St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe accused of using ‘fantasy math’ to justify elimination of forestry services; councillor suggests move will be opposed
St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe presented his budget on Wednesday night and if the public reaction was any indication, he has missed the mark on some of his key proposals for this year’s financial blueprint.
The Mayor's budget, his first under the recently created strong mayor powers bestowed by the provincial government, was released on January 3, and Wednesday’s meeting was the public's first opportunity to respond to it. Council Chambers were filled to capacity, and even the overflow room was crowded.
Citizens who pre-registered were allowed to speak on any item in the 2024-2026 budget. Nine of the ten speakers wanted to talk about the mayor's proposal to axe the forestry services department and outsource it to private contractors. None of the speakers supported the mayor’s proposal.
The City’s Forestry Service helps create and protect a healthy urban forest and local air shed, pruning trees, planting them, caring for any that are infected or otherwise diseased. Public safety is a key goal, with tree growth carefully monitored and strategies under the City Urban Forest Management Plan that help ensure the local canopy provides safe shelter and cooling in the summer months for residents who also benefit from cleaner air (trees are the planet's natural way of removing harmful pollutants from the atmosphere) and decreased air conditioning costs. Other climate change mitigation strategies directly linked to a healthy urban forest are also critical, to ensure water absorption, erosion mitigation and the prevention of flooding and other damage.
Strict standards are followed by the City department which employs professional arborists who follow guidelines established by their industry.
The speakers who defended the service were a mix of union officials, environmentalists and other citizens—the mayor got an earful of comments from all of them. They covered various issues with a unifying thread that opposed his move to gut the forestry service, highlighting the benefits if the City increased forestry services in order to create a healthy and growing tree canopy while mitigating the increasing impacts of climate change.
Lindsay Taylor, Sustainability Director of Streetscapes for the Downtown Association, who co-led a team that created the downtown tree report, described how St. Catharines’ downtown tree stock consisted largely of smaller, younger trees, many struggling to reach maturity. She drew a direct comparison to Guelph, as an example of “what a healthy urban forest should look like”. She said, “achieving such a healthy urban forest takes a significant investment”, and her presentation defined a list of goals developed in order to help the city obtain a healthy downtown forest. The key recommendation of her 2022 report was that St. Catharines should “expand the forestry department”.
Speakers addressed the need to nurture and grow trees, and also called out the mayor for the savings he claimed would be achieved, demanding to know how he calculated the numbers Siscoe proposed. According to his proposal, savings of $465,000 would be seen in 2024 and $701,000 in 2025.
Rory Bourgeois of CUPE 150 pushed back at the numbers saying, “the cost of contracting out is grossly underestimated” and went on to list a number of costs the mayor failed to include in his figures that would reveal the true cost of privatizing. These included the price of storm response, monitoring and enforcing service standards for contractors, drawing tenders and assessing bids, making and negotiating contracts and unexpected changes to service levels including pests and climate emergencies.
He also defined the risk of initial low price bidding by contractors, only to have prices escalate once the City got rid of all qualified staff and was no longer able to provide the service itself. The City experienced this firsthand in 2011-2018; after park grass cutting was privatized the costs for contractors continued to climb until it soared to almost double what the original bid was, and far more than what it cost the City to do the work itself, putting significant burden on taxpayers. In 2019, once the financial impacts were obvious, the City ended private contracting and brought the service back in-house to save money and provide better service to citizens.
Declan Ingham, a researcher with CUPE, cited academic reports and research that show privatization is not a “silver bullet”, describing it as a myth that died a long time ago. Ingham called the mayor’s assumptions of savings an “extraordinary claim” that does not hold up to scrutiny. He continued to point out accounting issues with Siscoe's figures and said they amounted to “fantasy math”.
Following Ingham, critiques were levelled by CUPE 150 local president, Pierre Parent who stressed that the numbers presented by the mayor were not accurate and listed a number of suggestions that had been put forward by the union in the past year in order to assist with efficiencies and costs. Parent lamented that there was not enough time for him to detail all the suggestions made to management and he underlined that management rejected them. When asked why those suggestions were rejected Parent replied that it was a question for management to answer. No staff in attendance responded.
Mayor Siscoe continued to face pushback from residents. The City has acknowledged its tree canopy is “far below acceptable standards” but the mayor seemed tone deaf as citizens waited for him to provide answers and explanations after dozens of questions were laid at his feet, including how taxpayers would be protected from cost overruns by contractors, how future bids would be kept from escalating exponentially, as has been seen in the past, how forestry service standards would be maintained, how private companies would be held accountable for shoddy or unresponsive practices and how critical climate change mitigation strategies currently overseen by the forestry department would be managed if the in-house service is eliminated.
After nearly two hours of delegations from the public, it was finally time for Siscoe to defend “his” budget proposal, the first under the Strong Mayor Powers introduced by the provincial government to provide the heads of council across Ontario with the tools to “cut red tape and speed up the delivery of key shared municipal-provincial priorities such as housing, transit and infrastructure in their municipalities.”
The Mayor took his spot at the same podium that had hosted the ten public delegates that preceded his presentation.
Siscoe, alluding to the unexpected additional authority provided to him, was almost apologetic: “[I] thought I was done being the person presenting budgets (a reference to his previous role as budget chair, when he served as a councillor) but here I stand again this year because of the Province of Ontario.”
In November, City staff began the 2024 St. Catharines budget process presenting operating, capital and water and wastewater budgets. The related staff report at the time stated that “the information in this report and related appendices will be used to support and inform the Mayor’s budget.” At that same November meeting Siscoe indicated that while his budget “will look similar (to the one presented by staff), it will have additions and it will have deletions. There will be changes.”
On January 3, with the on-line publishing of the agenda for the January 10 Council (Budget) Meeting, the Mayor officially presented his operating, capital and water and wastewater budgets, formally beginning a 30-day time period for amendments.
Of course, the most significant change is the possibility of the forestry section of the City’s Municipal Works department being eliminated with the services contracted out.
After residents finished voicing a range of concerns, demanding answers from the Mayor, Siscoe defended his highly controversial proposal to cut the forestry service.
“[T]his does not represent a cut in service but a reduction in cost and a change in philosophy.”
The related report on the budget meeting agenda estimates the annual in-house costs of the forestry services as approximately $2.1 to $2.2 million a year, with external contractor services identified at $1.4 to $1.5 million annually. The projected 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.
Although the expected savings over the three-year budget cycle might seem feasible to some, the City’s past experience in contracting out has shown that cost savings do not necessarily continue over time.
The City had previously contracted out the grass cutting of passive parks for seven years. In 2019 when the City wanted to extend the agreement for an additional year, the external contractor submitted a proposal for a 13 percent increase. When the City went out to tender, rejecting the contractor’s requested price increase, the lowest proposal came in at $250,000 over the City’s budgeted amount.
In addition, other challenges had arisen from the contracting out of grass cutting. The variability of weather in any given summer could mean the City was overpaying on their fixed rate contract with the external grass cutter, staffing hours required to administer and monitor the grass cutting contract were significantly higher than originally anticipated, meaning increased costs, and the external contractor was not legally obligated to pick up litter or remove weeds from the passive parks.
Not surprisingly, staff recommended the service be returned in-house.
Wednesday’s report indicated there are nine full-time equivalent positions that exist in the City’s forestry services section. It is promised that, if Siscoe’s proposal passes, all existing forestry staff will be employed elsewhere in the Municipal Works department. However, it was revealed at the Wednesday budget meeting that there are currently only five staff persons in the section, with four positions vacant due to retirements. The vacant positions have not been filled by management because “a decision on the process of contracting out” had actually begun a year ago, according to the Mayor. This decision does not appear to have been disclosed to the public.
Siscoe responded to some of the public concerns from earlier in the meeting. He pointed out that already about 60 percent of tree cutting is already being contracted out and that all stumping and tree planting is done by outside businesses. Addressing the concern that contracting out would negatively affect Council’s strategic priority of focusing on the tree canopy, he tried to assuage the gallery, claiming there would be no impact on the planting of trees.
With the tenor of the meeting indicating Council support for retaining the forestry services in-house and possibly even enhancing the service, Siscoe imparted words of caution to his colleagues:
“[B]ringing other services back in-house comes with a cost. I will remind Council that we had a large debate in early 2023 on taxpayer affordability. The overriding message I heard from residents and councillors was that we need new ways to do things and need to do more, with less.”
The comment contradicted Siscoe’s own actions, after he aggressively pushed through a staggering 10.5 percent property tax increase mid-way through last year, long after the public process to establish the 2023 budget had concluded. He ignored widespread calls from the five dissenting council members and property owners who said the unprecedented double-digit increase would cripple many residents, particularly those on a fixed income and others struggling with the ongoing inflation problem.
Now, he is suddenly talking about doing more with less, without providing proper financial projections that consider all the factors that could impact the privatization of forestry services. Residents resoundingly told Siscoe his move would likely get less for more, with cost escalations and poor service due to the contracting out of the work.
After talking about doing more with less, Siscoe defended a controversial budget increase. Although not an addition to the operating budget originating from his office, the Mayor addressed and justified the $110,000 increase to the “Civic Reception” account, often described as his party budget. Siscoe explained that a number of event-related expenses in the past had been funded through a catch-all reserve, the Civic Project Fund. Council had previously committed to moving away from the use of reserves for recurring expenses.
Annual events like Canada Day and Let It Glow that had been funded through the Civic Project Fund are now part of the Civic Reception fund and are only seeing inflationary increases in 2024 budgets. The Mayor also explained that Council has regularly waived fees for road closures related to events like the Terry Fox Run. The fee waivers are now budgeted through the fund. In addition, there is $30,000 of new funding for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) awareness and related events, previously approved by Council.
“[I]t has been misrepresented as a party fund. I wish I had $110,000 to throw a party but I don’t throw a good party, anyway. It goes toward things we have always been doing but now in an open and transparent way.”
Despite the Mayor’s promise that there would be changes to his budgets from the staff versions, the differences are minimal. His capital budget sees the deferral of one of two of the aerial fire trucks that the municipality was planning to purchase, due to rising costs. A “Regional error”, which has meant an increase in the regional portion of the water/wastewater budget, will be offset by reserves, meaning no material change from the version of the budget presented by staff, although the decision will deplete reserve accounts that are critical to ensure emergency funding capacity.
It is within the operating budget where there are more notable changes. Some “gaping dollars”, as a result of the City not being able to fill anticipated summer student hirings in 2023, and cost savings resulting from the awarding of a contract for security for municipal parking locations are forecasted to provide annual savings of $500,000, and $250,000, respectively, over the three-year operating budget period.
If all the Mayor’s proposed changes remain in the operating budget, along with an additional $1.431 million being transferred from the Special Tax Mitigation Fund that Council approved in August to reduce the tax burden on residents, the impact on the median home owner is estimated to be a 1.49 percent increase to the operating levy or $25.47 for 2024. This would be a reduction from the budget proposed by staff in November, which came in at a 3.67 percent increase equating to an additional $62.71 to homeowners (this figure is for a property with the median assessed value).
The Mayor took great pains to explain that when that median home owner receives their property tax bill it will also include Regional and Educational charges. Based on current estimates, the property tax bill will see a 4.03 percent increase in 2024; the proposed City portion of this equals 0.61 percent.
There were no decisions to be made on Wednesday evening. The purpose was to hear from the public and have the Mayor present his budget. Staff promised that the issues raised by the delegates will be addressed in memos slated for the next budget meeting.
The new amendment process under the Strong Mayor Powers begins in earnest at meetings on January 22 and 31, with a possible meeting on February 1, only if necessary.
Some Councillors provided hints as to their proposed amendments to Siscoe’s provisional budget.
St. Patrick’s Councillor Robin McPherson will be bringing forward an amendment to slash business licence and patio fees by 50 percent over the next two years to support small businesses, especially in her downtown ward.
McPherson’s Ward 4 colleague, Councillor Caleb Ratzlaff, was open that he would be bringing forward an amendment to “keep forestry public”. Merriton Ward 1 Councillor Greg Miller implied that he would be looking at an amendment to return some of the forestry-related services “in-house”, possibly stump removal and tree planting, which are already sometimes done by contractors.
Despite offering up the contracting out of the forestry services as a “new way to do things”, Mayor Siscoe said he would not veto Councillor Ratzlaff’s forestry services amendment. The Mayor did present the scenarios in which he would exercise his veto powers: amendments that may harm the residents or services they depend on, amendments that may harm the City, amendments not submitted under the appropriate deadlines, amendments contrary to previous Council decisions, amendments that are too broad or vague and amendments that would raise the levy by an unacceptable amount.
After the amendment period concludes, the Mayor will have ten days to exercise his new veto powers. If he does, within fifteen days of the veto, a Council vote on whether to override the Mayor’s veto will take place.
Under the new provincial legislation, an override would only take effect if two-thirds of the members of city council vote for it. In the case of St. Catharines Council that means nine members would have to vote in favour of the override. Unlike other Council votes, the two-thirds/nine votes is mandatory regardless of how many members attend the meeting. For example, if only nine members were present at the meeting to consider the override, all in attendance would have to vote in favour, not just two-thirds of those present.
It was also explained at the budget meeting that unlike past years, there is no final vote to approve the budget. The Mayor’s budget is considered adopted after the amendment and veto processes have been completed.
If there are no amendments to Mayor Siscoe’s budget it will be considered approved in the form it was released on-line on January 3. However, based on the discussions on Wednesday evening, that seems highly unlikely.
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