St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe has released his budget and wants the City’s forestry department axed; private contractors could escalate costs
Under new powers granted by the PC government, the St. Catharines’ mayor’s budget makes adjustments to the proposal released by staff in November. In that budget, Mat Siscoe’s office was given a provisional increase of $111,000 for his “civic reception,” another name for a party paid for by taxpayers but hosted by the mayor. The extravagant increase was part of a proposed 3.7 percent property tax hike for 2024.
Siscoe’s amended version of the staff prepared budget decreases the tax increase slightly while leaving intact the 536 percent increase for his party budget. He is now proposing, in his bid to curtail the tax increase, the elimination of the forestry service department, by privatizing tree removal and pruning services, among other work the department currently performs. The move has stirred up environmental organizations, unions, and citizens who are raising questions about how the decision was made.
According to Liz Benneian, founder and chair of the Biodiversity and Climate Action Committee (BCAC), “Eliminating the forestry services department is completely the wrong move at the wrong time.” Benneian is a well-known environmental advocate and educator in Niagara and throughout the province. She says “cities are waking up to the threat of climate change and their roles in mitigating those threats; they recognize the value of their forestry services and are increasing them in size, not eliminating them.”
The City’s website states the Forestry Service department helps to nurture a healthier urban forest and protect the public’s safety by maintaining and pruning trees to support growth and health, monitoring the well being of the city’s trees, and removing ones when required. According to the St. Catharines Urban Forestry Management Plan, the city’s urban canopy was measured at 15-17 percent in 2011, well below the target of 30 percent by 2030.
The strategy summarized tree coverage at the time as “far below acceptable standards” and noted that “green infrastructure (plants and trees) within our city has not been afforded the same status as the gray infrastructure (concrete and pavement).” The mayor’s budget does not address how the city will reach its goals while eliminating the very department at the heart of the solution.
If council members support the mayor’s budget, nine positions with the municipality will be terminated, and the City’s arborists will be relocated to a vacant position in another department. The mayor’s proposed budget claims the savings realized will be $465,000 in 2024 and will increase to $701,000 in 2025.
Ron Hughes is the union steward for CUPE 150, which represents arborists and sees problems with the mayor's numbers, calling them “ambiguous and misleading”. According to Hughes the numbers fail to recognize the lack of flexibility with contractors, and the fact that private companies can not be called on to drive plows at times of need like City arborists are. Significant cost escalations are another concern. Hughes, who was a private contractor for 15 years before being hired by the City, said the quality of work by private contractors is inferior as they are profit driven which can lead to unnecessary removals and other work.
The union says the City can achieve savings through better forestry management and that responsible climate change mitigation requires more highly skilled arborists to look after and grow the tree canopy, not reduce it. Hughes says the union and employees have submitted plans for efficiencies and better programming but management did not seem interested. Instead, he claims, management sent an email to the union and to all members of council reminding them of the City policy that prohibits them from speaking to each other.
Recent history supports Hughes' comments regarding problems with contracting out services. According to a staff report presented to Council in 2019, the City has had bad experiences with contracting out in an attempt to save money. The report details how in 2011 the City contracted out grass cutting operations at all passive parks, which have no play structures or fields. Prior to 2008, the grass cutting was carried out by City staff. In the first phase of privatization (2009-2010), the south end of the city was contracted to an outside company, and in 2011 the grass cutting for the entire city was tendered out.
It did not end well.
The service remained in the hands of contractors for six years, as staff documented cost overruns because of the unpredictable frequency and cycle of cutting, staff hours to administer and monitor the contractors were “significantly higher” than anticipated, services were reduced in failed attempts to remain within budget, reduction of staff because of privatization meant the parks were no longer being properly monitored by the City, contractors ignored issues they should have addressed in the parks, and there were safety concerns for contractors who lacked some of the specialized equipment that was required.
The grass cutting budget for 2019 had been increased 10 percent for that year and was capped at $330,000. But the lowest tender was $580,336, $250,000 more than budgeted and far more than costs had ever been when the work was done by City staff. The 2019 report concluded that returning the work to internal staff would safeguard taxpayers and support the following goals: “Strive for the highest quality of life for all citizens; Connect people, places, and neighborhoods; Provide excellent customer service and communication with citizens.”
Mayor Siscoe was a member of Council when that report was tabled in 2019 and should have been aware of past problems with contracting similar services. The Pointer reached out to the Mayor for comment and to ask him what reports, data, and information he relied on when making his decision to gut the forestry service. He did not respond ahead of publication. No business case was provided by the mayor, nor were there any details on performance indicators for private provision of service. It is noteworthy that when asked by the City in a budget survey 73 percent of citizen respondents supported increasing the budget for tree services.
The mayor and council are under growing scrutiny since passing a 10.5 percent property tax increase six months ago, in a surprise move, months after the proper public approval process for the 2023 budget had taken place. The unprecedented double-digit hike shocked and angered citizens and has increased pressure on elected Council members to represent the taxpayers who voted for them to make responsible decisions that protect the public purse. Councillors who fought against the crippling increase have asked staff to come forward with a zero increase for the budget in 2024. The mayor’s budget does not accomplish this, even with his proposed cut to the forestry service.
According to Benneian, “Outsourcing forestry services sends the message that the Council doesn't value St. Catharines trees. A city that values its trees would be doing what progressive cities around the province are doing, investing in trees, investing in good urban forestry management and investing in the skills needed to ensure citizens get the full value of human health benefits and ecosystem services that a city's green infrastructure can provide."
The next few weeks will decide if St. Catharines maintains a forestry service or not. Council will debate the budget on Wednesday January 10, in chambers. The meeting is open to the public and begins at 6 pm.
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