Regional Council’s recent decision to refer a request by local business leaders to have a discussion on COVID-19 financial implications on taxpayers and business owners was both encouraging and disappointing.
The disappointment comes from the immediate motion to refer which resulted in no discussion on the matter.
Niagara Regional Council is beginning the process of hiring a new Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). In my opinion, the process needs to lead to a CAO with fresh eyes and no local baggage or connections.
Over the years, senior positions like the CAO and Commissioners of the major departments at the Region have seen inconsistent hiring practices. For instance, when Debbie Zimmerman became Chair of Niagara Region she wanted to work with a new CAO. Mike Trojan was simply appointed to the role, without any competition, after his predecessor Michael Boggs was moved aside to a ‘lateral’ position.
The recent passing of drastic property tax increases speaks loudly to the need for compensation restraint within the municipal civil service.
The Province’s Bill 124 imposes a one per cent limit on compensation increases for provincial civil servants. It was put in place specifically to help deal with high unsustainable annual deficit and huge accumulated debt at the provincial level. However, the bill does not apply to municipal employees.
The operating agreement, technically a lease, between the Federal Government and the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation is under review by the Ministry of Transportation Canada.
Federal Transportation Minister Marc Garneau announced a five-year extension to the lease, expiring March 31, 2023. Negotiations for a new lease agreement or perhaps a whole new canal management structure are expected to begin in 2020.
Is the cart before the horse? Regional Council agreed on June 20th to use the Municipal Price Index (MPI) to guide on-going automatic budget increases and directed their staff to prepare a bylaw to replace an old policy that had used the lower Consumer Price Index (CPI) escalator ahead of approving budget committee recommendations.
The Budget Committee approved base budget increases as follows; 2.7% for Regional Departments; 3.0% for agencies, boards and commissions (Police, NRH and NPCA); and 2.1% for waste management. This was based on an MPI that includes a 3.3% compensation increase and adds up to 2.85% overall tax increase.
Niagara Region Council is set to hold a Budget Review Committee of the Whole meeting on June 20 to discuss 2020 budget guidelines for staff to follow. This is the most important budget meeting of the year for Council. Staff are asked to prepare detailed budgets for each department based on the guidance provided to them by council based on the percentage increase or decrease council wishes to see. This meeting decides between zero based budgeting or budgets based on a percentage change from last year’s budget.
The discussion will be different this year because the provincial funding changes for 2019 will now likely be imposed in 2020.
A hearing was held on May 1 in Niagara’s Council Chambers to hear 13 registered presenters on the issue of Regional Government Review. Eleven of the 13 attended the presentations.
The City of St. Catharines had their public meeting the day before to hear from residents and Council. Committee Chair Joe Kushner used the opportunity to comment on a draft recommendation for city council, “We don’t think bigger is better, we think the present system works quite well,” Kushner said.
The draft recommendation suggests a regional service provider for social services, policing and social housing to take advantage of economies of scale, and single tier cities within Niagara.
Two consultations and a telephone town hall hosted by MPP Sam Oosterhoff as well as a Brock University session on the subject, offered some ideas on governance options, some old, some new and one wild card; add Dunnville and Lowbanks to the Niagara Region. This was a suggestion made at the Beamsville consultation session by some Haldimand county residents.
One model of a restructured Niagara governance system that has been discussed for years goes something like this; two- tiers, five cities and double duty city councillors with a publicly elected Regional Chair.
The five cities would be divided up based on urban clusters. Each would manage their own water and waste water infrastructure.
There would be a total of 65 elected representatives (down from the current 126) and no Region-only councillors.
The Berkley report on Regional governance recommends a single tier model that would in theory be more effective and cheaper with fewer politicians, (elected representatives of the people).
The April 2000 report states, “Our conclusion is that a single tier, three or four-city model is the most appropriate longer-term governance model for Niagara.”
There would be no regional government, but the Canal City will act as the consolidated Municipal Services Manager.
Governance review in Niagara has been a recurring topic since the Regional Municipality of Niagara was first formed 49 years ago.
The “Single City” model has been offered time and again as the magic bullet solution by many over the years. The Mike Harris Government was ready, by many reports, to do to the Niagara Region what they did to the Regional Municipality of Hamilton Wentworth in 1999 and that was to create one city of Hamilton.
Is one Niagara, meaning total amalgamation, from 12 municipalities to one city, the right solution, right now for Niagara?
Premier Ford and Minister Steve Clark are looking at and consulting with a total of eight regional governments across the province, including Niagara. There is no question changes are coming. What those changes will look like remains a mystery.
Niagara has been discussing and debating its regional governance structure ever since it was created in 1970 by Premier Bill Davis and Minister Darcy McKeough.
That original effort to improve municipal governments in Niagara resulted in reducing the 29 existing local councils to 12 and creating one Regional Council.