Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Presentation to Provincial Committee

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honour of being re-elected as the Co-Chair of the Corporate Services Committee at the Region. The committee is one of four “standing committees” (a permanent, legislative committee) and members oversee the Region’s financial management and planning, human resources, information technology, facilities, and legal services.

As a Committee Co-Chair, occasionally I am called on to be the Acting Regional Chair. This Monday, Chairman Partington asked me to represent him and Regional Council at the Province’s Pre-Budget Consultation at the Standing Committee of Finance & Economic Affairs. Travelling across Ontario, this Provincial Committee is seeking input on the Government’s 2010 Budget.

For your information, here are my speaking notes for my submission:

Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs

Pre-Budget Consultations (Ontario)

Submissions of Regional Municipality of Niagara
Dave Augustyn, Acting Regional Chair & Mayor, Town of Pelham

• Self-Introduction – Acting for and bring greetings from Regional Chair Peter Partington
• Also introduce Mike Trojan, the Region’s Chief Administrative Officer
• I am here this morning representing Niagara Region, but also as the Mayor of the Town of Pelham, one of Niagara’s 12 lower tier municipalities. (A little bit about Pelham).
• A warm welcome to Niagara. Understand that you have already heard from my colleague Mayor Ted Salci to welcome you to Niagara Falls earlier this morning.
• I compliment your Committee for traveling – bringing provincial decision-makers closer to the people. Something we strive to do across the Region.
• We are circulating a short slide deck that provides the committee a “Coles Notes” version of my presentation. and of course, I will leave a copy of my notes with the Clerk.

• The purpose of our presentation is to give you a Niagara flavor that hopefully will be considered I the preparation of the next provincial budget. Specifically:
o To provide a quick overview on the state of the economy here in Niagara as context
o To stress the importance of predictable and sustainable funding for infrastructure and social programs
o To thank the government for your on-going assistance in this regard, and
o To recommend that the government work harder to control provincial arbitrator decisions – need to limit escalating arbitration awards to Police and Fire services.

State of Economy in Niagara
• While the Niagara area ranks number one in Canada as a tourist destination, I regret to remind you that Niagara ranks number 2 overall in Canada for unemployment. At 10.8%, we rank 2nd only to the City of Windsor at 13.3%.
• Our citizens tend to be older on average, tend to have greater health problems and are worse off economically than the rest of the province on average.

• Between 1997 and 2007 Niagara economy grew 26.3% while the overall Ontario economy grew by 37.8%
• During same period we experienced employment growth of 12.9%, in contrast to the Ontario average of 27.6%
• We have been particularly hard it with the loss of manufacturing Jobs – the closure of John Deer plant in Welland, Dana Corporation in Thorold, Atlas Specialty Steel, Cangro Foods and the downsizing of General Motors to name only a few.
• In general our household incomes are lower and our youth are having to leave Niagara to find good paying jobs.
• Despite our number one rank as a tourist destination, but I can tell you that even tourism is lagging due to the downturn in our economy and in the U.S.A.
o But we hope that will return…………….
• Some realities that show hope and how we need to position ourselves for the future
o Niagara is above the provincial average for producing college graduates – who are workforce ready
o Niagara is strategically located because we are within a truckers daily drive to over 50% of the North American Market, and popularity of Niagara border crossings increasing surpassing that of Sarnia and Windsor combined in 2008.
 This trend supports the need for GTA to Niagara Corridor (or previously known as the Mid Pen Peninsula) to proceed.
o We are a region of entrepreneurs with diverse business growth – in fact we have an above average number of small to medium sized businesses (SME’s)
 Brock Bio-Science Centre is helping to incubate new business
• Niagara is working to create niche markets – see real potential in alternative energy and renewable energy – perhaps we will see Niagara emerge as “Ontario’s cradle of renewable energy”
o Niagara Falls and “Big Becky” are huge successes in renewable energy generation
o Niagara has formed a partnership with the Rankin group to form “Wind Niagara” – a small corporation looking to attract and grow wind power components. Our geographic positioning makes Niagara a perfect location to grow renewable energy businesses.
o The Abitibi Paper Mill is building a $500M Co-Generation system that will make the Thorold Mill totally energy self sufficient producing about 250MW of poser the majority of which will be fed back into the grid.
• Just to name a few examples………….

THANK YOU for Recent Investments in Niagara:
• I need to acknowledge the many examples of provincial assistance we are benefiting from in Niagara. So please accept our thanks for:
o The millions of dollars of investments over the last few years under various infrastructure programs that have resulted in improvements both regionally and within local municipalities as well including major road rehabilitation and expansion projects; water and waste water system improvements and critical bridge repair work;
 The Province alone has invested approx. $62 million in the 12 local municipalities, and another $30 million in Regional projects.
 Together with the municipal and Federal share, this means approx. $281 million of infrastructure improvements.
o Your on-going commitment to the widening of Highway 406, for rehabilitation and expansion works necessary to make the Niagara District Airport more commercially viable;
o For your assistance in making the Niagara Convention and Civic Center a reality that will help bring more investment to this City and the Region
o You have also helped in the creation of the Vineland Research and Innovation Center; Niagara Ambulance Communication Pilot; and
o Uploading -- We need to also thank the government for not to choosing to balance their budget woes through the delay in uploading the cost of social services – with case loads peaking now due to the recent recession the continuation of this upload as planned is critical. We would ask that you continue with negotiated and scheduled uploads.

But, the Need for On-going, Predictable Investments Continues
• Ladies and gentlemen we realize the current state of the economy provincially and the province’s fiscal situation (pushing $25B) deficit and we realize that most of this deficit is because of the significant infrastructure stimulus funding the government has been invested in municipalities to help create local jobs.
• We want to thank you for those investments and your focus on jobs.
• The need for continued and for stable infrastructure funding is critical to better connect Niagara internally and with our trading partners.
• Long term stable infrastructure funding is our largest area of need – [not unlike the rest of the Country]
• Members may not yet be familiar with the survey just released last week through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. This survey of Canadians indicates that 96% of Canadians want the government to maintain or increase spending for local infrastructure.
• Canadians feel that we are lagging behind in infrastructure improvements and see that as a threat to their future prosperity.
• Survey says “do not balance your books by cutting much-needed investments in our community infrastructure”
• In Niagara we estimate our longer term infrastructure needs – to bring our existing infrastructure to optimal state of repair and to grow our system to match our anticipated growth -- to be approximately $1.6 billion dollars for the next 10 years.. Then there are the needs of the 12 lower-tier municipalities.
• In contrast, we estimate that Niagara’s taxpayers can afford to pay for about $1.3 billion over 10 years. This leaves a $300 million funding gap.
• I say “Niagara Taxpayers” because we use an “ability to pay” philosophy – we endeavor to tax well below the average annual increases in household income.
• We agree with the province that infrastructure spending is one the best and quickest ways to stimulate the economy, get people back to work, and increase government revenues.
• When people are working there is less strain on our jointly funded – by Province and by Region -- social programs as well.
• Niagara is also currently debating whether to and how to integrate the existing transit systems in Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, and Welland into a Regional transit system.
• Good transit could better serve students, employees, and those looking for work. It could also better link tourist features and the recently expanded GO Transit to Niagara.
• We know this is a focus of the Provincial Government and that you provide Gas Tax revenues for vehicle replacements. We encourage you to maintain that investment.

Arbitrated Settlements
• I am going to change course now and talk about an issue that is of growing concern not only to Niagara but to many other municipalities across Ontario as well – and that is the desperate need for a clearer direction to Provincial Arbitrators with regard to settlements for Police and Fire services.
• [If you need some history I can give it to you during questions, however] It is becoming financially prohibitive for all municipalities to keep pace with arbitrated settlements.. Our police forces and fire departments play a vital role in our communities and we have to have them – but their arbitrated wages settlements are becoming unsustainable and unaffordable.
• Too often, Arbitrators look to other jurisdictions to guide their settlements. Unfortunately Arbitrators are not considering “ability to pay” of the local area – even Windsor has lost that battle with Police and Fire
• This is creating two tier classes of employees – and we are seeing growing pressure from other employee groups for greater recognition of their work as well
o Public works employees in confined spaces and trenches
o Utility workers (proximity to gas, electricity)
o Nurses, Personal Support Workers in the homes
o Your own correctional workers………….
• It is creating compression issues within municipalities (for example Fire Officers making more than our Finance and Public Works Directors with larger span of control / complexity).
• I tabled a motion that was supported by Regional Council last Thursday night that will asks the Government to require that arbitrators take into account a municipality’s – hence our taxpayer’s -- ability to pay and the health of the local economy.
• In conclusion Mr. Chair – I want to thank you for the opportunity to give you some food for thought as the government prepares for its next budget.
• On behalf of Niagara Regional Council I would like to thank this committee for listening and the government for listening
• It is critical to us to keep infrastructure dollars flowing and we are truly thankful for provincial funding programs.
o Keep the gas tax coming; turn programs like Investing in Ontario, Building Canada, ISF funding, Bus replacement programs and others into long term stable and sustainable funding.
o We are pleased with the outcome of the Provincial Municipal Service Delivery Review results and the uploading of the costs for social services – we need that to continue.
o And finally – please help us to stabilize wages through provincial direction to more strongly consider ability to pay in terms of arbitrated settlements.
Thank you

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Seeking to Revitalize Downtown Fenwick

I have some more news regarding the revitalization of Pelham’s Downtowns.

You will recall that in late 2008 the Town applied for funding from the Federal and Provincial government to revitalize both Fonthill’s and Fenwick’s Downtowns. The $7.1 million application envisioned major infrastructure enhancements: water, waste-water, and storm-sewer improvements; burying of hydro cables; road improvements; and proper streetscaping – better parking, brickwork, decorative lampposts, benches and planters.

In early 2009 we heard we were successful in achieving two-thirds funding to revitalize Downtown Fonthill. Those designs are in the final stages and work will be starting this spring. However, the improvements for Fenwick were deemed a second project and ineligible for that funding.

But, in December the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario announced a second “intake” for the Community Adjustment Fund. To be eligible for funding, the projects must be for community organizations, small-to-medium-sized businesses, or municipalities and completed by March 31, 2011.

While the $128 million fund is available for business to expand production capacity, technology, or access to markets, it also supports the “revitalization and development of downtown core” areas.

Following a Resolution at a Special Council meeting last week, the Town applied for $2.3 million of funding from the Federal Government for the revitalization of Fenwick’s Downtown. The $2.7 million project would provide help “calm” traffic by creating urban design features – like pedestrian crossing treatments or gateways – that work with the road design to slow traffic. The works would help to visually distinguish the downtown core, provide decorative roadway and pedestrian lighting to improve safety, and widen sidewalks to help make it more walkable.

What about the flagpole at the intersection of Maple Street and Canboro Road? People seem to have strong feelings about what to do with the historic structure. Some suggest the status quo. Others envision the flagpole in the middle of a roundabout which could help reduced speeds and enhance the perception of the downtown core.

The Town, via an engineering consultant, has already started formulating the design for Downtown Fenwick. Rest assured you will have a chance to comment as they present design concepts for a revitalized downtown.

If you would like to support the Town’s application, please write to:
Community Adjustment Fund
151 Yonge Street, 3rd Floor
Toronto, ON M5C 2W7

and reference the Town of Pelham’s application to Revitalize Downtown Fenwick.

You may also want to encourage our Member of Parliament, Dean Allison, to continue to invest in Pelham. His address is:

Dean Allison
Niagara-West Glanbrook MPP
4994 King Street
Beamsville, ON L0R 1B0
or email at info@deanallison.ca.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Taking Stock" on Property Taxes

As a New Year begins, many of us like to “take stock” on our personal and professional lives. Many find it a good time to review the last year and to ask, how and what can we improve.

On the professional side, this review got me thinking about one of the major yardsticks for residents of Municipalities – property taxes.

Now, it is too early to talk about the 2010 Operating Budget and its impacts on the 2010 Property Tax Levy; Council will start reviewing the Budget in February.

You will recall that Pelham Council did approve the 2010 Capital Budget on November 30 – the earliest ever. In fact, Staff has already started tendering capital projects in order to get ahead of other municipalities, and to (hopefully) get better pricing.

Property Tax Calculation:
You will recall that I have written here often about property taxes, about how we prudently invest your taxes in the Town, and about how it is calculated.

The amount of property tax you pay to the Town of Pelham, to the Region, and to the Province (for Education) is based on the Market Value Assessment of your property multiplied by each of the tax rates.

Despite your tax rate being set by each entity for their services, the Town collects the tax and distributes it.

Your assessment is solely set by MPAC. The Town and the Region cannot change any element of this assessment process.

From 2004 to 2009:

You will remember that Pelham’s final 2009 property tax increase of 1.8% was the second lowest increase in Niagara Region last year.

But, what about over a longer period of time? Let’s compare this term of Council so far with the last term of Council.

The average increase of property tax on the Pelham portion of your tax bill for the last three years was 3.8%; for the previous three years it was 12.2%. If you “take stock” on the entire tax bill – Pelham, Region, Education – the past three year’s average was 2.1% compared to 5.9%.

Pelham staff has diligently followed this Council’s direction to ensure minimal impact on you and other property tax-payers without decreasing the current level and quality of services. Staff found efficiencies, ways to work smarter, and stayed focused on service to the community.

I am pleased with our record and look forward to 2010 Operating Budget deliberations in February.