Listen Up! It’s a trifecta of government decisions this week- Ambulance, Budget and Ironman

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Hugh Mackenzie Huntsville Doppler

Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

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.

TOWN BUDGET

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.

 THE IRONMAN

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.

9 Comments

  1. Hugh, your opinions this week are bang on in my books. Whatever can be done in the Private sector the same job can be done for twice the money in the public sector. There are many examples around Muskoka of people doing a job in the private sector moving to the public sector doing the same job for almost twice the money. District already has too big of an Empire. Let the discussion be about how we reduce it. What happened to those people who promised they would work to get themselves out of a job at District or was that just election talk?
    Ironman should have had a full vetting from organizers and volunteers before pulling the plug. Deerhurst we know didn’t make any money, athletes don’t buy food at the resort or if any, very little and few drink. These Large events were supposed to be for shoulder seasons to bring tourists into our town to help bolster the slow times instead they now displace visitors in normally busy times. For the shop owners the entourage that travel with the athletes do spend money in our restaurants, pubs and stores and many of those owners work very hard on the Committees that support these events.
    The Chamber of Commerce is a great asset to this town, however like District Government it became to involved in Empire building and lost sight of its purpose. There is so much the Chamber can do to support their members by reinforcing the many events that other organizations bring to Huntsville. By working with these groups and by sending out promotional packages well in advance of large hockey tournaments, baseball tournaments, dance recitals, The Festival of the Arts the list goes on and on they can promote the myriad of interesting things Huntsville has to offer. If the Chamber does this they will warrant the Council investing more money in them and in their membership staying strong.

  2. Thank you Hugh for your comments about the Ironman. This was undoubtedly a tough decision that had to be made, but the way that it was made with out consultation of the community, the volunteers who had invested countless hours, and members of our triathlon club and advocacy group who had devoted years of volunteer work to bring this event to town. A full Ironman event is considered to be one of the most challenging endurance events in the world. This was going to be the feather in the cap of a community who has a vast and rich history in the sport of triathlon and endurance sports. Still to this day, people talk about the 1992 World Championships that our community hosted when the sport of triathlon was in its infancy. These people include many local people, to professional athletes and coaches that I have recently had discussions with regarding the cancellation of the Ironman.

    Given my intimate involvement in the acquisition of the full Ironman, I do see both sides of the story. A race of this magnitude that takes a committee of over 20 local volunteers to build the event experience, and over 1500 volunteers to run on race day, does not make sense when there is a submaximal number of athletes participating. At this point in the year, I guess projections of athletes that had signed up weren’t at the mark that they were expected to be. Was this because the course was too hard? Maybe that is part of the reason, but numerous accounts on blog race reports stated that it didn’t take people considerably longer to complete our course compared to other Ironman events, and our finisher rate was 94.7% which is very good for an Ironman. The event had a >95% satisfaction rate according to post-race surveys given to athletes, and just take a look at social media and these blogs, and you will see that the experience that these athletes and their supporters had in our community was one that was warm, inviting, and truly Muskokan.

    On the other hand, did it make sense for the Town to be the financial backstop for the $100K licensing fee that comes along with hosting this prestigious event? It doesn’t make fiscal sense to backstop this amount for less than a sell out athlete crowd. The local organizing committee, the Ironman Muskoka Experience Committee (IMEC), was charged with seeking out grants and sponsorship dollars from corporations and local supporters with the intent to raise the $100K, plus monies to pay for the ancillary events that happened down in River Mill Park. One big reason that this financial target was not reached was that, despite the contract being signed in July, a solid IMEC with a GM was not in place until February. This was after grant deadlines, and after the time that corporations had already committed most of their sponsorship dollars to other events. Ironman also had a list of sponsor categories that we couldn’t approach as they already had exclusive sponsorship relationships with other companies already. So, the potential money to chase was even smaller. This year, the IMEC and its GM were ahead of the curve with grants already submitted, sponsorship packages ready to go, and fundraising ideas to hopefully raise the $100k plus some more money to help get us out of the deficit that was created by this years event.

    Things take time. I guess that is a key factor. When TriMuskoka got involved in 2010 when we learned that the 70.3 was about to be cancelled, we worked alongside of Ironman Canada to build the 70.3 up from a mediocre success (with 800 participants in 2010) to a booming success (with a sell out 1700 this past year). Events like Band on the Run started with a few hundred people, and now is a booming success and is a great community event. There are many other events in the arts, cultural, and sports sectors that have grown to be successful.

    The hardest part of these events, in my opinion, is not whether or not the community wants them here as they are great events that enrich the lives of our community residents, elevate the status of our community in the eyes of those looking for a place to visit, and provide opportunities for our businesses to continue to grow and thrive. Ask any business owner, probably most political leaders, and community resident if they want to have something like Muskoka Sound, the Ironman, Nuit Blanche, or Film North here. Most would say yes. However, the hardest part is the financial commitment to starting and sustaining these events. These events aren’t “free”. So, who should pay for these events? The taxpayer who might not see any direct benefit (but may eventually see some trickle down effect)? The local business owners who these events generate business traffic and income that they may not have seen otherwise? The regional tourism operators who have mandates that are greater than just a single event? The tourists themselves through a destination marketing fee that could create a legacy fund for our events to draw from year after year after year after year? Or a combination of all of these factors?

    My money is on a combination of factors. But whatever it is, unless we act soon, the events will continue to dwindle off and we will be a community with inhabitants and tourists with little opportunity for the social and cultural engagement that has been the hallmark of what has made our community a great one to live in, and one that is internationally acclaimed to visit.

    So, let’s not look back. Let’s move forward. It is what it is, but let’s work collectively as a community to maintain the events that perennially happen in our community. Let’s attract new events that will further enhance the well rounded tourism and residential experience of our community. But let’s do so with a sustainable model of financing them year after year so that we don’t end up in the same boat again.

    • Rich very well written and Kudos to you and your team to make this happen in the first place. We all know the hard work and countless hours that go into making these events happen. I am just saddened that the decision was made with no consultation.

  3. Cindy Kosynski on

    Hugh,
    In your research did the District of Muskoka mention if the $450,000 in savings would affect ambulance response times? As it stands now the Muskoka EMS must be stretched to the limit as they work very hard to provide excellent service. I can’t imagine it is easy to serve 2 hospitals and such a large geographic area on a fixed budget. I feel if the District takes this service over we would be in trouble. I completely agree with you comment.. “Why fix something that’s not broken!”

    • Hi Cindy, response times are not affected. The $450,000 is the profit the private contractor was making. The operating budget remains basically the same without changes or cost cuts that would affect service to the people of Muskoka. The $450,000 savings will help reduce your taxes.

  4. With regards to your opinion about Muskoka Ambulance Service. Both sides are debating about what they think, and no one has asked the front line workers how they feel. So I don’t think you have enough information to say that “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Ask the paramedics, dispatchers, the people who are out there every day doing the job. Ask the important people what they think before giving an opinion about the service. That’s my opinion. Thank you for reading it.

    • Excellent point Trevor. My EMS friends tell me the system is badly broken. I also understand that the current contractor Medavie is the only one bidding on this contract as they are the only private medical contractor in the province. I am big on private sector business but not when there is a monopoly. The private sector needs competition to provide fair and honest value for its services. Their proposed large increase for future service forces the District to look at alternatives that save tax payers money. The district already owns and services all the EMS vehicles & buildings.

  5. As someone who is up here in Huntsville most every weekend since 2008 and will retire here, I’ve started to take a keen interest in local issues. With a 7% budget increase planned this year (My own salary increase was 1.5%), I can totally understand how council needs to watch the spending. With council cutting off funding to the Chamber of Commerce, I’m wondering what the town is doing to promote Huntsville? I understand there is some level of town marketing staff and budget. I’d be interested to know what they’re delivering.

  6. I believe that there is a leadership issue that needs to be solved or the loss of more athletic and cultural events may occur. The TOH and Chamber have a number of well qualified individuals that are more than capable of bringing in events that are both good for business and fiscally responsible. Why would they leave a task as important as the Ironman to essentially a group of citizens to manage? IMEC had passionate members and a capable GM but we were given an impossible task to complete. Mission Impossible was to deliver a world class event with inadequate financial resources and a totally one sided contract that favoured ONLY the World Triathon Corporation. The TOH and Chamber need to figure out who is in charge of event tourism in Huntsville and appoint someone to take charge. Citizen committees, running large events without clear guidelines, just doesn’t work.

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