumping: assessment value is very localized and depends on a variety of factors such as services, popularity, and distance to the GTA. Simple dollar values are not valid comparators.)

Single-family residential property represents 83.9% of our unweighted assessment value, with commercial at 12.4% and industrial at 1.7%. Multi-residential – apartments and the like – is only 1.8% (indicating a desperate need for more rental property here). Weighted assessment shifts the percentages slightly, moving single-family residential to 80.6% and the rest up marginally.

You’d think a reasonable, informed council would look at that very low figure for rental properties and carve out some policies or tax advantages to encourage more multi-residential development and growth. But what have The Block done to address this need? Right: nothing. Yes, I know: not reasonable, not informed.

While The Block crow about their imaginary fiscal successes, the BMA report shows the opposite. For example, the asset consumption ratio. This is described in a report by the Region of Wellington:

This indicator provides an estimate of the useful life left in the municipality’s capital assets. It shows the value of the tangible capital assets that have been consumed and seeks to highlight the aged condition of the assets and the potential asset replacement needs. The MMAH considers a ratio of 25% or under to be relatively new;
26%-50% to be moderately new; 51%-75% to be moderately old and over 75% to be old.

In the BMA report, Collingwood’s asset consumption ratio increased from 36.8% in 2014 – the last year of the former council – to 38.1% in 2016 under this council, suggesting that our town was NOT renewing or rebuilding its assets but rather letting them age. But The Block voted for an annual 0.75% tax levy to be automatically added to your property taxes to pay for infrastructure. Where did it go? Not in rebuilding or renewing, it seems (keep in mind that costs for water infrastructure are separately taxed through your water/wastewater bill and not included in this figure!).

Then there are the “Tax Discretionary Reserves as a % of Taxation.” This measures the total tax discretionary reserves and reserve funds in relation to total taxation, or how much of the received tax revenue the town puts away into its coffers. In 2014 it was 59%, but this dropped to 53% by 2016: clearly no matter what The Block told you about that fixed levy for reserves added to your tax bill, it looks like the town wasn’t putting more money away, it was putting away LESS.

This may be because administration spending has skyrocketed this term: more than $1 million spent on sole-sourced consultants and legal fees already; IT costs are triple what they were last term, and the promised $750,000 a year in savings from killing the shared services agreement mysteriously disappeared and the change has instead COST us money (see the general government costs, below).

Look at Tax Discretionary Reserves as a % of Own Source Revenues (page 89 in the 2017 study). Wellington explains this measures, “…total value of funds held in reserves and reserve funds compared to a single year’s own source revenue. It is a strong indicator of financial stability.” It was 45% for Collingwood in 2014, but dropped to 43% by 2016. That suggests the administration’s fiscal policies followed with such blind faith by The Block are failing this community. Our financial stability has deteriorated this term.

In 2016, our total debt charges as a percentage of our own source revenues were 9.5% (page 102)- the county average was only 1.9%! The percentage of our tax debt charges was 11.5% compared to the county’s at 1.9%. This shows how much of own source revenues are committed to debt interest charges. Our per-capita debt means that every resident is on the hook for $1,446. Compare that to the rest of the county where the debt-per-capita amount is a mere $68 (page 104). The ratio of our “Debt Outstanding Per Own Source Revenue” is a staggering 61.6%!

Page 128 shows that our tax levy per capita is very high: $1,815, compared to both the average ($1,510) and the median ($1,468). On p. 135 it notes that the 2017 ratio to weighted assessment is lower ($1,052): in the mid-range, but that is somewhat skewed because assessment values have risen sharply these past two years which makes the ratio only seem lower.

The net cost to run the “general government” (excludes fire, police, bylaw, traffic, roads, snow removal and conservation authority costs) in Collingwood is $190 per person ($202 if you include amortization). That’s higher than in Barrie ($85), Cornwall ($66), Orangeville ($110), Brockville ($95), Guelph ($120), Windsor ($80), Brampton ($161), London ($111), Stratford ($135), Oshawa ($131), Owen Sound ($118),Sault Ste. Marie ($151) and many others. The average in the 100+ municipalities was $115, with a median of $92. Simply put: the administration here spends way too much money for our size and services.

And there are still ongoing legal costs for the sole-sourced lawyer and the former interim CAO’s “consulting” fees to close the deal to privatize our electrical utility (without any public input) to a for-profit corporation. The administrative costs just keep spiralling higher and higher. And The Block does nothing to rein them in.

Maybe the excessive salaries paid to some current and former staffers has something to do with this. An interim CAO whose salary is higher than that of the province’s premier surely contributed to the bloated expenses.

Our snow removal costs (p. 168, not including sidewalks) are $4,301 per km of paved lane: only Brampton and Owen Sound have higher per km. costs in the lower tier group of municipalities. The average is $1,852 and the media is $1,556.

Page 181: the costs to operate our parking bylaw office are higher than the revenue it brings it. While parking is supposed to be financially self-funding, in Collingwood it only generates 77% of its expenses.

Planning services in Collingwood generate only 18% in revenue for their expenditures, while the average is much higher at 39%, and the median is still a respectable 25%. And planning services cost us $18 per $100,000 CVA where the average/media are only $10 and $11.

So much for the vaunted operational overhaul this term. I see no gains in efficiency or fiscal sustainability anywhere in this report. Perhaps that’s because The Block has done nothing about it.

The “high” range for overall property taxes starts at $3,576, which Collingwood will be in, next year. Of course your taxes will go up again in 2018 because the bungling of the water utility transfer and inept creation of IT services mean egregious extra expenses for those departments, plus the waste of more than $1 million in sole-sourced legal and consulting fees to arrange for the sale of our electrical utility to a for-profit, out-of-province corporation. Plus the added expenses of paying the former interim CAO as a “consultant” after he retired. And all those extra staff hired this term.

On page 296 you get to see the ranking for 2017 property taxes for the “average” detached bungalow. In Collingwood that’s $3,422 in the upper half of the mid-range (page 298 shows we’re second highest mid-range in our population group). The average for our population group is $3,081 and the median is $3,155, both well below our taxes. We’re the third-highest in the Simcoe-Dufferin-Muskoka region (p. 301).

Our commercial taxes are in the mid range (although high for hotels and motels) but our industrial rates are among the high category (p.358; the fourth highest in our population category (p.359). Industrial growth is discouraged through high taxes and high utility rates. Which The Block have…. NOT… addressed.

There are a lot of other data assessed, not all of it relevant to us (some, like social housing and waste collection are managed by the county). And in some areas, Collingwood is not even listed. It’s not all bad news, however: in many areas Collingwood sits close to the averages and medians. But being average doesn’t mean we’re doing well or we’re efficient or fiscally smart. It really means this term council has done nothing significant in this area to fix the problems.

i reiterate that it’s far more educational to look at the fuller data set when making financial plans than to rely on the truncated series this council has been getting (and has been spoon fed by the administration).

I know you’re going to tell me, “But Ian, a 517 page report is well beyond their reading and comprehension skills.” And that may be true, but it’s not beyond YOUR skills, dear reader. And I know some of you are planning to run for council this term, so here’s your chance to do your homework and prepare in a way The Block never would have. Learn about our economic condition, examine the areas where we can improve, cut costs and maybe even lower taxes.

Collingwood deserves better. And you, the upcoming group of informed, reasonable candidates with an ethical core and a passion for open, honest government, may be what we deserve instead.

* There was also an earlier Municipal Study 2016 that, apparently, Collingwood participated in but the public didn’t get to see. Golly, does that surprise you?

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