Higher Taxes, But Fewer Services in Collingwood

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Our council...Collingwood Council is currently debating some major changes to the town’s bylaws, many of which appear to mean fewer services and less support for our residents. This council has once again increased our property taxes and user fees (while giving themselves yet another pay raise as their reward for doing so!). There have been annual tax hikes in Collingwood every year for the past decade. And where has all that money gone if not to providing more and better services to residents?

The town is proposing a gobsmacking 26 changes to the way bylaw handles calls and complaints, all of which affect services to residents. And how much will this save us? $6,200, although how they got that figure is a mystery to me: it’s not explained in the staff report. Local media didn’t ask, of course.

Yep: roughly 0.004% of the town’s $142.4 million budget and roughly 0.008% of the $71.3 million operating budget. I wonder what the town plans to do with all that extra cash? But before you start sending them your suggestions, keep in mind, it’s a one-time savings only and… the changes also mean an additional cost of $6,800 to the department (staff report page 4). Win some, lose more.

For a pittance in annual savings, the town wants “major changes to how bylaw deals with wildlife and animal control” according to the story in CollingwoodToday (as you might suspect, the story was not covered in the increasingly irrelevant Collingwood Connection online). For example, if bylaw is reduced to merely rounding up stray dogs during weekday working hours, the town can save a whopping $13,000 ($10,000 staff time plus $3K-$4K overtime). On weekends, residents and visitors won’t need to worry about their dogs misbehaving, putting them on a leash, and will be able to let them run loose in our parks or the streets:

There is a suggestion to redefine animal control to be just canine control, and to limit canine control to working hours only, with those two changes amounting to a savings of $13,000 alone. Also included is a suggestion to remove wildlife control completely from bylaw’s purview and to encourage residents to contact the ministry of natural resources and forestry (MNRF) to deal with issues with animals such as raccoons or coyotes.

“Encourage residents to contact…” some unidentified ministry official in Toronto on the vague hope they give a shit. That’s amusing. It really means telling residents to fuck off and deal with it themselves. The chances of getting someone from the MNRF to come to Collingwood to deal with a local wildlife issue is slim as long as service-slashing Doug Ford is in office making life miserable for Ontarians. And even if they did condescend to come here, by the time they arrived, the damned pesky raccoon would have scurried away long ago. Sure it will save us $2K-$3K but there must be a better way to help residents. (Maybe if the town had a proper communications director and policy…)

There’s a proposal to “procure a solution to support dog licensing and registration.” This makes me wonder what they’ve been doing all these years selling dog licences without a “solution.” That new “solution” will initially cost $2K-$4K plus have an annual price tag of another $5K. This, the report says, is “recoverable from the licensing service.” But while those fees bring in “between $20,000 and $30,000 per year,” the town’s acting manager of bylaw services, Adam Harrod, said, “A lot of it goes toward pound facilities.” Does this “solution” mean less money will be available for pound services? How much is “a lot”? And how much is left over? Local media didn’t ask, of course.

Plus, the department wants to “create online resources such as videos, guides, and FAQs, to educate the community on Town by-laws and services” for another $2K-$4K annually. I would have thought that would be the responsibility of the town’s $1 million-plus-a-year IT department with its 5.3 staff members, but maybe they’re busy doing… I dunno, but not making the website any less user-hostile. Are bylaw staff trained in making videos? Are they experienced writers for public documents or web-savvy designers? I am doubtful. And what sort of equipment and software will they need to buy to make these videos? Local media didn’t ask… sigh

And yet, back when the budget was passed, the Mayor stated, “Council felt that keeping the tax rate as low as possible for 2024 while maintaining service levels and investment in our assets, was in the best interest of our residents.” Maintaining service levels, that is, until they reduce them a few months later when residents will have forgotten her words and it’s no longer in the town’s interest to keep up the pretense.

But wait: there’s more…

The review also suggests developing a town crossing guard policy,…

Wasting our moneyWTF? The town has been hiring crossing guards for the past several generations and we’re now just finding out it doesn’t have a policy? Seriously? In all this time? A role that has both a great liability for the town and a huge responsibility for the safety and welfare of hundreds of school-aged children and parents every day has no policy? Who or what department is responsible for that oversight? Why couldn’t someone have just downloaded a policy from another municipality and used that? It’s going to cost taxpayers $20,000!

Wait… here’s the Ontario Traffic Council’s crossing guard guide. Here’s Amherstburg’s crossing guard policy. Here’s Toronto’s policy. Here’s Kingston’s. Here’s Vaughan’s. Here’s Sarnia’s. And here’s the Highway Traffic Act (check section 176). I’m pretty sure a couple of quick phone calls to other municipalities and 10-15 minutes of googling online would produce more. Change the name to Collingwood on the one you like best and there: I spent 10 minutes looking and just saved the town $20,000. You’re welcome.

The 2024 budget was passed on January 8 (why they can’t manage to pass a budget before the year starts like most municipalities do is another tale…*). It predicted a $1.3 million surplus after fleecing property owners again. Yet here the town comes back with requests for more money and more staff that should properly be part of the budget process, not thrown slapdash at council more than two months later. Haven’t we already spent enough?**

More taxes, fewer services, and our council gets a nice pay raise every time. But that’s not new; it’s been the norm since 2015.***

Collingwood deserves better.


Notes:

There is a 109-page “By-law Services Division Review” attached to the staff report. For no reason I can fathom, it was produced in landscape mode, not portrait. Maybe someone thought it was going to be a PowerPoint slide show? Whatever the reason, that violates a basic design principle that says significantly shorter line lengths (fewer characters per line) than the 10-inch lines in this landscape mode report are easier to read and remember. I won’t go into the technical details about reading, saccadic jumps, and so on, but the bottom line is: long lines like these reduce comprehension than shorter lines with fewer characters. There are guides to optimal line length and character count available online, but they also correlate with type size and spacing. I can provide appropriate references.
Once again: if the town had a proper communications director and policy to edit and oversee such reports, someone who knows about layout and legibility, this would not have been produced this awkward way.

* According to CollingwoodToday, “Council and staff have been working on the 2024 budget since the summer [of 2023], with six drafts to date and public presentations beginning in September.” More than six months to get the budget passed and even then not until early 2024. Surely everyone can do it sooner and faster.

** Page 83 of the services review shows an organizational diagram for an optimal department that includes 14 staff members, including full, part-time, and seasonal bylaw enforcement officers, managers, an administrative assistant, coordinators, a supervisor, and others. According to page 96, the current complement of staff is six.

Lest we forget that our town’s 2024 budget already includes spending $500,000 on support for the vaguely worded “moving forward with the Revitalization of the Grain Terminals and the surrounding lands” (weasel wording). That’s a private, for-profit development of multi-million-dollar waterfront condos, but the taxpayers will be on the hook for more than $15 million (in 2022 dollars) in infrastructure upgrades to make it happen, plus this undefined half-a-million to “move forward” with this private developer. Is this for council’s wining, dining, and schmoozing expenses? It’s certainly not for the taxpayer’s benefit.

The budget includes money spent on more consultants: an “Art Centre Feasibility Study” for $100,000, and a “Transportation Master Plan” for $463,000. It includes spending $350,000 to “move forward with actioning” (whatever-the-fuck that means) the “recommendations in the Affordable Housing Master Plan,” which doesn’t include actually building anything to help the problem but allows councillors to pretend they’re doing something about the housing crisis. Plus there is $260,000 for “tree canopy investments” which doesn’t seem to include actually planting any trees. And then there were the inevitable empire-building hiring of new staff, including an engineering manager ($160,000), a business analyst ($98,000) and a part-time administrative assistant to the mayor and council ($50,000; recall that Saunderson and his Block — including Jeffrey and Doherty — got rid of the previous assistant solely to embarrass and frustrate Mayor Cooper). But I digress…

The town’s uninformative website provides no information on how many new staff have been hired by the town since 2014, and how many positions have been added in each department. It’s almost as if townhall was trying to hide how bloated it has become. Or maybe it’s just the egregiously user-hostile website’s inadequate search engine. In 2022, Collingwood had 202 full-time, 80 part-time, and 50 seasonal employees according to John Megarry’s letter. I’m told there are 231 full-time staff now: a 60-65% increase since 2014. The report linked above recommends adding more. Our comparable neighbour, Wasaga Beach, has more than 20% fewer employees and residents there pay more than 20% lower taxes.

Gimme, gimme...*** A lot of our money was wasted between 2015 and 2018 — well over $10 million — to pay for Brian Saunderson’s personal vendetta against former staff and councillors who thwarted his ambitions and hurt his pride in 2012 by refusing to give the YMCA a $35 million handout (named the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry, aka SVJI). Helping enable Saunderson’s wasteful spending while ignoring the community’s needs are three current members who were councillors with him: Jeffrey and Doherty in both terms, and Hamlin (now Mayor) in the second term. Most of that money went into the pockets of lawyers, some of whom worked for the company that both Saunderson and our current mayor worked for. No, neither of them declared a conflict of interest when voting for sole-sourced contracts for their former employers. Imagine using that money to fix our potholed roads instead…

Far too much of our money has also gone to fund some of the worst of those previous councils’ generally gormless decisions. For example, council voted to move technology and IT support in-house instead of using the shared-services agreement with Collus. That increased costs to taxpayers from about $150,000 a year to well over $1 million, and required purchase of new hardware and software, and hiring more than five full-time staff to do what two people did better and cheaper previously (and the town’s website is still a user-hostile mess).

Saunderson’s cabal sold our publicly-owned electricity utility (Collus) to Epcor, a private, for-profit, out-of-province corporation — doing the deal entirely behind closed doors without any public consultation. This not only wiped out local control over electricity rates and services, but killed the annual dividend of $200,000-$250,000 the utility paid to the town… a loss of $2-$3 million since then. That money could have been used to maintain and expand our public transit system instead of the reduced-access, user-hostile mess this council made of it.

Who can forget the abject failure over rebuilding the water treatment plant that through previous councils’ ignorance and stupidity went from a minimal impact on taxpayers in 2014 to almost $300 million (and possibly much more) today.

Words: 1,985

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