Niagara’s regional government could see major impacts as Province reviews the system; slight reductions proposed for St. Catharines budget
Niagara Democracy Watch is The Pointer’s weekly feature aimed at increasing the public’s awareness and political involvement in the Niagara Region by highlighting key agenda items, motions and decisions.
Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy
Location: Holiday Inn and Suites, 327 Ontario Street, St. Catharines
Date: January 10 - 9:00 a.m. | Written Submissions | Full Agenda | Watch live
Another attempt by the Province to review municipal governance
While Niagara municipalities slowly begin to ease back into council and committee meetings after the holiday season, almost all Niagara municipal councils will be represented before the Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy, which is holding a hearing in St. Catharines on Wednesday.
The hearing before the legislative committee is to inform a study on regional governance as overseen by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. The purported study will look at not just governance in the Niagara Region but also Durham, Halton, Waterloo and York regions and Simcoe County. It has been a circuitous path to Wednesday’s hearing with changes at the Ministerial level and on how the review is being conducted.
With Canadian municipalities considered “creatures of the Province”, based on the former’s constitutional authority to enact laws related to municipal institutions, in late 2022, the Minister of the day, Steve Clark, introduced the Better Municipal Governance Act. The purpose of the Act, according to the government, was “to take decisive action to address the housing crisis by assessing how best to extend strong mayor powers and reduce municipal duplication.” Minister Clark was to appoint facilitators to oversee the review of municipal governance on September 11, 2023. Clark resigned a week prior as a result of the process surrounding the controversial development of Greenbelt lands.
Clark’s successor as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Paul Calandra canceled the use of government appointed facilitators and on September 13th formally requested that the Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy take over the review. Calandra's request to the committee is “if the two-tier government in these regions is supporting or hindering the construction of new homes and the provision of effective local governance more generally?” The request is not all that different from the Ford government’s previous aborted attempt at reviewing municipal governance.
In 2019, Clark appointed former, long-time Waterloo Region Chair Ken Seiling and Michael Fenn, a former Deputy MInister, as special advisors to assist with the regional government review. Between March and May of that year more than 8,500 written submissions were received and nine in-person sessions that heard from almost 100 individuals and organizations were conducted. However, in October 2019, Clark decided not to act on the so-called Fenn-Seiling report, which has never been released publicly.
The issue of municipal governance reform has been no more productive at a local level than the Province’s recent efforts. A 28-page report before the Regional Council in 2020 outlined the numerous motions and efforts for reform locally since 2005. There has never been a local consensus on what municipal reform should look like in Niagara, whether it be the status quo, one Niagara, the elimination of the Regional level of government or a 3 or
4-city model centred around Niagara’s largest lower-tier municipalities of St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland.
Regardless, since the institution of Regional government in 1970, Niagara has remained a two-tier system with the upper-tier Niagara Region and twelve lower area municipalities. Although there have been minor tweaks in representation over theyears, there are currently 126 elected representatives in Niagara, the majority who serve on a part-time basis. The number of elected representatives in Niagara has been a source of criticism, especially for those who espouse a reduction in the number of municipalities in Niagara.
On Wednesday, the Standing Committee, which is comprised of seven members of the ruling Conservative party, two NDP representatives and one Liberal M.P.P., will hear from the Heads of Council of all of Niagara’s municipalities, with the exception of Niagara’s smallest municipality, the Township of Wainfleet.
Surprisingly, since the Province review was directed to the Standing Committee process, there has been little formal discussion on governance reform on Niagara’s municipal council agendas. West Lincoln Council did have it listed under Other Business on their December 11th agenda for an information discussion. At a budget meeting in November, where a number of residents made deputations imploring Niagara Falls City Council to not raise taxes, Mayor Jim Diodati called on residents to make their views known to the Standing Committee, while seemingly equating local budget pressures on the large number of elected Niagara politicians and the Region’s two-tiered system.
Despite Diodati’s plea, a look at Wednesday’s agenda shows the majority of delegates are politicians. In addition to the Regional Chair Jim Bradley and mayors, with various supporting municipal staff members, Regional Councillors Rob Foster and Fred Davies have also requested to speak. In November, Davies, who has previously posted support for “one Niagara” on his Facebook page, introduced at resolution, approved by Regional Council, calling on the Premier and Cabinet to authorize disclosure of the Fenn-Seiling report “so Regional Council may be well prepared to contribute to the discussion on Niagara’s future.” The report remains unreleased.
Though the agenda of speakers is set, the public can still submit written comments up until 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, January 18, 2024.
In light of the Ford government’s decision last month to walk back the proposed dissolution of Peel Region after having just introduced the Hazel McCallion Act this past June, it remains to be seen whether any substantive action will occur as a result of the latest provincial review of municipal governance but the hearing should, at least, reveal the positions of various local mayors on governance reform.
Council (Budget) Meeting
Date: January 10 - 6:00 p.m. | Delegate | Full agenda | Watch live
Mayor Mat Siscoe introduces his budget
St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe will have a busy day on Wednesday. In addition to speaking to the Provincial Standing Committee on municipal governance reform, Siscoe will be formally introducing his budget, his first under the Strong Mayors powers introduced by the Province in time for the 2024 budget process.
On Wednesday, November 22nd, the St. Catharines budget process began with staff presenting operating, capital and water and wastewater budgets. The related staff report stated that, “the information in this report and related appendices will be used to support and inform the Mayor’s budget.”
Upon conclusion of the staff presentations, Mayor Siscoe stated the following:
“[S]taff have made their recommendations but at this stage it becomes a political document. I know that the budget I will be presenting in January, while it will look similar, it will have additions and it will have deletions. There will be changes.”
Despite the Mayor’s promise, the changes being proposed as a part of his budget are minimal. The most notable change to the operating budget is the contracting out of forestry services. According to the related staff report, the annual cost of the in-house services is approximately $2.1 to $2.2 million a year, with external contractor services being estimated to come in annually at $1.4 to $1.5 million. The savings to the 2024 operating budget is estimated at $465,000, as the proposed transition occurs with savings expected to rise to approximately $700,000 in the subsequent two years.
The report indicates that nine full-time equivalent positions exist in the City’s forestry services section but promises that the staff will be employed elsewhere in the Public Works department. The Union (CUPE 150) has been invited to speak at the budget meeting regarding the proposed out-sourcing.
The two other changes in the Mayor’s budget that differ from the budget presented in November are some “gaping dollars” as a result of the City not being able to fill anticipated summer student hirings in 2023 and some cost savings resulting from staff recently awarding a contract for security services for municipal parking locations. The result of the gaping dollars will be annual savings to the three-year budget of $500,000, while the security services contract will provide annual savings of $250,000.
The total operating budget impact of the Mayor’s budget changes equate to $1.215 million, which will mean an increase to the tax levy of 1.2 percent. In addition, $1.431 million is being transferred to the operating budget from the Special Tax Mitigation Fund that Council approved in August, which is sourced from 2023 year end savings and two percent of the 2023 budget, which was transferred to a tax rate stabilization reserve.
With the addition of remaining hospital funding and the infrastructure levy, the impact on the median home owner is estimated to be 1.49 percent increase or $25.52 for 2024. The report points out that when residents eventually receive their tax bill from the City in addition to the increase “under the City’s legislative authority”, Regional tax ratios and education rates will have to be accommodated in the billing.
After the presentation of the staff budget in late November, the City embarked on what it described as a robust public consultation process. A report on Wednesday’s agenda indicates that 93 individuals responded to a public engagement survey, a mere nine individuals attended the two scheduled public open houses, though public pop-up budget kiosks drew the interest of 79 attendees. Seemingly more successful was a telephone town hall, which had 10,564 individuals answering the call, with approximately one-third remaining on the line for the duration of the session.
Staff summarized the results of the public engagement survey:
“[M]ajority of the responses would like to see the City increase its budget investment to maintain or increase services;
42 percent of the responses would like to see the City set the tax rate to ensure that St. Catharines can maintain and enhance assets and services; and
(The) Majority of the responses support users paying for services received, especially for the Garden City Golf Course, artificial turf field, parking, business licensing and facility rental.”
At the November 22nd budget meeting, Mayor Siscoe encouraged his Council colleagues to provide him with input on suggested changes to the budget. While there is no indication that Council input had any result in the three changes to the operating budget being presented by the Mayor, Councillors will have an opportunity to propose amendments to the Mayor’s budget at meetings scheduled on January 22nd and 31st.
An additional meeting could be scheduled for February 1st, after which a ten day period will commence, allowing the Mayor to veto any Council amendments. If the Mayor exercises his veto power, Council can override with a two-thirds vote between February 12 to 26, 2024.
The report on the Mayor’s budget can be read here.
The report on the public budget engagement can be read here.
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