Money In, Money Out


By John Swartz

The most interesting items on Orillia council’s Monday night regular meeting agenda are buried in the consent agenda. Most of the time the consent agenda is loaded with mundane things, correspondence that doesn’t need discussion or action, or usually have direction indicated to go to a department or board for a report on what the contents mean, and official blurbs from the other levels of government telling our council, and us, how great they are and what a wonderful job they are doing.

This week, there is a letter from the province announcing they are giving away money. The minister of municipal affairs and housing, Steve Clark, who starts with a marketing pitch – “Our government for the people was elected to restore trust, transparency and accountability in Ontario’s finances,” as many of their missives do – is writing to all municipalities to tell them the government has, “undertaken a line-by-line review of our own expenditures, and we have been clear that we expect our partners, including municipalities, to take steps to become more efficient as well.” Uh-oh. I smell a massive spending dump coming.

It sounds presumptuous municipalities have no idea how to manage their finances and have not been dealing with the pinch from all the way back to 1995 when the province dumped millions of dollars of costs on municipalities, primarily grants for roadwork, which forced municipalities to be creative paying for all the things taxpayers expect their local governments to do – and most importantly forcing municipalities to raise property taxes, but there’s more.

Two paragraphs later, this sentence, “Transforming service delivery and identifying more modern, efficient ways of operating is critical and complex work,” sounds like a throw away platitude, until one gets to the next sentence. “I recognize that many of Ontario’s small and rural municipalities may have limited capacity to plan and manage transformation, depending on the resources they have available and how far they have moved on their own modernization agendas.”

Transformation? Oh right, I do recall hearing and reading about many local councils saying they have to upend everything because they are failing at being cities. No I didn’t. Transformation is a buzzword business types like to use which  means someone is losing their job and the rest of you are going to have to pick up the slack, and oh by the way, no raises this year, matter of fact, we have to look at wage roll backs. When applied to municipalities, because we have seen that word used before by the province back in the late 90s, it means get used to those potholes.

Then he gets to the interesting part, “That is why we are providing a one-time payment in the 2018-19 fiscal year to support small and rural municipalities’ efforts to become more efficient and reduce expenditure growth in the longer term.” For Orillia that’s $520,308 of “unconditional” grant.

Unconditional? Has anyone ever heard of a government giving away money with no strings attached? If so, can we all move there? There will certainly be conditions attached, it’s just not stated, probably not fully developed at this stage, nor when they are revealed. The hint is this sentence:

“It is intended to help modernize service delivery and reduce future costs through investments in projects such as: service delivery reviews, development of shared services agreements, and capital investments.”

The key phrase is ‘future costs,” and as we all know, it’s tough to predict the future, especially when one doesn’t have enough information about another’s intentions.

Fortunately, city’s like Orillia can breathe easy because the provincial government is here to help,” The Municipal Services Offices can offer advice and point to examples that may be helpful as you contemplate local solutions,” This seems like an unfinished sentence.

City’s will take this money with joy, but caution is the operative mode. Those with short memories should ask someone about what Mike Harris did to municipalities when his government decided they knew better how to run municipalities.

“In the future, we would be interested to hear about your modernization success stories,” the letter states. No they won’t. We will revisit this in the months and years ahead. I’m on my way to Casino Rama to put some money down on Things Are Going To Get Rough.

And we need look no further at how subtly money will reverse flow out of municipal accounts than the next letter in the consent agenda. It’s from the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. You may recall the name used to be Simcoe County District Health Unit. The name changed, and responsibilities changed back in, oh right, when Mike Harris was in power. The wisdom was to reduce government by putting two dissimilar things together, Simcoe and Muskoka for example, and hoping things would work out OK, with a lower budget.

The SMDHU letter is advising municipalities of a, “Proposal for the funding of cannabis control activities.” Of course all municipalities just finished setting their 2019 budgets, so this is happy news.

The SMDHU is getting a 2% increase already, $33,076 every month from Orillia, but there’s marijuana on the horizon (like it’s a new thing) and they want more. The letter from Dr. Charles Gardner states:

“I understand that municipalities in Ontario are receiving funding from the province in order to address the potential harms of cannabis.” This sounds idiotic. Everyone knows municipalities are getting grants to cover increased costs related to marijuana legalization, but he is also coming to the realization the province intends public health as an area of concern.

Never mind we already have decades of evidence public health on this issue is just fine, and no one who understands anything about marijuana expects any change whatsoever. Even Stats Canada confirmed this a month ago, comparing data from 3 month periods before and after legalization which indicated absolutely no change in marijuana use. No one went hog wild with the abundant availability, guilt free, of marijuana, as was expected by those who know anything about marijuana. But bureaucrats and politicians have to bureau and politicians have to politic, so the sky is going to fall, or might fall, or when the clouds move we’ll see it, then we’ll have some work to do.

The short stroke is, The SMDHU wants Orillia send another $15,647.26 so the SMDHU can, “address legalization of cannabis from a public health lens in the County of Simcoe, District of Muskoka and the City of Orillia and Barrie.” Sounds like a plan.

The question remains, what are they going to do with the money? It turns out some very important things, like:

• Increased enforcement (e.g. police, public health and by-law, court administration, litigation)

• Increased response to public inquires (e.g. emergency calls, correspondence)

• Increased paramedic services, increased fire services

• By-law/policy development

We must be forgiven, but aren’t the municipalities already in charge of all that stuff? Didn’t municipalities get grants proportional to their populations from the province for perceived increases in those costs related to marijuana legalization (which, remember no one who knows anything about marijuana expects anything to change)? By the way, Orillia is using their money for a make work project, hiring a by-law officer to ticket smokers, cigarette smokers.

The City of Orillia has already received $35,000 for increased costs in this matter, and will be getting another $35,000 soon, plus a share of any ‘profit’ the province gets from new, related taxes (guess what the reaction is going to be when the SMDHU realizes that? Profit’s you say?).

They have a fancy table outlining programs they want to undertake, mostly education and surveys. One of the survey functions is to, “Collect and monitor data related to hospital ER visits as a result of consuming cannabis.” I guess they are a little behind on the research because people have looked far and wide and there is no evidence anyone ever visited an emergency room (of their own volition) because they smoked a joint, or ate a brownie. Well, there was poor Freddy Schmeckler of Texas, who ate a whole cow instead of just a couple burgers after smoking a joint, but he didn’t go on his own, authorities forced a hospital trip when they couldn’t get him to undo his belt. Of course, buried in their stated activities is tobacco enforcement. They use phrases like rapid response several times. Here’s a hint, no one who smoked a joint is moving fast. Deliberately, methodically, slowly yes, fast, no.

The SMDHU will get this money rightfully intended for The City of Orillia because municipalities have to fund health units. It’s the same way the City has to pay them to make sure restaurants serve hamburgers that have more in common with hockey pucks than cows. The SMDHU does have some important functions, but apparently too many employees with little to do.

These two examples, the free money, and the grab from a different provincially mandated, underfunded  agency are almost hilarious, until one realizes you are going to pay for it.

(Photo by Mintchipdesigns – Pixabay)

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