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Council needs to reinvent itself

Steve Campbell

In this column, I’d like to tie together the thoughts from the last two columns.
First: It’s time to be creative and innovative when it comes to running our County. Second: Council is digging into formerly community-run projects, like town halls, museums and libraries, looking for ways to balance their ever-expanding budget.
In good times, previous Councils took great joy in bringing everything ‘County’ under their control. After amalgamation, the money was still flowing like crazy, so a few thousand dollars were tossed off here and there to consultants, engineers and architects, new staff were hired to manage the increasing territory and properties the Council had acquired, volunteers were discarded, and County employees were installed in their place.
Then things changed. The County, now fat with properties and employees and liability issues and increasing expenses to manage all of this, has realized the price of taking control.
Take a lesson from the hot young movie stars of Hollywood, who acquire a huge support staff, a hundred-dollar-a-day cocaine habit, a private jet and four mansions in four countries … the good times don’t last forever. And you end up dead or broke.
We can all see it. But do we see the real problem?
The problem is: The model that governments of all kinds are built on is broken. The model is built on linearity – the concept that everything will get better and better, and there will be more and more money, as the line graph continues upwards over time.
This has not been the case. Expenses of running the County have exceeded the projected population growth figures considerably. Sure, we now get lots of services, but we can no longer afford them.
Further, the tax system seems to be based on taxing the daylights out of supposedly-wealthy Toronto newcomers, but the ripple effect is hurting seniors, young couples and any of us who have been making County wages – not union wages – for the last 40 years.
County Council is taking this broken model, and they’re trying to patch it up. “Where can we save money?” is the question of the day. “Where can we make money?” is a close second.
Trouble is, the model we had in the Old Days, when County people ran the County, doesn’t appear to be on the radar.
Instead, Council is trying win through evolution: Let’s get by until times are good again. This is simply a bandage on an increasingly-gaping wound.
What we need is not evolution of a broken system, but a transformation.
We need to look at the wants and needs of County people, and work together to make it happen.
Councillors, I’m sure, think that County people look to them to solve all our problems. But, once again, things have changed.
Look at the number of ‘Save’ groups in the County: Save our Hospital, Save the South Shore, Save our Lighthouses, Save our Heritage Buildings, Save our Inland Lakes … these are all citizens’ groups, trying desperately to counter the effects of municipal, provincial and federal mandates and laws which run steamrollers over the wants and needs of County residents.
When you add in the ‘Friends of …’ groups, like Wellington Museum, Weller’s Bay and East Lake, you might start to see the trend in the County that we are fearful of both government action and inaction – what they’ll do TO us, and what they won’t do FOR us.
And you can’t throw a stick in the air without hitting a ‘Concerned Citizens of …’ group. Are you beginning to see the picture?
We not only want to be involved – we are involved!
In order for Council to find the solution to their problem, they need to step back a bit. And step back a bit in time.
You need to give up some of the control your predecessors took, and turn it back to the people. Trying to keep control by closing town halls and museums is a fool’s game. You’ll have the great joy of continuing to own empty buildings, while the communities suffer.
And giving up control does not mean you still get to call the shots, and make the rules, while other people do the work and pay the bills. It means you need to step out of the picture, and keep your hands off. Back away.
Remember, it was service clubs, community groups and volunteers that created these things in the first place. Witness the hundreds who gathered to fight the Ferry Toll, and the hundreds who gathered to save the Hospital, and the hundreds who gathered to hear the candidates state their positions on Ostrander Point.
People like Nancy Parks with the Hospice group, and Anna Marie Ferguson with the County Hospital Foundation can tell you what County people can do to create and keep the things that are closest to our hearts.
There are so many services that are best handled by Council. Snowploughs, road repairs, dump sites, fire and ambulance – all essential. There’s probably not a lot of money to be cut out of the budget there.
‘Word on the Street’ tells me that new CAO Merlin Dewing told a crowd he checked out the property assets owned by Council, and found out that Council owns property it didn’t know it had!
No big surprise, that’s the way the County rolls! No fault of the current councillors … nobody alive seems to know when or why these County properties were acquired. I’m impressed the CAO had the forethought to check it out.
So let’s start there. Let’s sell those properties first. Then you might want to look at the Big Projects, and see if a few year’s delay might save a couple of million.
It’s no surprise to anyone that major construction projects always have cost over-runs, and traditionally the money flies around fast and furious when you’ve got a pot of many thousands of dollars on the table. It’s the nature of the industry.
When I was building my house, I watched a back-hoe operator sit and chew a toothpick for four hours – at $100 an hour – waiting for the health inspector to show up and peek into the trench and say, “Go ahead and bury it.”
I have an excuse: This was the first time I was a Contractor for a major project. Call me crazy, but watching people stand around idly, at my expense, does not sit well with me.
I’m sure this happens in spades on County projects. And this time it’s taxpayers’ money, so what the hell. That pot is endless.
Apply your money-saving ‘magnifying glass’ to that kind of needless expense, and you might get somewhere. All it takes is proper planning, and someone who gives a damn how the project is implemented, on time and on budget.

Filed Under: Steve Campbell

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  1. Gary Mooney says:

    I agree with Steve that the model for muncipal government is broken. Not just for the County, but for all rural Ontario. Too many costs, too few people. The recent report by the Eastern Ontario Wardens Conference (see elsewhere on CountyLive) demonstrates this for eastern Ontario.

    One roadblock to progress is that County government doesn’t really want the active involvement of residents in solving problems and in keeping costs down.

    County government occasionally asks for input, but on its terms only. And because there’s no commitment to use the input, people often don’t bother to respond. And a recent proposal would reduce citizen involvement by eliminating the advisory committees.

    Mind you, when there is an event for public input, some residents don’t contribute anything useful. As in “I want to know the salaries of all County staff!” at the recent Bloomfield town hall meeting.

    In general, transformative change comes only when there is a major crisis and there is no choice but to do things differently. Regarding municipal government, we’re almost — but not quite — there yet.

  2. Beth says:

    Hey, I kind of like the idea of the “County” being able to track where the vehicles are and if they are where they are supposed to be. After all, I help pay for them, so do you.

  3. Doris Lane says:

    You are right on Steve, you have hit the nail on the head. Hopefully Council will listen to you.
    I read someplace today where one of the council staff members wants to hire someone yo run a GPS system or something like that. REALLY what will they think of next????

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