Rural Ontario Municipal Association Conference 2018

I’m on the train on my way home now and thought I’d give you a little summary of my time at the ROMA (Rural Ontario Municipal Association) Conference.

The TAPMO (Top Aggregate Producing Municipalities of Ontario) meeting was informative as always. This organization (of which Zorra is a member) collects the data, analyzes it, and puts forward practical new policy alternatives to the Ministry of Natural Resources. But the MNR is very slow to consider changes to the ARA (Aggregate Resources Act) which is very powerful legislation that almost totally curbs a Municipality’s ability to control pits and quarries, and to get anything approaching cost recovery from royalties. I think there is an opportunity with this organization for Zorra to be more involved and try to push this issue more aggressively.

There was a session on rural broadband, but it was disappointing. It was focused on convincing residents and politicians that high speed internet is a legitimate need. I think that in 2018 access to high speed internet is like access to a phone: you need it. Period. This needs to be a top priority for Zorra.

Zorra requested a Delegation with the Ministry of Transportation, but was turned down. However, I think Councillor Doug Matheson had a chat with the Premiere about that too…

I attended a session on Bill 68 – Updates to the Municipal Act and Municipal Elections Bill. This bill makes many good changes to Municipal governance structures, but will be A LOT of work for Municipal Staff to implement locally.

One area that it changes is the definition of a “meeting”. Now, under the new Act, if a Council member phones another Council member to discuss an issue and then discussed the same issue with another Council member over coffee, it could be interpreted as a “serial meeting” if the discussion “materially advances the business” and could be interpreted as an illegal meeting.

I was invited, along with Doug Reycraft (Community Alliance Chair) and Katherine Sedgwick to present to other politicians on “Keeping Community Schools Open”. This was easy. We all lived that experience together and it’s always easiest to speak what you know about first hand. In fact, after “We SAVED A. J. Baker!” Daniel West and Henriette McArthur and I sat down to come up with a “how to” of lessons we learned from the experience, and I basically just presented that. It was all revived, over 75 people total attended both sessions.

Of course there was the Delegation to the Education Minister on Rural schools that I presented on behalf of Zorra and the Community Schools Alliance. I posted on that separately on FB, I’ll add another Blog on it here too.

You may notice that I have not mentioned the South West Landfill proposed to be in Zorra. In my opinion, at this point there is little to say. There is extensive work going on in the EA (Environmental Assessment) and by the Community Liaison Committee (where Zorra is represented). Until there are results from the EA there is little new information to discuss. There is a Motion before Zorra Council to demand the right of a Municipality to refuse a landfill (which I FULLY support in principle), but (and I have posted separately on this) there is some problematic wording for me in that it could inadvertently set a precedent by also allowing “adjacent” or “affected” Municipalities to refuse. Zorra will be getting a legal opinion at the next Council meeting (Feb 13 at 11am).

One aspect of these conferences that I have not made the most of in the past is the “schmoozing” or “buttonholing” MPPs and Policy Advisors. It’s awkward and probably counterproductive until you have a bit of a relationship with them. Well, this time I jumped in feet first. I talked informally with Senior Policy Advisors to the Minister of Education (several times), the Minister of Education herself in addition to the formal Delegation, and Ernie Hardeman.

In the “bear pit” (where the Premiere and entire cabinet sit on the stage and take questions from conference attendees) I asked the Premiere if she would commit to implementing the specific changes we’ve been asking for with respect to rural schools. She didn’t really answer, so when I saw her later I asked her again and we had a good conversation about it. She asked me good questions and listened to my answers, but the proof will be in the policies that will be released in a few weeks and the Provincial budget to come after that…

Overall a good Conference. I think a good expense that will pay off if we get the Rural school policy changes we want, and if we utilize some of the things learned in developing future strategies to advance Zorra’s goals of being Prosperous, Vibrant, Engaged, and Environmentally Conscious.


Zorra Township Budget 2018…

This is still one of the biggest things on my mind right now…

Specifically I’m thinking about five things:
1. Roads
Public Works is the single largest cost department in the budget every year. Zorra has a lot of roads and a low population density which makes it very costly per kilometre to maintain roads. However, they are one of the things residents use most, and they need attention.  Residents have observed this, Public Works has observed this, and I’d like to see this better reflected in the long term Capital Asset Management Plan.  Public Works has some new recommendations for the Capital Budget based on the 2017 Roads Condition Study.

2. Embro and Harrington Environmental Assessments
The Environmental Assessments, almost completed, but not yet decided on by UTRCA (where I sit as a member of the Board of Directors appointed by Zorra) of the Embro Pond and Harrington Pond represent a large cost liability for Zorra regardless of which alternative is selected.  As Zorra is the only “benefiting Municipality” for both structures (as neither is a flood control structure) any costs will be paid by Zorra.  Whether it is to remove the dam(s), or replace them, or keep them, there will be large amounts of capital and/or operating money required.

3. Debt
Given Zorra’s current high debt, the need for an improved maintenance plan for roads, and anticipated heavy capital spending on the Public Works Yard and the Embro and Harrington Ponds in the next 5 to 10 years, I would like to see a significant increase in transfers to the Capital Asset Management Plan Reserve.  If we don’t begin building up money in that reserve then even if we begin reducing debt the Township could continually be going back into debt for capital projects.  That could mean there would be no debt room for a “rainy day” or unexpected grant opportunity (that might require matching funds).

4. Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund cuts
Over the last few years the Province has cut OMPF funding to Zorra by one million dollars in total.  I believe we can anticipate another cut this year.  
This increasingly means the Township must rely on taxation to pay for our capital and operations. This is wrong. Municipalities own two thirds of Ontario infrastructure but only get a total of 9 cents of every tax dollar (the other 91 cents go to the Provincial and Federal Governments).
However, this is our reality: increasingly, we have to pay our own way.

5. When Council debates and weighs options, and prioritizes items in the Budget it sets the tax rate.  This term of Council adopted a 5 year Capital Budget Plan in an attempt to get better control over long term spending.  There needs to be a strong expectation from Council that those items will be completed in the year that they are planned, budgeted, and taxed for.  And an equally strong expectation that Council will be responsible and accountable for the plan.  It’s a work in progress, but I believe that combined with the Strategic Plan, the 5 Year Capital Budget Plan will bring more predictability to spending needs, and that should lead to better control of spending, and therefore taxation.

All this will mean a careful eye on other items in the budget if the tax rate is not to be significantly affected.
I am expecting there will be some hard choices.

The Recreation, Arts, and Culture Master Plan is not expected to be complete until after the 2018 Budget is complete, so I expect that any major budget decisions as a result of recommendations from that Study will be dealt with by the next term of Council in the 2019 Budget…

Marcus Ryan
Councillor Ward 3

FB: Marcus Ryan – Zorra
FB: Community Schools Alliance

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