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Feature Article - October 27, 2005

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Feature Article

October 27, 2005

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Frontenac County:Fumbling for a role

Editorial by Jeff Green

Two or three times a year, gatherings of council members from all four Frontenac townships are held to update the councillors on the activities at the county level. One such gathering was held last week, and it was an opportunity for county staff to talk about various economic development initiatives.

In general, township councils have been wary of any initiatives at the county level, fearing they would lead to an increase in the amount of money Frontenac County requisitions from its member townships.

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If Frontenac County were a bird, it would be a strange one, long and lean with a gap between its knees and its feet. It extends from The Frontenac Islands, located on Lake Ontario south of Kingston, all the way up to places like Norcan Lake, which can only be accessed from Madawaska Highlands. In between it encompasses the edges of suburban Kingston, some rich farmland, a swath of cottage country and large amounts of Crown land. And its smallest member, Frontenac Islands, is separated from rest of the county by a city of 100,000 people.

There is a lot of diversity in the economic and social lives of the people who live in Frontenac County, but we all pay a levy of $330+ for every $100,000 of assessed property to Frontenac County.

Most of that money goes to fund services that were funded directly from provincial taxes before downloading of services took place in the late nineties. Some of it goes to the City of Kingston, which provides social services to the entire county through the Health Unit, Ontario Works, and other programs. The County of Frontenac, in turn, operates an ambulance service and owns the Fairmount Home, a long-term care facility located within the boundaries of the City of Kingston. Ratepayers from the City of Kingston pay their share of the costs for Fairmount Home and the ambulance service that the county manages, just as Frontenac County taxpayers pay their share of the costs of Social Services delivered by the City of Kingston.

All of these relationships have been developing since amalgamation in 1998. Initially it was envisioned that the County of Frontenac would have a limited role. It was renamed the Frontenac Management Board, and the unwieldy 27-member county council of pre-amalgamation days was pared right down to the four township mayors.

Since 1998 an expansion was undertaken at Fairmount Home and the ambulance service, which had been directly delivered by the province, was taken over by the Frontenac Management Board (FMB) in 2001. So, a few years ago the FMB decided to become Frontenac County once again.

Since then county staff have been looking at taking on other roles, and the main venture in this regard has been in the area of economic development. The mayors from the four townships, who make up the council of the county, realized that on their own they were not likely to undertake this kind of function, and agreed to establish an economic development office at the county level.

The lack of cohesion within the County, and the reluctance on the part of the township councils to give the County an extended role because it could mean increased local taxes or a diminishing of local authority, have made the economic development role a difficult one to fill in Frontenac County.

This situation came into sharp relief in the past few months as current County Economic Development Manager Dianna Bratina has been looking at developing a Geographic Information System (GIS) for Frontenac County. The four townships are at different stages in the development of their own digital mapping, and even though Dianna Bratina assured everyone there was no intention on the part of the county to replicate what already exists, townships such as Central Frontenac, which is relatively advanced in its use of digital information compared to some others, feared any county initiative would cost money and would actually slow Central Frontenac down.

Seeing no funding support for County GIS, Bratina sought funding from the federally funded Frontenac Community Futures Development Corporation for a short-term intern position to study the situation, and determine where the townships are at and how a county-wide GIS solution could result in cost savings. Bratina has been at pains to point out to all the councils, that the County is not stepping on anyone’s toes, and is not spending any municipal tax dollars.

Other counties don’t have the same obstacles to overcome. They were not dissolved with amalgamation as Frontenac County was, and maintained their distinctive roles. Lanark County and Lennox and Addington County, for example, are involved in a variety of initiatives, from economic development to the development of recreational trails, that far outstrip anything Frontenac County is likely to enter into in the foreseeable future.

Last week three or four Councillors from each of the Frontenac townships listened politely as the GIS intern was introduced, and some economic studies were presented. They then agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to meet next month for a day-long planning session for a county strategic plan. A more elaborate strategic planning initiative was blocked by the townships earlier this year.

But even determining where to meet reveals some of the tensions between the parties. Councillor Clayton from North Frontenac offered the township hall in Plevna, even promising a venison lunch. There was no comment from the others to his proposal, and this silence was not lost on the Councillors from North Frontenac Township.

Soon the four Mayors on County Council will provide a strong hint concerning the future role of the county. In the coming months they will consider whether countywide initiatives should be undertaken using the county’s half of the municipal gas tax rebate that is forthcoming from the provincial and federal Governments, or whether that money will be passed on to the member townships for local use.

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