Friday, December 21, 2012

Is this where Springwater is headed?

Mississauga waking up to a new reality

Toronto Star Jan 19 2012 By Christopher Hume Urban Issues, Architecture

Hazel McCallion may still be the mayor of Mississauga, but it’s the end of an era in the city over which she has presided for more than 30 years.

The suburban dream of high lifestyle and low taxes has come crashing to earth. The old model of growth-by-development-charges no longer applies. Although it is unfolding first in Mississauga, the same fate awaits any number of sprawl cities in the GTA and beyond.

While McCallion nattered on this week about Halloween parties, the price of ice time and parking fees, Mississauga’s new reality was making its nasty presence felt.

Perhaps she hoped her performance would create an appearance of fiscal responsibility, but when it came to the hard issues — proposed service cuts, crumbling infrastructure and staff recommendations that would have had a genuine impact on tax hikes — the mayor fell eerily silent.

In the end, though, was the stark truth of a 7.4 per cent city property tax increase (before the regional increase is factored in), something that doesn’t sit well in a jurisdiction that long prided itself on being the next best thing to free.

But as Mississaugans are about to discover, you get what you pay for. And in their case, the money they thought they were saving has come back to bite them in the pocketbook. And if you thought it would have been expensive back then, wait till you see what it costs now.

The truth, of course, is that under McCallion, Mississauga has been mismanaged beyond the point of no return. Bankrolled by decades of barely controlled development, Canada’s sixth-largest city never had to grow up or face the consequences of its heedless rush to suburbanize.

Despite its relative youth — Mississauga was incorporated in 1974 — it has hit middle age with a thud. The city whose main claim to fame was that it had no public debt is now looking for $450 million to stay afloat.

In the meantime, infrastructure is starting to fall apart. Built as cheaply and quickly as possible, it was intended to allow for growth, not accommodate a community. Little wonder, then, that Mississauga’s infrastructure deficit is expected to hit $1.5 billion in the next 20 years.

Even the city’s roads department — that holy of holies — faces cuts. Though traffic numbers are going up drastically, future projects will have to be curtailed by $25 million, and the annual $2.8 million funding gap for road repairs will soar to $8.2 million by 2016.

To make matters worse, Mississauga handed itself over to the car early in the game and let public transit languish. Though plans for an LRT have been bandied about for years, there’s still little to show for all the talk.

But as Mississauga’s commissioner of planning and building, Ed Sajeki, points out, “The key to the transformation of Mississauga is transit.”

Failure to provide sufficient alternatives to the automobile has left Mississauga poorly equipped to make the transition from suburban to urban, a change Sajeki believes is critical.

“Our intention is to create a walkable, livable public realm,” he insists. “This was put into Mississauga’s new official plan.”

However, he quickly adds, “Many of the single-family neighbourhoods where people live won’t change.” Indeed, the main exception is the area around Hurontario and Burnhamthorpe at Square One. Throughout much of the rest of Mississauga, where subdivisions prevail, this won’t be practical.

In other words, there’s only so much that can be done to keep Mississauga livable and bring it into line with the new priorities of the 21st century. In less than 40 years, its moment has come, and it now seems, gone.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Springwater Council-No Vision, No Leadership, Increased Taxes

We have now completed two years of the four year term for Springwater Council. Has the change in most of the council members except for Mayor Collins and Councillor Clement meant any real change? Unfortunately for the most part we are on the same track as we have been for the last number of years with the previous councils. Some people have said to me that we are actually in a worse state than before. I don’t agree with that statement, but the major problem which has been the issue for many years is that there is no vision of where the Township of Springwater is headed or should be. The Strategic Plan that the council developed is a shelf decoration with honorable mention in each of the staff reports that council receives. It lacks true goals, objectives, strategies and action plans like most strategic plans. The Economic Development Strategic Plan which cost close to $30,000 has progressed very slowly and no one at the township can tell us how many new jobs or businesses have come to Springwater since its inception or can they tell us if we in fact lost more jobs? In 2013 they will spend close to $100,000 for an economic development officer to jump start it. The new gateway signs which were suggested in the plan are a great addition however.

When it comes to cost control, the creative approach to employee increases in the first year of the current council term has now reverted to the standard flat rate COLA type increases instead of placing it where it makes a difference in people’s lives. The rank and file staff I have met over the years are quite good and committed to their jobs and to me are more deserving of higher percentage increases then those bureaucrats in the $100,000 salary ranges. Very few people I know are getting automatic wage increases but when the two leaders of the council come from spoon fed government guaranteed pension plans, I understand how they don’t understand the real world experience and feel that increases in taxes and user fees are standard procedure. The attitude seems to be that everything goes up in price and that is the way it is. Most businesses I speak to have reduced costs and are more productive with more value being created for each dollar spent. Not so with our township operation. There has also been a lot less discussion when it comes to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on new equipment. No real attempt has been made to reduce the cost of operating the township without reducing services.

I fully accept that we have a huge infrastructure deficit with some crumbling roads and bridges but is taking on 2 to 3 million dollars of additional debt per year for the next 5 years really a solution? In 2013, 10% of your tax dollars will go to debt servicing, not delivering services, up from 5 per cent when the current council took office. By the end of the term it will be about 15% of your tax dollar with no end in sight. I am not convinced that we have the best process for obtaining the lowest cost or choosing the right projects for some of our road construction activity or our other capital equipment expenditures. I notice a lot of our trucks, roads equipment and emergency equipment are a lot newer than the surrounding municipalities or even our big neighbor Barrie. I also question some of the construction projects in the $20,000 to $30,000 range and these add up. On Grenfel Road for example we have two steep dangerous hills just south of Sunnidale Road that have ravines about 30 feet deep with large trees at the bottom. A number of vehicles have gone into the ravines over the years and fortunately no one has been killed. There are no guardrails. However in the wisdom of public works and council’s approval we now have shiny new guardrails near CR90 on both sides to protect vehicles from sliding into a 2 foot deep stream. Ironically the same type of bridge and watercourse less than 200 metres away on CR 90 controlled by the County has no such guardrails. Grenfel Road is flat in this area and cars are slowing down for the stop and easily in control. No vehicle has ever gone into this ditch near this point. By the way, they had to redo this new installation as the St Catharine’s firm installed the rails blocking one resident’s access to a field and the other access to his shed which is also the NVCA’s access to the watercourse. I wonder who paid for that design flaw? Public Works state “we could be sued” and council blindly bob their head and pass resolutions to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars that we don’t have on these questionable projects. I agree with due diligence but let’s be sensible. As a councillor I would want proof that some of these projects are needed and insist more justification be included in their reports. Too much dependence is placed on the consultants’ opinions, and they are in the business of creating projects as there are more fees for design and engineering once approved. It is staff and council that should be investigating what is really needed before making a decision.

Just so you know your property taxes this year are increasing just over 2% but your actual increase will be dependent on how much your property assessment increased. So you might be paying 7% more depending where you live as some properties increase in assessment value up to 5% a year. For those on Water and Sewer the increases will continue at about 4.3% or more and the report last week now suggests that we are in a 31% deficit position for the Water portion of reserves. What is frightening is this is being brought to light after a couple of years of the plan being launched to correct it. The reason seems to be that finance underestimated the use by home owners and the consumption is down. When I queried the possibility of the Township being forced to increase the Water portion to as much as 10% to get back on track, the Mayor said that this council would not invoke such increases but would borrow more money instead. I know Mayor Collins is not an economist but she should be told that our province, our country and the world has placed itself in a precarious position because of unnecessary debt and poor fiscal management. We have become intoxicated on low interest rates. If interest increased to 8%, our portion of the property tax to pay the interest cost could end up being 30 or 40 percent of your assessment dollar because of this council borrowing for the next generation. The council needs to do a sanity check and find ways of saving money. I believe if done properly and each line item in the budget investigated meticulously, as business owners do, over a million dollars could easily be carved from our budget with no negative impact on services levels.

On another note here is something that boggles my mind about this council’s thinking. It is the change in the frequency of Council Meetings from December of this year to March of next year. Even though Councillors complain from time to time about the length of the meetings which are twice a month and too much to read, in their collective wisdom they are now only going to meet once a month. How does that make sense? I had been impressed in the Fall when they in fact added a General Committee meeting prior to the Council Meetings to discuss the matters more openly and in detail. That was a concept I tabled during the last election as it works well in a number of municipalities. It made sense as they were acknowledging that they cannot do an effective job unless there is more dialogue and discussion on matters affecting the residents. Now to reduce the meetings as an experiment is ridiculous. I wonder if there is someone on council that is going to Florida for three months. If the councillors are not up to taking the time to deal with the township’s business for any reason, they should resign as did the councillor in Barrie last Summer. I suggest you contact our elected officials and find out where they will be until March.

For those following the mega development in Midhurst, I was dismayed at the Province of Ontario deciding they would no longer contest the residential development of 300 hectares or 741 acres of prime agricultural land around Midhurst which coincidentally is mainly under the control of one developer who is not local. This could mean another 5,000 homes or 12,000 people and up to two hundred million of infrastructure cost for water, sewer, roads etc. Barrie has realized that development charges only pay at best about 80% of these costs and the existing taxpayer pays the rest. Just think about it, if the general taxpayer is stuck with about forty million dollars of these costs and we grow to 30,000 people that means a minimum tax impact tax assessment increase of about a 20% on top of the current average increase of 2 to 4 %. Mayor Collins and most of council still think the developer will pay for all of this new infrastructure. That is simply not true and has never been done as it is not the developer’s decision that allows growth, it is the local council. It is confusing when you think that the residents in Centre Vespra, Hillsdale and Midhurst all say no to mega developments but a majority of this council are in favour of these developments. The Midhurst Ratepayers Association has asked many good questions during the question period at Council and Planning meetings but only receive evasive answers. This council in many ways is more disconnected from the public than the last which sounds impossible but on this point I am sad to say is true.

Everything in this article is of course my view but is based on hours of study and research which our elected officials for the most part have failed to do. I have also attended over 90% of the Council and Planning meetings of this council. The lack of understanding came crystal clear at the Council meeting at the beginning of December when our Deputy Mayor requested that the council be brought up to speed by a training session to better understand the impact of the Provincial Policy Statement, the revised County Official Plan, and the Amendments to the Places to Grow policies. Since this council has passed many resolutions that are impacted by these policies, I find it odd that they are now interested in finding out what they mean and how they impact us. The unfortunate situation is that the study sessions will most likely be conducted by township staff or a planner that favours unrestricted development. They should be asking the Ministry of Infrastructure or the Ontario Growth Secretariat to provide the information sessions as they are the ones that created the legislation. Mayor Collins, Councillor McConkey along with Public Works Brad Sokach and Planner Brent Spagnol are the only ones that took the time from their schedules to attend the information session in Barrie on Amendment 2 of the Places to Grow in December. I am curious why other councilors did not attend this important information session as the changes will impact Springwater for years to come.

I believe we have a council that will leave us with a few improved roads and bridges, more shiny vehicles but the largest debt in the history of the township which will ultimately result in continuing above average tax increases. They will also leave us on a track that will destroy the unique rural character of Springwater because of unbridled mega developments. Midhurst and area will simply look like an extension of Barrie under this council’s plan or lack thereof.

I do believe all of those on council are for the most part honest, sincere and have an interest in doing what is good for Springwater but without visionary leadership, the township will continue to just progress with inertia rather than thoughtful planning. It is like having good players on a team but a poor manager or coach. I can only ask you to pay more attention to what council is doing, attend a few council or planning meetings and be better prepared to choose a leadership in two years that will create the municipality that we all want.