| Jul 30, 2009

Back to HomeEditorial - July 30, 2009 Frontenac County and the gas taxEditorial by Jeff Green

Frontenac County council is in a state of disarray. At their latest meeting the four-member council was not even able to approve the minutes from the previous meeting.

This is a fitting illustration of the state of dysfunction to which county council has sunk.

Pressure is mounting on the county from the four lower- tier townships (North, Central, and South Frontenac and the Frontenac Islands) to expand county council and improve its fractured relationship with the lower tier.

Aside from governance, other issues dog the county. Three of four township council representatives on the trails committee have resigned over county actions; rural ambulance service to the north is in flux; and Fairmount Home needs to cut costs.

Among unresolved questions at the county is how to allocate a federal gas tax rebate that the county receives. Gas tax money has been flowing to the county for several years now, a total of over $1 million, and $1 million a year will be arriving for the next five years.

The money is so-called infrastructure money, what used to be called “road and bridge” money. Since the county does not own roads, bridges, waste sites, or water treatment plants, it has had a problem deciding what to do with the money

Proposals to pass it over to the lower tier, who do have lots of infrastructure costs (crumbling bridges, cracked pavement, salt domes, waste sites that need attention, etc.) were deemed as premature by County Chief Administrative Officer Elizabeth Savill when they were brought forward by county councillors two and three years ago.

Hastings County, which also has no county roads system, distributed their gas tax money to the lower-tier municipalities, but Hastings County has an Official Plan document, and Savill told county council that without an Official Plan, Frontenac County cannot distribute the funds to its constituent townships.

She said that it would be sufficient, however, for Frontenac County to develop an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan (ICSP) in place of an Official Plan, and once that happened county council could have a debate about how to distribute the funds.

In 2008, a request came to the county from Central Frontenac Council for county gas tax funds to pay for a salt dome, but the proposal was never even considered by county. The ICSP had to come first.

As the ICSP was being developed, a shift took place. The ICSP was to be more than a planning document; it was also to be the vehicle for spending the gas tax money.

Volunteers who participated in the ICSP process from community groups, not-for-profit corporations, social service agencies, the business community, etc., were told by the consultants, who had been hired by the county, that the projects they identified would be eligible for gas tax funding.

This plan of action is acceptable to the federal government and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, (AMO), which administers these funds.

And the projects may have merit. But, Frontenac County council has never, as a body, made an explicit decision to use the ICSP as a vehicle to spend all of their gas tax money.

County council was told that the question of what should be done with gas tax money would take place after the ICSP is in place. The ICSP was submitted to county council in June, where it was received “for information purposes only” so that is could be read by council members and debated at a subsequent meeting.

A report presented to county council last week by Elizabeth Savill acknowledges this. The report then goes on to outline 10 projects that were identified under the “sustainable actions” section of the ICSP, and recommends that staff be authorized to “immediately commence work” on them. All of the money for these projects is to come from gas tax funding.

Time is running out, Savill's report says. According to the gas tax rules, $300,000 must be spent by the end of this year.

These projects include the following: Inventory of community assets ($50,000), Integrated GIS mapping ($140,000), Local Food Summit ($5,000), Support for Smaller Scale Community Sustainability Initiatives ($5,000), Salt Management Plan ($50,000), The Naturally Rich Frontenacs Booklet ($9,150), Assessment of Renewable Energy Management Plan for All Five Municipalities ($100,000), County-Wide Solid Waste Management Plan ($75,000).

County council deferred moving on these recommendations until their next meeting on August 12, when they will also consider governance.

At that time, they might think about a few things. Somehow, gas tax money can now go towards a salt management plan, but it cannot be spent on salt management itself (i.e. a salt dome).

Solid Waste Management has been worked on by each municipal council. They answer directly to the Minister of the Environment and it is hard to see how a county-wide plan will help anyone.

Further, while funding for county costs will be provided by gas tax money, some of these studies will take up a lot of time for the public works managers in each township, and that cost will come from the budgets of those townships. So instead of lowering local taxes, gas tax funding will end up increasing property taxes.

But never mind the detail. These projects may indeed be well justified and good ways to spend public money, for all I know.

The problem is we have a democratically elected council that has not yet made a decision about whether the ICSP should be adopted. It has never made a decision about whether the ICSP should be the vehicle for distributing gas tax money. It has never even debated whether gas tax money would be better used by lower-tier municipalities which, one way or another, will have to fund road and bridge work and dump closure plans and salt domes and even water treatment.

The gas tax money to Frontenac County will be $1 million per year for 5 years.

County council needs to put their differences aside and make a collective decision about that money.

Should it all go to planning at the county level? Should it all go to hard infrastructure? Or a combination of the two?

This is a political decision that must be made by a political body. County staff can advise, but the council should stand up for itself and put some muscle to the wheel on this.

If they keep fighting about approving the minutes from earlier meetings instead, $5 million will be gone and local taxes will have to cover it all. 

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