Call it a form of taxation without representation: a long list of legislation that essentially downloads costs to municipalities without giving them a say in any of the decisions. And, to add insult to injury, most of the requirements provide no benefit to residents while lifting evermore dollars from their wallets. From useless paperwork demanded by the Office of the Fire Marshal to overzealous water-monitoring regulations and from accessibility requirements with few benefits to all of the downside of gravel pits, Queen’s Park has long burdened municipalities with the real-world impacts of their own bureaucratic make-work schemes.
It may be futile, but Woolwich officials hope to counter that trend by making direct pitches to the provincial ministers and senior staffers at next month’s Rural Ontario Municipal Association/Ontario Good Roads Association conference.
Tackling just some of those grievances, a list of which was approved by township councillors this week, is the priority of chief administrative officer David Brenneman, who’s seen plenty of red tape in two decades of municipal service.
A clear example of the problem can be seen in what happened following the Walkerton fiasco. Instead of treating what happened as an isolated incident, compounded by Harris government cuts to inspectors, the province instituted sweeping new measures, including excessive amounts of water testing, that collectively added millions of dollars to municipal spending. There were plenty of new rules and procedures, but not one dime to help local governments pay for them. The result: not one iota of improvement, but plenty of added expenses.
That’s no isolated incident, he says.
“Was that (Walkerton) an overreaction to a very specific circumstance? I think you’d find that most municipalities were doing just fine … with their inspection programs.
“In cases like Walkerton, in the end the legislation becomes very reactionary.”
Brenneman notes such kneejerk reactions lead to heavy-handed changes, blanket rules that force every municipality to comply whether or not there was a problem. Poor emergency response in one town, to a flood or tornado, for instance, has led to new emergency management protocols for everyone. In almost every case, they’re not needed, but municipalities are forced to spend the money anyway.
“Often, it’s a reactionary fix,” he argues, calling the resultant costs for implementing and enforcing the rule changes “a de facto form of downloading.”
He likens the provincial approach to a manager having a problem with one employee’s conduct dealing with it by sending out a thou-shall-not directive to every employee – all the others know what the problem is, and resent being lumped in with the troublemaker. Instead, the matter should be handled directly with the employee in question.
Just as such actions by a manager have consequences in the office, the province’s decisions have repercussions across the board. Even good ideas that are fine in theory – some are, many aren’t – lose credibility and effectiveness when they’re handed down willy-nilly without thought to what comes afterward in terms of implementation, compliance and enforcement.
“There are a couple of things to consider right off the bat. One, we need more funding. And two, there needs to be more dialogue before this kind of legislation is enacted.”
To date, however, municipalities get neither. In essence, they’re forced to tax without representation.
The same is true of the steps needed to comply with the Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA), for instance, which forces a range of measures and costs on municipalities even where it makes no sense at all. This goes beyond elevators, ramps and sidewalk cuts in new construction, but extends to such things as providing alternative document formats despite zero demand in Woolwich. Still, everyone will be forced to pay for it.
“Without an appropriate level of funding from the province for the implementation of these standards, costs are directly supported by the local taxpayer,” Brenneman says in a report discussed at council this week.
Then there’s the issue of gravel pits, a topic with which the township has become intimately acquainted, and one that he hopes to speak about when meeting with provincial representatives next month.
The process is lengthy and costly, with the concerns of municipalities often swept aside by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ontario Municipal Board. The municipality does all the work, but gets little for its efforts aside from a great deal of political grief, as we’ve seen in debates here.
To make matters worse, municipalities receive only a pittance in revenues from gravel operations. The cost-benefit analysis alone is reason enough to deny all applications. Aside from the process itself, gravel pits bring increased truck traffic that put residents at risk, create more wear-and-tear on the roads, bring environmental problems such as dust and noise, and threaten to despoil prime agricultural land and the accompanying vistas.
To offset the immediate costs, he suggests higher revenues for municipalities. In Woolwich’s case, aggregate extraction brings in about $37,000 a year in revenues. He contrasts that with the fact a single battle at the OMB could ring up $250,000 in legal costs.
Once a pit is approved, municipalities have little recourse in the event of problems. The industry is supposed to be self-regulating, but that system isn’t working. The Ministry of Natural Resources, which can make unilateral decisions about specific sites, typically sides with the operators, not the public it’s supposed to serve.
“The residents of Woolwich do not trust the system,” he notes.
What’s true of the aggregate process applies equally to the range of legislation without regard to what’s best for municipal residents and their pocketbooks. It will be difficult, however, to overcome a system where bureaucrats look to justify their positions by coming up with policy changes, regardless of whether or not changes are needed or make any sense at all.
“I understand why it happens,” said Brenneman.
But how optimistic is he that next month’s meetings will bear fruit?
“We can’t just sit back on the sidelines and not try,” he argues. “It’s always a tough hill to climb. Part of the municipal role is to be an advocate to the senior governments.”
The effort will be aided if other municipalities bring the same message to Queen’s Park, eventually swaying the government. But that’s not going to happen in short order.