Listen Up! District government and services should be reduced, not eliminated

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Huntsville mayor Scott Aitchison is this week’s Listen Up! guest contributor. (Photo credit: Kelly Hollinshead)

Here we go again; another local government review.

For the record, I do not think that this current review is really about Muskoka. I think that it is about the much larger regional governments in the GTA where we will likely see the elimination of Peel or Halton Region. I do not think Muskoka will garner much attention, but the Mayors of Muskoka have been asked for input, so I share my suggested changes here, but first a brief history of how we got here.

Regional governments were created in Ontario to better manage the needs and infrastructure demands of booming post war urban and suburban growth. The first one was Metro Toronto in 1954, then Ottawa-Carleton in 1969 and all the others between 1970 and 1974. Muskoka was not a rapidly growing suburban area, but something had to be done.

Before 1971 Muskoka was 23 townships and 3 tiny little towns. The towns were thriving places and growing at a steady pace for communities not in the orbit of large cities like Toronto. With that growth came the need for more expensive urban infrastructure like water and waste water treatment.

There was no land use planning in Muskoka at the time either, so development occurred in each municipality without much regard for its effects on any other municipalities in the district. Protection of the water through pollution control and land-use planning was deemed to be the responsibility of all citizens and property owners in Muskoka, so the Province stepped in – with the support of our local MPP Robert Boyer – to establish a regional government where urban, rural and waterfront property owners would contribute to the costs of protecting the environment.

By the measure of its original purposes regional government in Muskoka has been a success, but changes during the Harris government review of local government meant new costs such as police, land ambulance and a host of social services were added to municipal tax bills and provincial transfer payments to municipalities were reduced. To add insult to injury, following the defeat of the Eves government the McGuinty government booted Muskoka out of Northern Ontario status (former Sudbury MPP and Minister of Northern Development & Mines, Rick Bartoloucci was the author and executioner of this selfish and petty swipe at Muskoka).

Municipal taxes have gone up to pay for the original services provided by the District and to pay for these new services added by the Province. At the same time, the value of waterfront properties has increased. These changes have shifted more of the total property tax burden for regional services to the waterfront properties in Muskoka. This is particularly felt in the rural townships where the majority of properties are waterfront or rural.

After 50 years of regional government in Muskoka and new services added to the mix, the urban / rural split is more pronounced than ever. The townships generally feel that their regional tax burden should be reduced by forcing the towns into a fee-for-service system for regional services. The towns generally oppose such a system because of the significant costs their citizens. There are 12 councillors elected from the towns and 10 councillors elected from the townships. With the balance of power in favour of the towns, the townships cannot shift the tax burden to the towns at the District Council.

So where to go from here?

Muskoka’s local government works well and does precisely what it was intended to do. Eliminating the regional government would have crippling effects on the viability of every community in Muskoka with urban services and it would spell the end of our land-use planning and research to protect the whole watershed. As we have grown, there are areas of refinement which could make our system more efficient for the delivery of services and cheaper for the tax payer.

The best way to reduce the cost of regional government in Muskoka is to reduce, eliminate or delegate services it currently provides. The District of Muskoka should continue to provide those services which would be too expensive for any individual municipality to deliver.

Here’s what I would do …

  1. Planning

I would change the District Planning Department to a planning policy department which focuses on research and policy development. In a circumstance where a local municipality makes a decision that the professional staff do not support because of District or provincial policy, those files would be reviewed by the District Planning and Economic Development Committee.

 In our current system land severance, zoning, site plan etc. has been delegated from the District to the local municipalities. The authority for those services remains with the District, so when an application for a rezoning is submitted to the local municipality, not only does the local professional planner review the application and prepare a report for the elected committee, the District has a professional planner that reviews the application as well. The District planner comments on how the application conforms to District planning policy and to provincial planning policy. This is a waste. The local professional planner is capable of reviewing applications and their conformity to all relevant policies – in fact, they already do this.

  1. Governance

Reduce District Council from 22 members to 12. Select the District Chair from the elected members of District Council. Representation at the District Council table should be decided by the voters list. It is the most accurate list we have and is legislated to be updated every four years. It is too convoluted a process to determine a formula for who in a seasonal resident’s family should be counted as seasonal residents. Each of the local municipalities may decide to adjust the composition of their respective councils to address the change. The following would be the representation by municipality:

Bracebridge – 2
Gravenhurst – 2
Georgian Bay – 1
Huntsville – 3
Lake of Bays – 1
Muskoka Lakes – 3
TOTAL – 12

  1. Transportation

Transfer all District roads, bridges and the Port Carling Locks to the local municipalities and reduce the District levy by $26 million to reflect the change. Local municipalities can agree on what the arterial network linking each of them is and agree to minimum maintenance standards for the network. Through my analysis of this proposal, the townships would be able to reduce taxes and the towns would be able to maintain or slightly increase the overall level of taxation currently collected. This change would also eliminate the wasteful process of invoices and fees between the local municipalities and the region.

In the future there may be need for more changes to our federation of communities here in Muskoka. I am confident that we have the skills and the tools to resolve our issues and to make periodic changes to ensure Muskoka is serving all its citizens effectively and protecting that which we all love. The reasons for creating our regional government are still valid and with some adjustments Muskoka can continue to fulfill those vital purposes.

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11 Comments

  1. Mr. Mayor, although for the most part, I agree with your thoughtful treatise; I still have a few comments/queries:
    .
    1) I disagree completely that the new Tory Emperor will not run roughshod across All regional governments (he has to cut the deficit/debt somewhere, and he’s been anything but shy elsewhere);
    .
    2) why does Muskoka Lakes warrant one more representative than the other 2 towns? Is that Rep by Pop?; and
    .
    3) where, pray tell, are the 6 area Municipalities going to find the expertise to reconstruct urban roads, or to repair/build existing/new grade separations respectively? Surely, that portion of the District Public Works Department would have to be retained; and accessed as necessary by the lower-tier municipalities.

    • Scott Aitchison on

      Mr. Millman,

      1) You are correct that the province may do something completely different than what I have suggested.

      2) The number of representatives suggested are based on the voters list. Seasonal residents who own property in Muskoka are on the voters list. The 2014 Voters lists indicates the following eligible voters by municipality in Muskoka as follows: Bracebridge – 14,941, Gravenhurst – 13, 424, Georgian Bay – 9,014, Huntsville – 17,851, Lake of Bays – 7,963, Muskoka Lakes – 16,933.

      3) Local municipalities would hire the expertise for the design of new urban roads or upgrades to urban roads in the same way they do now. The concept of an engineering staff at the District which could be hired by the local municipalities has merit and could save engineering costs overall, but I believe such a decision would require further analysis.

  2. Jim Logagianes on

    Thanks Scott for providing some insight into restructuring. Obviously there is no simple solution to this problem facing Muskoka. District Government has failed to deliver services in a cost effective manner. And the Province has downloaded costs onto the lower tier Governments. Will the Province assume the cost of Policing, as in our original arrangement? How much can a greying population be expected to contribute to local government? We need to address the cost of Government at every level. There is not a level of Government in Canada that is affordable or sustainable from and economic perspective. And that should concern all of us.
    Do we get value for our money having all these politicians representing us in Muskoka? No! Huntsville still has the same antiquated sewage treatment plant running despite its negative impact on our water quality. I have never heard a local mayor speak in regards to this injustice since I moved back in 1991. How much has the District of Muskoka cost the local economy? We have sewage treatment plants in communities without the population to support this kind of infrastructure. And everyone realizes that a lot of people are purchasing outside of the District to avoid having to support another level of Government. Do we all have to move out of Muskoka to be able to afford to retire? Mayor Aitchison, do you kwno how to make Muskoka affordable for everyone or should we be looking for someone else?

    • Scott Aitchison on

      Jim,

      I have lots of data I would be happy to share with you which will illustrate how we are doing in Huntsville in terms of tax burden and the relative efficiency of Muskoka. As for your many comments, I would be happy to meet with you any time to discuss in detail.

      I would specifically like to point out that the closure of the Mountview wastewater treatment facility is actually underway now with the expansion of the Golden Pheasant facility and other projects in the District construction budget.

      I would also point out that my agenda and that of Council for the past four years has been focused on reducing debt, reducing expenses wherever we can and implementing innovative inducements to get more affordable housing options constructed in Huntsville without raising taxes to do it.

      There will never be enough money to do everything we would like to do and government must always be on the look out for efficiencies, but in the context of all municipalities in Ontario, the total property tax burden in Huntsville at $3,773 per household ranks us 182nd of the 407 municipalities. Among the higher ones are Temagami at $7,693 and Parry Sound at $5,637 both with no upper tier level of local government.

      Happy to get together to talk more about all of this and hear any ideas you have to make Huntsville better.

      Scott

  3. Kathy Henderson on

    | agree with you Jim. And it is not just the greying population that can’t afford to stay in Huntsville. It is all our service people, waitresses, grocery store clerks, and a lot of other minimum wage families. Moving farther north seems to be the only way to be able to afford to live up in Muskoka. Some of our elderly that have never lived anywhere but Huntsville are being forced to sell their homes they have had for generations and move because of the rising costs of living. I really don’t think that a lot of people that have lots of money can relate or maybe even care about the rest of us. My opinion.

  4. Thanks Scott for clearly outlining the complex issues that Muskoka must face when all Councils debate the best solution for Muskoka. You have provided the important discussion points.When dealing with Governance elected members should consider the geography ,as well as, the voters list when assigning representation.
    Townships like Lake of Bays are so large and further divided by a very large body of water it creates two entities with very different needs, that is, a very large parcel of land to the North of the lake and one to the South. Although both have a small population they still deserve representation.One elected councillor would not have a true understanding or feel for the hopes and aspirations of their constituents.I truly wish luck and patience to all Muskoka councillors facing the next four years. Negotiating with this present government will be a challenge

  5. Jim Logagianes on

    Mr Boivin you make a good point in regards to the lack of representation in certain areas. If we can’t support our current levels of Government without running deficits. How is increasing the overhead going to improve the situation, sadly it won’t. They changed the electoral boundaries in Canada. Did electing all those new MPs and MPPs provincially and federally improve how Government functions from a financial perspective. Fair representation is no longer and affordable option. What would you rather have more elected officials or adequate health care.
    Maybe Canadians should direct all spending by referendum our elected officials seem to be confused as to what is important to Canadaians. At least then we would have a say in how are hard earned money is spent.
    FYI: There are a lot of people in Huntsville feeling the financial burden of supporting 4 levels of Government . Maybe that is why we can not afford a new hospital, more long term care beds.
    Adequate staffing and funding for our hospitals, and the list goes on.

  6. Mr Mayor, We have been talking about much-needed changes in Muskoka governance for years, and all the boys and girls on the council have not been able to get much done for the masses. So now the NEW BIG KID on the block has mandated changes. “Surprise” everyone on councils now has opinions on what changes would work.

    Here is some free advice “Let the big boy’ do the work that should have been done years ago. The status quo is over.
    Denise Cooper

  7. Scott,
    I am currently away from Muskoka and missed your Op Ed piece until now – so I’m late to the party, as you might say. I agree totally with 3 of your proposals:
    1.) District Planning should be policy only
    2.) District Transportation should be downloaded completely to the local Municipalities
    3.) District Council should be reduced in size to 12.
    However, I vehemently disagree with your distribution of seats on the Council. Your proposal perpetuates the current situation of taxation without appropriate representation. The Townships continue to pay 2/3rds of the costs with only 40% of the votes in the District Council. The dictatorship of the Towns continues. Using the voters’s list, as you know, ignores 10s of thousands of residents who are not on the list. We need to move to equal representation with 2 members of Council from each Municipality.
    I also think we need to address the whole concept of a “District” and look to other ways to manage those common costs across Muskoka – maybe a self-administered co-op without all the real estate and personnel burden of a District. Bob

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