Think about single-tier government

I’m sure Arlene Wright, newly acclaimed to her second consecutive one-year term as Grey County warden, can be taken at her word when she said after county council’s inaugural meeting earlier this week that the new council will “look at everything” to avoid increasing county taxes in 2011. And that’s while looking for ways to help the county’s financially stressed nine lowertier municipalities, including Owen Sound, find ways to cope with the rising costs, coupled with the prospect of further provincial funding cuts.

No doubt the other members of county council, as well as members of the lower-tier, local municipal councils would also say they’re prepared to “look at everything” in pursuit of solutions to the combined upper-tier/ lower tier financial dilemma.

So it’s fair to say everybody has the best of intentions about finding financial efficiencies — shared services and the like — to keep a lid on taxes. Nothing else quite resonates with municipal taxpayers like that now-sacred mantra.

But the big question that should be in all municipal minds in Grey — and Bruce County too, for that matter — is how far does “everything” go?

Before Grey County council members get down to the serious business of crunching numbers, yet again, and perhaps especially before they consider how the county might be able to help its local municipalities cope, they might want to take a moment to look at the council chamber walls, and reflect. Look past those numerous framed pictures of wardens from years gone by and their well-intentioned ways and see the new, proverbial “writing on the wall.”

In light of “everything,” what’s it saying about what the county and its local municipalities need to do now?

I would argue that “everything” includes the decline and fall of the provincial government — the once wealthy Ontario fallen, now officially relegated to the status of a ‘have-not’ province in a Canada in which oil-and hydroelectric power-rich Newfoundland and Labrador are “have.”

Municipalities can no longer look to some mythical great patriarchal government at Queen’s Park to solve all their problems, especially financial. I’m old enough to remember the days when 85% of provincial grants for road and other infrastructure projects like municipal sewer and water were the norm. Those days are long gone. They disappeared with the election into office now more than 15 years ago of former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris and his “Common Sense Revolution” Progressive Conservative government. The people of Ontario bought into, and voted for, that simple-minded, smaller government approach to dealing with Ontario’s complex socio-economic problems with massive budget cuts and public service layoffs, and by downloading a lot of costs and services onto municipal taxpayers. In fairness, some things that were done made a lot of sense. But much was done without enough thought about the consequences or the damage that might be done to Ontario’s basic infrastructure, for example.

The harsh reality is no Ontario government is ever going to be able to turn back the clock and undo some of the bigger mistakes of the Common Sense Revolution. The bill is in, but the province’s ability to pay has been in steady decline as the manufacturing sector shrinks. Hence, the rising cost of electricity bills as the present Liberal government repairs long-neglected infrastructure.

The point is Ontario is broke, and running a massive deficit. There is no more money for municipalities. There’s less money. That’s the unavoidable reality, no matter who’s in power at Queen’s Park after the next provincial election less than a year from now. Self-reliance is, more than ever, the order of the day for municipalities. There’s no turning back.

There were people at Queen’s Park who were reading the economic tea leaves and saw these days coming even before the Mike Harris came to power. I remember Dave Cooke, the former Municipal Affairs minister in the former NDP government of Bob Rae, warning members of Bruce County council they were making a big mistake by initially voting down the recommendations of a municipal restructuring report. Bruce later revived and approved that same report after the Mike Harris government came to power a couple of years later. Meanwhile Grey council had to start from scratch because it had earlier refused to even consider restructuring.

The Harris government imposed single-tier regional restructuring on some parts of the province, but let other areas, including Grey and Bruce, do their own thing and stay with the old-fashioned, inefficient lowertier/ upper-tier arrangement. That was a mistake, especially in Grey where the consequences of the mistake were worse because the restructuring process was so badly mishandled.

So what does the writing on the wall say?

It says, “do it again. And do it single-tier.”

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.

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