It was a sad night for Midland citizens when Council voted on whether to reduce the size of Council at its May 27th meeting.
Two weeks before at the General Committee meeting, a majority of Councillors present voted to downsize Council from 9 members to 7. Then at the following Council meeting, one of our members, George Dixon, made a deputation to Council on how to successfully make this reduction in time for the 2014 election.
You may recall that reducing Council size was one of the recommendations made by KPMG, the consultants hired last year for $50,000 to find efficiencies in the way Midland operates.
Council had an opportunity to improve how it operates and to save a projected $175,000 over the next term. But the opportunity wasn’t seized for reasons that are not clear.
There is no objective reason why Midland Council needs nine members – a Mayor, a Deputy Mayor and seven Ward Councillors. That is more than one member for 2,000 people. By comparison Barrie has one Councillor for 13,000 people and Toronto one for 59,000. Midland spends more to maintain its Councillors than many other places do, not because a Midland Councillor’s pay and benefits are too high but simply because there are too many Councillors being paid to do the job.
Town Councillors should play an important oversight role in ensuring services are provided efficiently and effectively in the public interest. Our Council has wasteful processes and too many committees and other bodies that confuse the public and Councillors alike. It blurs roles and responsibilities so no one knows who does what or who should be doing it. Waste, overlap and duplication overwhelms Councillors with needless busywork and feeds arguments that our Councillors are much too busy to possibly operate with seven members.
A Councillor’s job in Midland is part-time but having nine Councillors instead of seven does not make this important job any less difficult. Every individual Councillor needs to keep informed and stay on top of all Town business to do the job we elected him or her to do. Any Councillor who somehow believes he or she doesn’t need to know it all because someone else can just tell them what to think and how to vote isn’t doing the job and shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Five Councillors voted against reducing Council’s size – Councillors Attwood, Charlebois, File, Jeffery and Pendlebury. Are they afraid if Council reduces its size by 2 members they might be out of a job? Congratulations to Councillors Canning and Ross who along with the Mayor and Deputy Mayor chose the public interest over some other agenda.
Eight members of Council were clear and deliberate in their position on moving to a seven member Council except for Councillor File, who paused and openly struggled with her decision when casting her deciding vote. One can empathize with her moment of reflection as there was much discussion around Councillors keeping their Group Health Benefits. This was a “red herring” that confused the discussion at hand. Ironically, most of the Councillors who are now keen to remove these benefits also voted to provide them a few years ago; clearly a decision not driven by logic, but likely by individual needs and political manoeuvring. And to be clear, the medical benefits Midland provides are not excessive – virtually every other municipality benchmarked provides health benefits as they realize it encourages a broader range of qualified candidates.
We believe this is a decision Council should reconsider while there is still time.
At a Special Meeting on May 31st, Council voted to purchase the 40 acre Unimin site on Midland’s waterfront.
The deal will see Midland pay $4 Million for the site plus $200,000 towards the costs for the environmental decommissioning of the site. If those costs exceed $600,000 then the parties can renegotiate and Midland will have an opportunity to withdraw from the purchase. The agreed closing date is December 31, 2014.
The recorded vote to approve the purchase was 7 to 1 with Councillor Ross voting against it and Councillor Attwood absent.
There are risks associated with this purchase, including market risk in holding a large piece of development land in a community where growth has been historically very slow. Real estate development is not generally a core capability of municipalities. For that reason, it will be critical for Midland to complete the Master Plan and vision for the site, secure the Town’s interest in having the site develop appropriately, and then market it as soon as possible to reputable developers with the skills and resources to maximize this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Midland will be borrowing to finance this purchase and as long as the land remains vacant and in the Town’s ownership, it will generate no tax revenue for the Town. Midland taxpayers will be shouldering the financing costs and making up the tax revenue deficiency until Midland resells the land and development gets underway.
Only time will tell if Midland Council made a sound decision in purchasing Unimin lands. Council chose not to have any public debate on the issue before committing to this purchase and high stakes game of speculation.
The Town needs to quickly find the right development partner and remove itself from the kind of gamble one usually sees in Las Vegas.
Finally on Monday June 3rd, the Midland Police Services Board adopted an operating budget for this year. The budget projects an increase in year-over-year net spending of 5.6%.
Town Council still needs to deal with the Police budget at the upcoming Council meeting later this month. It is not required to approve the budget as submitted and can choose to send the proposed budget back to the Police Services Board for further review. We expect Council will approve it given we’re almost halfway through the year and Midland has been waiting on Police so that the town budget can be finalized; a very unfortunate delay.
Whatever Council does with the 2013 budget, this escalation in the costs of Policing is not sustainable and illustrates a problem that requires a different strategy and perhaps a different intervention. More on this subject in a future update.
Roy Ellis on behalf of Midlandcommunity.ca