MUSKOKA AMBULANCE SERVICE
Here we go again. Another power grab by the District of Muskoka which can only result in more bloated bureaucracy. This time it is the Muskoka Ambulance Service. Ambulance service has come under District jurisdiction for many years but until this latest takeover ploy, it has always been contracted to private service providers
This week, District Council will be debating a proposal from staff to bring the ambulance and paramedic service in house. Their proposal suggests they can save $450,000 on the current contract price of $8.7 million. But can they? Let’s look at that.
If there is a direct takeover by the District, they will add 91 new employees to their current roster. Of those 86 would be union members and six management. I have seldom known private sector services to cost more than those delivered by the public sector, so you can bet your booties that once there is an amalgamation, the ambulance/paramedic union will not rest until their members have parity with other District unionized staff. In addition, the proposal suggests that salaries for management staff for the ambulance service will be integrated into the District compensation grid. Again, I have trouble believing it won’t be higher.
As an example, the current Manager of Ambulance Services in Muskoka is paid a salary of $86,000 by the private contractor. An on road ambulance supervisor, one rank below the Muskoka manager, in South Simcoe, is paid more than $100,000 by the County government. Further, the District proposal calls for an expenditure of $230,000 for software and a transition consultant. I have also been told that there would be about another $100,000 dollars of technology costs that does not appear to be in the District proposal.
The advantage of a private sector contract is that it is finite. The term (in this case three years) and the price are fixed. If the District takes over the ambulance service, there is no finite advantage. If staff believe they need more resources once they are in charge, they simply go to Council and ask for more.
People who know me are aware that I am not big on bureaucracy, especially in the public sector where it is harder to control costs. Nor is it any secret that I view district government in Muskoka as an overblown bureaucracy that has grown exponentially and unnecessarily and at great cost to the taxpayer. I continue to believe that some services delivered by District could more effectively and efficiently be delivered at the local municipal level and that we have too many politicians at the District level who enjoy the status quo and double stipends (although not all of them).
And so, it should come as no surprise that I am adamant in my opposition to the direct takeover of ambulance and paramedic services by the District. It is not necessary and it can, in my view, only be caught up in the bureaucratic quagmire that is District, resulting in increased costs to you and to me.
There is an old saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We have an excellent ambulance and paramedic service in Muskoka, run by a highly professional staff that know how to run it. Although I do not have high expectations, I do hope that District Council will avoid the temptation to go where there is no real need to go. I have heard through the grapevine that our Mayor and the Mayor of Lake of Bays oppose the direct takeover of ambulance and paramedic services. We shall soon see if others will follow their example.
Huntsville Council and their staff deserve a good deal of credit for the 2016 Budget they approved in General Committee last week. It could not have been easy and it still needs formal approval at the next full meeting of Council. Although a seven per cent budget increase is nothing to be proud of, there were some legacy issues that had to be paid for and Council is wise to deal with this up front. Because the Town saw increased revenues last year, especially from development fees, the actual local municipal increase to taxpayers will be about 2.5 per cent. While not inconsequential, to most it will be manageable and reasonable under the circumstances. However, I have a caveat, which the Mayor knows is not unusual for me.
I have a concern about creeping expenditures. Last year, if memory serves me correctly, some expenditures were approved that were not in the budget which effectively increased the budget after the fact. This year Council is going to be put to the test, even before the budget gets final approval.
Even with a budget increase of seven per cent, Council had to make some tough decisions. One of them was to decrease the grant to the Huntsville/Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce by $50,000. This will substantially reduce their marketing capability. This has obviously upset the Chamber and efforts are underway to mobilize the business community and lobby Councillors. Chamber officials will be going before Council in an attempt to get the money back.
Council should not budge unless they are prepared to cut a similar amount from their own events budget and provide those funds to the Chamber. Budget decisions are difficult but the budgets themselves become moot if, after their completion, new expenses are added under pressure or at the whim of Council. One way or another that goes on the taxpayer’s bill and that is why Council should beware of creeping costs and hold the line now that they have drawn it.
I suppose this is an example of being between a rock and a hard place. There is no question that investing in the full Ironman in Huntsville for a three year period was a considerable undertaking both in terms of volunteer work and Town finances. Most people thought it was a success last year, providing a good deal of economic stimulus to the community. It was a surprise, at least to me, that Ironman Canada did not consider the event successful enough to carry on for another two years. On the other hand, with this decision, the Town will save a lot of money which, in part, has allowed them to keep the budget increase at seven per cent.
Although it has been said that the decision to pull the plug was a mutual one, someone had to start it, and from his comments last week it is unclear to me whether this was the Mayor or Ironman Canada. From the Town’s perspective however, I have real concerns in relation to how this came about.
A major community event was summarily cancelled without any real public consultation. There was no meeting with the organizing committee that had worked years to secure the coveted full Ironman for Huntsville. There was no public meeting held and no consultation with the myriad of volunteers who dedicated hundreds of hours each to the project. Stakeholders were not involved to determine if they could identify strategies to mitigate the financial risk. According to event organizers there were avenues to explore for additional financial backers and grants. But they weren’t asked. It was an arbitrary decision and a very poor way to encourage the generous volunteers in our community, without whom there are a whole lot of events important to Huntsville that would not happen.
It may well be that cancelling the full Ironman was an unhappy necessity from both the Town’s and Ironman Canada’s perspective. On the other hand, if there had been full consultation, listening to other perspectives and strategies, it might not have been necessary. However, the way the decision was made sucks and is an insult to all the people who put so much effort into it.