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 …
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.
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
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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