Under present circumstances, the City of Owen Sound is in a no-win financial situation: Its municipal government can’t keep raising taxes four percent or more annually if it wants the city to have a prosperous future.
That’s what city manager Wayne Richie told city council this week on the first of many difficult days of budget talks to come as 2016 budget discussions began. Services will have to be cut, again.
So, what else is new? Am I the only one who has been hearing that for . . . how many years now? It’s to the point one could say, and I will, “as long as I can remember.”
The city needs to change the way it does business. Those changes need to be “significant,” Sun Times reporter Denis Languish said in a news article paraphrasing Richie’s hard-nosed message to council.
“If we provide services in the same manner as they have been, history tells us taxes in this town will go up by roughly 50 per cent in the next 10 years. I don’t believe that we can obtain the goals in our economic plan and make this a prosperous city in the future if we do that,” Richie said.
Owen Sound’s municipal levy has increased by 57 per cent since 2005, and is now among the highest in Ontario when compared to similar-sized communities.
Meanwhile, the average household income in Owen Sound is among the lowest in Ontario.
“Combining those two factors, I think, speaks volumes to this council that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing,” the city manager said.
A full-blown service review next spring will be the time to take a hard look at what services people seem to use and value, and ones they don’t, leading to consideration of where cuts can be made.
But haven’t we heard that before? Hasn’t it been done before? Has it been an annual exercise in futility? Does it get to a point where going any further with cuts would be a virtual admission that Owen Sound is not a financially viable municipality in its present form, and for some reason the leadership doesn’t want to go there – throw in the budget-setting towel, in other words.
I would go a big step further in the spring: that crucial service review should be expanded to ask that big, that vitally important underlying question. And it should not just involve an examination of Owen Sound’s financial viability, as if Owen Sound is a sociology-economic island unto itself. It’s not, of course; it’s the regional service center for much of Grey-Bruce, including the Bruce Peninsula, and several other largely rural municipalities at or near the city’s boundaries.
Yes, I know some might say, there he goes again, suggesting Owen Sound City Council and others should waste their time and energy beating their heads against that ever-present wall of area municipal restructuring.
After all, Ontario’s current Liberal government has said municipal structure is not on the table, in the Owen Sound area, or apparently anywhere. Even if it is an absolute nonsense, which it is for Owen Sound and elsewhere in Grey.
Hemmed in all sides by ridiculous municipal boundaries, lacking the tax assessment base it needs to be a viable “city” in the year 2015, let alone 15 years ago when the Grey-Owen Sound municipal restructuring plan was drawn up by local politicians who rejected expert advice. Then the obviously flawed plan was approved by the “Common Sense Revolution” government of former Ontario Premier Mike Harris.
And we’re stuck with it?
The Owen Sound service review should look at how much of a difference just the additional assessment from the former Menhaden Township (now part of Afford) and the Sunset Strip (part of the former Derby Township, now part of Georgian Bluffs) would make to the city’s financial viability, even without raising taxes in those areas.
The riming may be right for such a thing, with Canada’s newly-elected government embarking on a hopeful new era of creativity that includes a major investment in infrastructure. Municipal restructuring in the Owen Sound area would set the stage for more of that infrastructure work to come this way.
For that and many other reasons it’s the way to go, to give not just Owen Sound but the whole region a new, hopeful opportunity to think and act creatively for the sake of future prosperity and quality of life.
The initiative has to come locally. Yes, it’s a big challenge; and yes, it may go nowhere. But I have believed for a long time and still do, that the whole Owen Sound-north Grey-Bruce area stands to benefit greatly, more than we might even imagine.
Why wait for spring though? Start doing it now.
Originally published in The Sun Times in November, 2015.