A cost sharing proposal for land use planning services currently being provided by Frontenac County for three of the four Frontenac Townships was approved by Council at their monthly meeting on January 17.
The proposal, which calls for hiring of a senior planner on a three year contract basis with the expectation that the position will become permanent, also calls for townships who have been receiving free planning from the department to slowly start paying the full cost of the service.
And that may be a tall order.
The County Planning department has been the contract planner for Frontenac Islands, North and Central Frontenac for several years now, under an arrangement that was solidified just under 3 years ago.
In February of 2015, County Council decided that township generated planning work, including updates to Official Plan and Comprehensive Zoning Bylaws, would be carried out by the county department free of charge. The county does charge for planning work that is initiated by residents or developers, such as zoning bylaw amendments and site plan agreements. But in those cases, it is the applicant who pays the county fee. Essentially, the townships have enjoyed a free service, much to the dismay of South Frontenac Township
South Frontenac has its own department and thus covers its own costs. Since South Frontenac ratepayers cover over 60% of the Frontenac County budget, their members of County Council, Ron Vandewal and John Mcdougall opposed the scheme, which they said amounted to South Frontenac paying for their own planning and also 60% of the planning costs of the other townships
The debate at that meeting included the following exchange, as reported in the News at the time.
Councilor John McDougall from South Frontenac said “I favour a full cost recovery model, which is the fairest way to do this.”
Frontenac Islands Mayor Dennis Doyle, who was also the county warden at that time, pointed out that the two planners on the county staff were not working at full capacity, “The planners are already being paid. Any money that is raised from privately initiated planning applications will help cover those salaries, and South Frontenac gets the most benefit from that. It really is a win-win.”
South Frontenac Mayor Ron Vandewal did not see Doyle's logic.
“I hate to say this but if we don't have enough work for the people we have, then we might consider looking at staffing levels to save money. To me, if any service is going to be offered by the county to one or more townships, it should be paid for by them. Otherwise it's not fair to taxpayers in the townships who do not use the service,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of Central Frontenac, Mayor Frances Smith said that her own council had made the decision to sever its relationship with its long serving contract planner Glenn Tunnock on the understanding that the county department would provide “free service and only private applications would be billed. If that changes then we will have to look at our options again.”
Three years later, the two member county planning team is now over capacity, in large part due to planning demands generated by the three townships, which now accounts for over 40% of their work plan.
Faced with either paying overtime, not being able to provide services in a timely manner, or hiring a third planner, county staff are proposing hiring a planner on a contract basis for three years.
Based on consultations with the Chief Administrative Officers of the member townships, recognising that any other model would “drive up costs for South Frontenac ratepayers” for a service they do not use, county staff are now proposing phasing in a full cost recovery model for the service.
Reserve funds will be used to curtail the impact on local townships budgets in North and Central Frontenac and Frontenac Islands over the next three years, after which time the program can be evaluated. But based on the way the service is being used, the projected costs as of 2021 will be about $61,500 per year for Central Frontenac, $47,500 for North Frontenac, and $36,000 for Frontenac Islands.
While this is popular with McDougall and Vandewal, it is not sitting well with some of the council members.
“We were assured that there was no need for new people if we went for this, but now only three years later we are told something else.” said Councillor John Inglis from North Frontenac.
Trying to put the situation in positive light, county Chief Administrative Officer Kelly Pender said, “the good news is that there have been more planning applications than before. Our economic development initiatives seem to be having an impact.”
Referring to what she said three years, ago, Central Frontenac Mayor Frances Smith said, “we are going back on the agreement that we would do planning for a nominal cost. I agree we need to pay more, but to pay $61,000 in year four and beyond is a lot of money for Central Frontenac ratepayers.
Kelly Pender said that the townships will have to decide whether they support this because the county cannot support the service within the current planning budget.
“We either add another planner or we get out of the day to day planning business for the townships,” he said.
Noting that the three year phase-in gives an opportunity to evaluate the service before committing to paying the full cost, North Frontenac Mayor Ron Higgins said “I have no problem supporting this.”
In the end, the proposal received unanimous support at the county table, but each individual council will be faced with their own decision whether to opt in or out.