Good evening Mr. Chair, Council and members of the community.
My name is Steve Saltsman & I appear before you this evening on behalf of the citizens group MidlandCommunity.ca, with whom I know most of you are familiar. I imagine that you would have expected to see Roy Ellis making this presentation this evening however, unfortunately Mr. Ellis had a prior out of province commitment and send his regrets and apologies for having to call me up from the minors. He would like you to know that this in no way reflects on our organization’s view of the tremendous importance of this budget process.
A quick refresher on midlandcommunity.ca, both our mission and our mandate.
Midland Community is a community–based citizen’s group that was formed seven years ago, which embraces a mission to include:
▪ promoting fair taxation and a policy-friendly community;
▪ encouraging and monitoring accountable and competitive delivery of municipal services;
▪ working toward sustainable growth and economic development;
These ‘three legs of the stool’ as we refer to them, must be in balance in order to maximize Midland’s full potential and help the future arrive on schedule.
Our group provides timely and relevant communications to the community at large through our website as well as frequent mailings to our member contacts. In terms of our community reach, Midlandcommunity.ca distributes information to well over 1000 member contacts and has over 1000 likes on Facebook.
We’re certainly no stranger to this Council and staff as we participate in most Council and budget meetings open to the public and report out on the key highlights and the decisions.
It has been with great interest that Midland Community has followed the 2017 budget process along with our regular observations of all Town business, and we felt it incumbent upon us to provide you with a third party commentary from the bleachers so to speak on what we have witnessed so far. It is not lost on anyone in this community that Midland has experienced better days. Indeed, since the year 2000, this town has realized modest movement in town revenues and growth, against a backdrop of questionable budget increases, which on average have far exceeded the rate of inflation. To be blunt, the reporting that we have heard from administration in attending the 2017 budget proceedings to date has been somewhat alarming. Our (relatively new) CFO/Treasurer, Susan Turnbull advises she has inherited a finance department that can’t easily account for and/or trace a number of internal loans, The Town has struggles reconciling reserves, and she attests to a reporting system in such disarray that meeting the provincial budget (FIR) “drop dead” reporting deadline for SEPTEMBER poses a challenge for the town…..that by any measure, is a fiscal issue of serious magnitude.
MidlandCommunity.ca membership has always suspected that this community’s bureaucracy has had some serious internal issues in the past, but I doubt many had any idea as to the size of the problem. In retrospect, perhaps the problem should have been obvious when you reflect on local property taxes soaring 114% between 2000 -2010 against a backdrop of virtually no growth; obvious to some, that the vision, the work, the systems, the people were not aligned with the realities of the day. The silver lining to that cloud is that every budget since 2010, increases and resulting impact on the tax levy has been much more manageable for the residents and the businesses that are struggling with our high local tax burden.
Times are changing, and while we can’t get much more modest in our resulting 0.1% net growth for 2016 – a figure that doesn’t even keep pace with a historically low inflation rate – it at least indicates that we’ve managed to stop the bleeding. That leaves us with the big question: so now what?
Well, it starts with talent. We congratulate Council, as it appears you have identified the need for this corporation to raise the bar on attracting the best and brightest available, and to provide that talent with the direction, the tools and support needed to help right the course. This can truly become a competitive advantage as we build Midland’s brand in our pursuit of growth.
Last October, our newly hired CAO, John Skorobohacz, presented his “Midland Forward” proposal in which he provided council with his vision & plans to guide us through these turbulent times. To paraphrase, his stated objective is to emerge on the other side as a revitalized, 21st century model of municipal efficiency – a well-oiled machine if you will. His ‘Midland Forward’ initiative and corresponding goals are ones we believe need to be embraced by us all. Those changes are designed to address issues such as management skills, fiscal responsibility, customer service and corporate values to name but a few. It is a roadmap to reorganize, restructure & reinforce the purpose & focus of where this Town’s administration should be headed. But while this cultural shift is essential in driving a high-performing organization, we recognize it took decades to get to this state, and will take a new and disciplined approach to fix.
As business people, dealing daily with costs, revenues, growth, returns – we recognize these as guideposts for developing and running our operations. Not being conscious of, or understanding them is a recipe for disaster. This year saw our Treasurer, Ms. Turnbull, introduce you to a fresh way of viewing how this municipality performs its work. By proportionally breaking down each departments share of the costs and overhead associated in the regular performance of its duties, you as elected officials, can now clearly see the investment in dollars of every committee activity, share of fixed expenses, telephone call, etc. This ability to analyze base costs when considering policy decisions, is a cornerstone of fiduciary responsibility, and will allow you and your department managers to understand the TOTAL costs associated with all of your decisions. There is no place for ambiguity when making financial choices & we hope that you will apply this new tool to advance the forces of good in your efforts to destroy the evils of inefficiency! It is a tremendous step forward. A shining example of the management process the “Midland Forward” blueprint promotes, is right under our nose.
Midland Public Library in the course of just one budget cycle is a true ‘Rock star’ in transformation! CEO & Head Librarian Crystal Budghill and her team in collaboration with a motivated Board of Directors have taken a dormant operation and transformed it into a dynamic local cultural asset. One that has greater relevance and value within the community, simply by refocusing human & financial resources, setting performance standards & by placing customer needs first. To the Library & staff – two big thumbs up from the balcony!
It may come as somewhat of a surprise for many to learn that we, midlandcommunity.ca do not take issue with this year’s overall operating budget increase of 3.1%. Are we happy? No, but we acknowledge the fact that base to base, the 2017 budget comes in slightly over 1% when viewed against 2016’s, which is below the rate of inflation. We acknowledge there are a number of “one-time” charges, some of which will, once and for all, place the “mistakes” of the past behind us & will enable us to achieve greater heights. We acknowledge that the need to invest in the development & nurturing of internal talent is real. We accept that staff need the proper tools to do their job, like technology as an enabler. All in all, we accept that the budget of 2017 is a down payment on the coming prosperity of 2018 and beyond.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t comment on last week’s budget meeting. The focus was to identify and approve Midland’s 2017 capital spending and to review ‘new ideas and initiatives’. These ideas were tabled by members of Council and if approved, would come at an additional cost. This council collectively introduced a discipline we’ve rarely seen before. You responded responsibly to the challenge of avoiding what we label ‘budget creep’, as you came together as a team and said ‘we can’t afford to do 12 of the 13 initiatives tabled’, at this time. You said no, not now even though many of these initiatives are worthy. You made a conscious decision to ‘fix the engine’ before you ‘paint and pretty up the car’.
Well done! This is the discipline we must continue to exhibit as we continue on this new journey.
So it’s all about embracing change and creating a new culture. A change in approach, a change in thinking and attitude, a change in the way we perceive ourselves. It was that very call for change that most of you campaigned on which has given you the privilege to hear many a wise word directed collectively at you from this podium! Indeed, you are about to consider numerous opportunities for change in the immediate future that is budget related. The redevelopment of the downtown core, a second chance at revitalizing our waterfront, deciding on how to best deliver emergency services be they Police or Fire in a long term, sustainable manner and importantly, aligned with our community values of respect, open and honest communication, transparency and integrity. These are opportunities of monumental proportion. Legacy Decisions which are literally historic in their implications and a chance to afford future generations of Midlanders the opportunity to point to this moment in time and say “there – that’s when we found the courage to move Midland Forward again”.
Before I close, I would like to step back a little bit from the budget document itself, to briefly address the broader issue. Renaissance. Recently, a friend shared a line with me that was repeated often by his father when addressing his siblings. “We never seem to find the time to get it right the first time, yet we always seem to find the time to get it right the second time”.
Council, you’ve laid the groundwork to get this right. You have seen the wisdom to enlist the many talents of Ms. Turnbull & Mr. Skorobohazc. Now let them run with the task at hand.
I recently sat briefly over a coffee with a council member & spoke of the frustration I personally feel when walking or driving through downtown Midland. It’s not one of despair, but one of the abundance of opportunity that is everywhere. The Harbour, Midland Bay Landing, the abundance of high profile retail space. We all received the Heart of Georgian Bay ‘Discovery Guide’ in the mail last week. This is a stunning example of creatively putting our tax dollars to work. The financial support of EDCNS (the Economic Development Corporation of North Simcoe) & NST (North Simcoe Tourism) by Midland & our local, municipal & county partners, has created this amazing external marketing piece. More importantly, it shows us all, not just those outside of Simcoe County, that we are indeed a very special place. Not a community paralyzed by fate, but one of a new found vibrance & an over-abundance of opportunity.
We can become a powerhouse, a place that prosperity will NEED to become a part of by getting our financial, cultural & ideological acts together, by working as a collective force to improve every aspect of this community, not as a Town that turns on each other preoccupied with petty, irrational battles.
Let’s not miss this opportunity- Carpe diem!