Simcoe County is one of eight regional municipalities singled out by the province for a regional government review. Announced in January 2019, the review is exploring opportunities to “improve governance, decision-making and service delivery.”
Why Simcoe County? Here’s one possible reason: the council is conspicuous in its size. After the Ford government reduced the size of Toronto’s council last fall almost in half, Simcoe County’s council became the largest in the province. It comprises the warden, deputy warden, and the mayor and deputy mayor from the county’s 16 communities. Tiny is represented by Mayor George Cornell and Deputy Mayor Steffen Walma. Mayor Cornell also serves as county warden.
To get a better understanding of what this could mean for Tiny, The Tiny Cottager asked Mayor Cornell a series of questions. His responses are below. But first, more on the regional government review.
Under the terms of the review, two special advisors appointed by the minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing have until early summer to consult with the municipalities and the public, and submit recommendations to the province. They’re looking for ways to improve efficiency, cut red tape, eliminate duplication, and reduce costs, and have already conducted individual interviews with the heads of council for the regional municipalities, or upper-tier municipalities, and their lower-tier municipalities, such as Tiny. Up next: group consultations with all nine upper-tier councils as well as the mayors and regional chairs of Ontario.
The advisors are also seeking public input through three mechanisms:
- in-person meetings with the advisors. The window for this opportunity has now closed
- written submissions
- an online survey
The deadline for submitting input and responding to the survey, originally, April 23, has been extended to May 21. Find out more at www.ontario.ca/page/consultation-regional-government-review
The advisors, Ken Selling and Michael Fenn, have extensive experience in municipal affairs and are well respected. Sounds good so far. But as The Star columnist Edward Keenan wrote shortly after the review was announced, “Beware provincial Tories looking to help. If you’re a municipality, it’s a hard-learned lesson based on experience.”
The experience Keenan is referring to is a series of municipal amalgamations imposed in the 1990s and 2000s by the Harris government’s “Common Sense Revolution,” during which more than 800 municipalities were reduced by almost half that number. According to the Fraser Institute, “study after study has found that the benefits of municipal amalgamation have failed to materialize. Costs generally increase after amalgamation, largely due a harmonization of costs and wages, and increases in service-efficiency remain elusive.”
This is not to say that the current regional government review will lead to amalgamations, or that if amalgamations occur they won’t generate benefits. It’s too soon to say.
Q&A with George Cornell on the provincial government review
What strengths and weaknesses do you see in the current municipal structure in Tiny? In Simcoe County?
The municipal structure at the County of Simcoe, with its member municipalities and the cities of Barrie and Orillia, allows for economies of scale. This leads to efficient service delivery while creating larger capacity for significant infrastructure and capital projects that would be challenging for smaller municipalities to fund and execute.
Shared services with the county and other member municipalities allow for cost savings.
What steps have already been taken in Tiny and Simcoe County over the last 10 years to improve municipal efficiency and control or reduce costs?
The County of Simcoe continuously looks for efficiencies in service delivery and operations. Examples include the county’s stringent procurement process, investments in environmental initiatives for our fleet of vehicles and development projects to reduce long-term costs, implementation of new technologies, and the execution of long-term asset management plans.
The current service delivery model between the county and lower-tiered municipalities has, from a township perspective, worked efficiently. County-wide services, including but not limited to waste management, transit, community and social services, forestry and emergency services, provide a consistent and equitable service delivery model to all member municipalities. This also allows more locally consumed services such as planning, public works, parks and recreation, to reflect local demands.
The Township of Tiny currently shares the costs of environmental, information technology, cultural resources, training, physician recruitment, recreation, library, and economic development with other Simcoe County municipalities.
Here are two good examples of this collaborative approach:
- environmental stewardship. The Township of Tiny and seven other municipalities jointly fund and oversee the Severn Sound Environmental Association (SSEA), which provides environmental management of our shared watershed. This coordinated and cost-effective framework helps protect natural resources across municipal boundaries.
- economic development. Years ago, the four municipalities of North Simcoe created the Economic Development Corporation of North Simcoe, which oversees economic initiatives involving advanced manufacturing, agribusiness, healthcare, and tourism.
Both of these examples are governed by joint boards, which enable each member to leverage available resources for the broader community. This high level of cooperation has created synergies and savings throughout North Simcoe.
Under the current structure, what potential opportunities do you see for Simcoe County and the Township of Tiny to further improve efficiency and control or reduce costs?
The county is always looking for efficiencies in service delivery. We are in the process of making recommendations to the province around governance structure and the services we provide. The county’s annual budget process also helps to identify these opportunities. The county maintains a strong fiscal position and a stable annual tax increase as growth and demand rises, historically staying between 1% to 2% each year.
The Township of Tiny Council would support any consolidation or sharing of services that would improve service delivery for our residents and reduce costs. For instance, the township would support a further review of
- uploading water and waste (including septage management) to the county level
- a more formalized inter-municipal procurement process
- consolidating area police services boards
- rationalizing road maintenance between the local municipality and the county
- expanded county-wide training opportunities
- emergency preparedness, tiered paramedic/fire response and closest station response (fire)
What are the best- and worst-case scenarios in terms of how a restructuring could affect residents of Tiny?
The province’s regional government review has provided us with an opportunity to self-evaluate at the township and county level. It is too early in the process to speculate on what the province will ultimately decide, but we’re hopeful that local MPPs, the minister and the premier will view both the township and the county as working efficiently and effectively. We look forward to receiving more information from the province as the process concludes over the coming months.
While there are many possible outcomes of the review, the township is concerned that any forced amalgamation would increase costs at the local level due to a tendency for service levels to rise to the highest level. The township will continue to participate in opportunities for collaboration with the county and province.
- “Ford government’s regional review could be a good thing — or a very bad thing,” The Star, January 15, 2019; www.thestar.com/opinion/star-columnists/2019/01/15/ford-governments-regional-review-could-be-a-good-thing-or-a-very-bad-thing.html
- Lydia Miljan, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Windsor and Zachary Spicer, SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellow, Laurier Institute, “De-amalgamation in Ontario: Is it the answer,” published on behalf of the Fraser Institute in the Financial Post, July 15, 2015; https://business.financialpost.com/opinion/is-municipal-de-amalgamation-the-answer