I have no way of knowing why the Government of Ontario decided to institute electoral reform in the City of Toronto a couple of days before the close of nominations for an election that is 21/2 months away.
It does appear to be some kind of a personal agenda of the Premier, who sat on that council and ran for Mayor once upon a time, and it is odd to pick on one municipality in particular instead of looking at the entire province. That might also indicate where the premier’s focus is going to be for the next four years, which is something the electorate should have seen coming, as this is the first time in my memory that the provincial government is being headed up by a politician that has no track record at all other than within the internally-focused world of Toronto politics.
But I will leave that to those more versed in Toronto and Queen’s Park politics to ponder.
Doug Ford’s directive about this, and the fact that on first glance it seems to be a legal (if unorthodox) move, underlines something that is brought up occasionally at council tables all across the province.
“Municipalities are a creature of the province” is the way it is often put.
Municipalities derive all of their authority, from the right to levy taxes, where and how to collect and store garbage, how to respond to a fire call or dispatch an ambulance, from the Province of Ontario. The Municipal Act of Ontario is the source of all their authority. The City of Toronto operates under its own similar act, the City of Toronto Act.
The province can amalgamate or abolish municipalities if it so chooses; it can download or upload costs and services at will. Municipal Councils serve at the pleasure of the Province, as candidates in Toronto are finding out.
This is usually played out, at least in the rural context, though directives from staff within the Ministry of Municipal Affairs or other ministries, such as the Ministry of the Environment, or the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. It is done generally without fanfare, usually through a paper trail and the occasional meeting. For example, when Frontenac County was attempting to receive approval for its first ever Official Plan, the plan was submitted several times to the Ministry, and each time it was returned with “suggested” amendments. The document was never going to be approved unless those exact amendments were made, or through painstaking negotiation the ministry agreed to a slight alteration. The whole process is slow and dreary, but at its core is the same reality that Premier Doug Ford has exploited in blunt fashion over the last week, municipalities must do what the province says.
The second thing Toronto situation has brought into focus is how over represented Frontenac County residents are on municipal councils. Currently, before the change, Toronto is governed by 48 municipal politicians. 47 councilors and a mayor, overseeing services for over 2.8 million people. And there are a lot of services. The 2018 operating budget was over $11 billion and there is a 10-year, $26 billion capital plan on top of that.
In Frontenac County, there are 30 politicians, serving a population of 28,000 full time residents.
So, we have 63% of the number of politicians as compared to Toronto to cover 1% of the population. And if the changes go through in Toronto, by November we will have more politicians in our employ than the residents Toronto will have, fully 115% of the number of politicians for 1% of the population.
There are economies of scale to these things for sure but still you would think that the province would look at rural municipalities first if they were concerned about unnecessary representation. But why stop there. There are 4 Mayors in Frontenac County and 1 Mayor of the City of Toronto.
Does this really matter. A member of Council in Frontenac is paid less than $15,000 per year, including expenses, sometimes a lot less, and they have no office budget. But a member of Toronto City Council comes with a large salary, a staff and office costs, at an estimated cost of $290,000 per year. Still, that $15,000 translates into more taxes per ratepayer than Toronto taxpayers are paying for their representatives.
And when you look beyond politicians to the bureaucracy itself, you see an even more lopsided equation. As a single 2.8-million-person entity, the City of Toronto has a vast bureaucracy to be sure, but at the top there is one City Manager, who makes about $350,000 a year. Frontenac County has 5 Chief Administrative Officers, one in each township and one at the upper tier, county level. None of them make $350,000 per year, but just adding the salaries together of the 3 of those 5 who are on the provincial sunshine list, the total exceeds $417,000. The total for all five is likely close to $600,000.
Not only are there 5 CAO’s in Frontenac, each township has a front office staff, a set of managers, etc.
Perhaps, however, this is all a false debate. Do the number of councilors and the size of small municipal governments relative to large ones lead to inefficiencies? Not necessarily.
But, and this is something that might be worthy of debate during the upcoming municipal campaign, are the future prospects of Frontenac County residents aided or harmed by the hyper local focus of small municipalities.
2 of the 4 Frontenac municipalities, Frontenac Islands and North Frontenac, have less than 2,000 permanent residents. They have 5 and 7 members of Council respectively. If the changes Toronto go through, each Toronto councilor will represent over 100,000 permanent residents. The difference seems rather extreme.
The difference in tax rates is rather extreme as well. The highest taxed jurisdiction in Central Frontenac, at $1218 for every $100,000 worth of tax assessment. Toronto ratepayers pay $468 for every $100,000 in assessment. Since property values in Toronto are way higher than those in Central Frontenac, people still pay as much or more in taxes. But Toronto residents also have all that equity in their houses to soften the blow. We pay high taxes for less service in rural communities, but the difference seems to be creeping up.
The Ford government may never turn its attention to Frontenac County, but if it does it may conclude that we are over-governed, and we just might be.
Maybe we should take a look at this ourselves. A single 5-7 member council could replace all of the townships and the County of Frontenac easily enough. A single treasury department could manage the finances for a municipality that has 56% of the population of a small city like Belleville. Planning and IT are already centralised, and other functions could easily follow.
It starts by looking at what the municipal functions are and considering if they can be done more efficiently. And we go from there. It shouldn’t take too long to figure out if we should be considering a major change.
The last time the Conservatives were in power at Queen’s Park, forced amalgamation followed. This time we have a chance to get ahead of the curve.