Midland’s Council had another busy month, kicking off OPP costing and hiring a new interim CAO to guide our town staff for the next six months. We’ll defer an update on OPP costing until there is more to report, but meanwhile we’d like to welcome Gary Wood, our new interim CAO. Gary grew up here in Midland, although he has called Owen Sound home for a number of decades. Welcome back Gary! You’ve got your work cut out for you but the town is behind you all the way!
The monthly Council meeting featured two deputations. First, the Rotary Club of Midland provided an update on its activities. Its 55 members contribute about $120,000 annually, mainly to many community initiatives but also to worthy international causes, and are to be commended for their energy and many successes.
Fred Hacker spoke on behalf of the Midland Cultural Centre, outlining MCC’s record as it approaches its fourth anniversary. Fred noted that MCC is already regarded as one of the leading art & culture centres in Ontario but is the only one that doesn’t receive public funding. He asked the Town to cover the building insurance expense (the building is owned by the Town), although the deputation didn’t indicate how much that would cost.
The “Correspondence” section of the meeting included a series of items, ranging from rubber-stamping the Big Bike event and the 2016 Canada Day parade, to the ongoing saga of duplexes built on Aberdeen Boulevard. The issue of whether or not the Aberdeen developer skirted $140,120 in development charges was referred to staff for a future Council meeting, so expect that one to raise its head again.
Funding for economic development was also on the agenda, but government processes conspired to confuse Council once again. The County transitional funding application makes it appear as if investment will drop dramatically which, as Councillor Canning succinctly pointed out, is not the case at all. This confusion should be cleared up as the County funding model works its way through the system.
There were no controversial issues arising from the General Committee report but the next item is something we should all be very concerned about. The new Midland Operations Centre was originally budgeted at $4.2 million, including the integrated Parks and Recreation facility. Somehow, this $4.2 million increased to $6 million, and now Council is being asked to add another $1.98 million to the budget.
As Councillor Strathearn pointed out, construction hasn’t even started and the budget is now rising by another 33%. That’s a total of 90% over the original $4.2 million budget! Where is the accountability? What costs are still not accounted for? How can staff win approval to build a centre for $4.2 million and have that number rise to $8 million before they even get started? Without accountability, what’s to prevent construction overruns from running it up to $10 million, $12 million or $15 million? We seriously hope our new interim CAO can get a handle on this quickly and ensure that Midland ratepayers are protected from such a future.
The next item to face much debate was a recommendation that the Town discontinue the practice of sending Councillors detailed disbursement registers of the Midland Police Services Board (MPSB), the Midland Public Library Board and the Severn Sound Environmental Association. There was general concern among Councillors about loss of transparency and, in the end, they passed a friendly motion to continue sharing these registers but to redact any entries in the MPSB register that have privacy implications.
The final item of the evening wasn’t debated, but may disappoint anyone who hoped to see a dramatic turnaround in Town spending compared to past administrations. The target to reduce Midland’s taxes to the 75th percentile has been formally abandoned. Instead, Council will consider a motion 2-3 months from now directing $1.5 million in annual, sustainable, operational cost reductions, not including Police Services. (Presumably, the OPP costing exercise will point the way to additional savings.) We recognize bringing about real change involves heavy lifting, but without it Midland’s local taxes will remain among the highest in the province.