As Christmas nears, Peel’s councillors celebrate a budget with little help for those who need it most
As snow squalls swirled around Bramalea in mid-December, councillors at the Region of Peel sat in their centrally heated council chamber. The legislative room would give the uninformed observer the impression that this space is a model UN or some performing arts auditorium for high culture. It’s not. It’s where the 25 men and women around the regional table set the rules and plot the course for waste management, transportation infrastructure, social services, policing and affordable housing and emergency shelters in Peel Region, along with many other crucial services.
In front of the region’s headquarters in Bramalea, a man lay wrapped up on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette, giving every indication of someone sleeping rough in an already freezing winter.
Upstairs, though, councillors furiously debated procedure and technicalities and the political optics (the personal advantages and disadvantages) surrounding the 2020 budget for more than 80 minutes with a passion rarely displayed on the aforementioned matters.
Last week council was suspended after Brampton members walked out in protest after a motion was put forward by Mississauga’s Carolyn Parrish. It called for the region to change its policing formula to reflect usage and the amount of police work in Brampton and Mississauga, rather than its current assessment-based formula. It is a change which Mississauga believes could save its taxpayers $69 million per year, a number which Brampton and its mayor, Patrick Brown, vehemently question, as it would mean the city to the north would have to cover this staggering extra amount every year, if proper analysis shows that the Flower City does indeed consume more police resources than its neighbour.
The logic of the argument is almost irrelevant, though. Since Brampton’s walk-out last week, councillors have entrenched their positions further. Mississauga, still hurting from the result of the Doug Ford government’s regional governance review, is determined to shape the region to its benefit, while Brampton, still committed to the regional structure, wants to see everyone continue to pay in as they currently do. Its argument is simple: the smaller city helped the larger one during its build-out and now Mississauga has to do the same for Brampton.
The country’s sixth largest city contends it has always contributed an outsized share to regional government, effectively subsidizing the two smaller municipal partners in Peel.
Both claim the high ground; the final council meeting of 2019 suggests neither have it.
Mississauga Councillor Carolyn Parrish, left, was not present Thursday when Karen Ras, right, took the lead on a controversial motion
With four Mississauga councillors absent from the final regional council meeting of the year, when the 2020 budget was voted on and set, Karen Ras moved away from the previous plan to get the region to adopt an immediate police funding change – possibly shifting $69 million to Brampton. She instead asked staff to consider the matter in a future report. A referral on the floor suggested staff investigate the cost difference between the current funding model and the model which the OPP uses to charge Caledon, which is not served by Peel Regional Police.
Although the request was more palatable to Brampton councillors than the immediate change which had been suggested the week before, few saw it as a peace offering.
“Talk about playing politics, that’s exactly what you guys did last Thursday,” Brampton Councillor Michael Palleschi said. “But now we’re taking a sober second thought, how convenient when you guys are down in the numbers. I’m happy to support the region going forward as a whole and that’s essentially what the province has now said. I understand Mississauga’s desire to leave the region, but that’s not the world we live in. I think we need to move past that and do some good things for the region.”
Brampton and Regional Councillor Michael Palleschi
After some confusion last week, with Mayor Brown absent when the vote was called, Brampton’s councillors walked out after the short police debate. This week, the party line was clearly established.
“I can’t support this,” Patrick Brown said Thursday, laying out his city’s talking points to refute Mississauga’s $69-million claim. “I think any effort to even analyze how to make the region dysfunctional does not serve the interest of Peel Region.”
One of the various members of the Mississauga contingent to shoot back was Dipika Damerla, who told Brown she had hoped council would consider her city’s request. “If we can’t look at one city’s request, if that city feels that the funding model isn’t working for them, if council isn’t even open to looking at it, how can we argue that regional council is working?” she asked. “To me that would be proof that regional council isn’t working – if we can put our narrow self interest ahead of the common good.”
Mississauga and Regional Councillor Dipika Damerla
It was a pretty rich comment coming from a person who declared, before the region’s 2020 budget had even been proposed that she wanted a ceiling on any increase. It was a move blatantly meant to pander to her voters, instead of considering the actual needs of people who rely on services such as public health, affordable housing, policing and child care. She didn’t give a darn about that, as long as Damerla could trumpet low taxes to her future voters.
And so the debate went, on and on. Brampton councillors were clear: they feel Mississauga pulled a stunt the week before, with the intent of destabilizing the region. They think the referral on the $69-million issue was only on the table because of Mississauga’s weakened position, with four councillors absent. Mississauga members, for their part, admitted they had been too hasty in bringing the full motion, offering referral to staff as a constructive (in their view) compromise.
However, through the debate and various offers of mild compromise, the lid to pandora's box was pried open. In Peel, that box is filled with questions of governance, costings, structure and who is really benefiting. Questions which, if unleashed together, will tie up the region’s well-paid staff for months on end, distracting council and staff from the task of governing.
Some of those well-paid staff, including Peel’s former top bureaucrat who is no longer there, engaged in conduct that was possibly corrupt which was learned when documents unearthed under freedom of information laws showed they conspired secretly to undermine Mississauga’s desire to exit the region – that could have jeopardized the employment of staffers who engaged in the highly-questionable conduct.
Brexit has paralyzed the entire United Kingdom for more than three years, the question marks and conduct that now define regional government here could do exactly the same to Peel.
“I think that putting motions that speak to issues like this [police funding] is totally appropriate to refer to staff,” Chair Nando Iannicca said, regarding the implication on a broad range of issues. “If it had said ‘should we consider it better governance to elect your regional chair?’ I’d be supporting looking at that as well. What about governance and representation by population? Is that something that we need to look at? Yeah, I think that’s a fairly put motion as well, because that’s what we signed on for [after the result of the regional governance review].”
Peel Region Chair Nando Iannicca
Also speaking along similar lines, Brampton councillor Martin Medeiros suggested, if a police-funding review by staff was to take place, that it should be extended to cover almost everything. “I do think if we’re going down this path, then we have to look at this holistically,” he said. “And look at everything that we do here at the region, but also look at the return on investment – [we should] look at what Mississauga takes out of here.”
With the recently concluded provincial regional governance review, these questions may again be valid. Yet, piling a laundry list of technical, political questions onto the region’s staff after one of the toughest budgets in decades seems unwise.
As The Pointer has extensively reported, the region has a significant infrastructure gap and is already years behind on the construction of affordable housing units, while its affordable housing list continues to grow at pace. During the budget process, housing and homelessness barely received half an hour of discussion between them, while nearly three times that was devoted to the quirks of governance and the personal political concerns of elected officials. They will never understand that they are not elected by the taxpayers to guarantee their re-election. They continue to obsess over matters that are almost purely political and self-serving, instead of the issues that directly impact their residents every day: safe streets, clean drinking water, affordable housing, social services, child care, public health, a working transportation network and so much more.
Peel families on the region's housing wait list, which now has 15,000 people on it, moved into these Brampton townhomes last holiday season which they helped build with Habitat for Humanity.
The Pointer has communicated with and researched the work of incredibly hard working staff at the region dedicated to delivering these services and providing the infrastructure to ensure prosperity for almost 1.5 million residents.
It’s unimaginable, how frustrating it must be for them to watch elected officials and senior staff beholden to them run roughshod over their work or pile up more requests, simply to help their future political prospects.
Mississauga’s desired exit has legitimate reasons behind it. But if that goal slips into the realm of the personal and political it will only add to the disconnect.
Even Mayor Brown’s ongoing defence of the police, which he positions as a public safety concern, could be deeply grounded in the old Conservative trope of currying favour with the policing community and its supporters as little more than an election-time tool to guarantee a big bloc of votes.
Meanwhile, where was the mayor’s concern over affordable housing, the lack of which leads directly to higher rates of crime in a community. His city is in an affordable housing crisis. Emergency shelters are packed beyond capacity and the downtown is seeing an explosion of the homeless on the streets. It’s also experiencing another alarming wave of violent crime. Brown likes to talk about gang activity as a way to trigger alarm and defend the need for more policing money. Why doesn’t he come up with an affordable housing strategy, including prioritizing funding, to combat the very roots of the gang activity he seems so concerned about?
Ultimately, after a series of technical questions about police funding even the chair seemed not to understand, a motion to refer was drafted by Councillor Ras. The motion directed staff to “report generally on the matter of regional allocation of costs,” not specifically Peel Regional Police. In essence, that means staff will draw up a list of allocation areas for early 2020 and consult council further. From there, council will have an idea of how many areas there are to consider, how much staff time it may take to analyze or if a third-party may need to be hired for the project.
What’s odd is that it took a debate over the police funding allocation to bring such work into focus. The entire exercise of the province’s regional review was meant to find out if the two-tier municipal structure is fair and cost-efficient. The conclusion of the province’s work even came with $143 million from Queen’s Park for regions to help them find efficiencies and figure out things such as whether current funding models are fair to all municipal partners within a region.
It’s unclear if council or staff at Peel had moved on this direction from the province when it reached its conclusion on the regional review in October. But now, because of a brewing political fight, taxpayers will get a full analysis of how the region is set-up, whether funding is fair for all taxpayers and, maybe even a clearer picture of how efficient (or inefficient) Peel Region is. But it would be understandable if some in the public have little faith in an accurate outcome, after senior staff led a previous exercise that clearly had a predetermined goal, to protect their own interests. They even hired an external firm to create the impression of independence, but the FOI documents showed that was simply a ruse.
A recorded vote on the motion led an unsurprising result: a tie, with Mississauga and Brampton split along city lines and Caledon voting as individuals on both sides. Ever the political chameleon, Chair Nando Iannicca, who was key to undermining Mississauga’s attempted exit from the region, broke the tie by voting in favour and instructing staff to report back. Shouldn’t he have led an initiative to do this after the province directed such an exercise back in October?
Naturally, there’s something to be said for Mississauga’s argument that they get a raw deal. There’s also merit in Brampton’s desire to get on with the business of government.
It is unclear to what extent the current formula is unfair to Mississauga’s taxpayers. The city’s calculations, based on the limited available evidence, are unlikely to produce an acceptable figure. What is clear, though, is that residents across the region are being handed an extremely raw deal by councillors who spent more than an hour of their final meeting of the decade discussing their political agendas.
Damerla’s comments Thursday, after the 2020 budget had been passed, had to be replayed three times to make sure she indeed said what she did when recommending how future budget deliberations should be approached.
“Would it be more helpful for council to collectively first discuss what kind of increase we are comfortable with?” she asked. “And give that direction to staff and then they come back with a budget tailored to that as opposed to the current practice which is staff come back with the entire wish list that’s been discussed on one-offs. On one-offs, you know, we keep approving a lot of things and then you accumulate them and you’re in the situation where we’ve agreed to these one-offs and you look at the cumulative impact. Then we’re asking staff to go back and look at what can be cut.”
So she wants decisions made about “one-offs”, like affordable housing and child care, to be made by staff, not elected officials whose job is to make such tough decisions. And then, in a statement that defies belief, she said council can pre-set a palatable tax increase, not based on what the community needs, but what is politically acceptable to her.
So, councillor, when do you plan to fight for affordable housing, a huge issue in your very ward, which has almost twice as many residents as the smallest ward in Mississauga, including residents under siege by slum landlords and others who are barely hanging onto the roof over their heads. Instead of doing the dedicated work of a committed public servant, who serves her taxpayers and the others who desperately need leadership, she is concerned with the optics of a tax increase. Yes, homeowners should be protected from soaring taxes, but shouldn’t Damerla and others be doing this by finding where to focus priorities. Maybe the excessive staffing costs at the Region of Peel, for generous salaries, pension plans and benefits, should be looked at before ignoring issues such as affordable housing when trying to find your coveted tax cuts. Or do people like Damerla calculate that those who need affordable housing don’t vote at nearly the rate compared to those better-off home owners who demand low taxes and don’t really care how this is achieved?
As we enter into the final stretch of the holiday season, as that man outside the Peel Region headquarter clings tightly to his blanket while the poorly funded emergency shelter system continues to struggle and families across Brampton and Mississauga try to bring some cheer into their challenging lives, councillors will be enjoying some eggnog and turkey inside their comfortable homes, knowing they just passed a budget that left them slapping each other on the back.
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