Municipal leaders must step up to solve economic crisis

First published: November 30, 2008

The news media are full of stories about how provincial and federal leaders are dealing with the current global fiscal crisis, but there is absolutely nothing about how municipal politicians are going to step up to the plate.

It is far too easy for councillors across Northumberland County to put their heads deep into the sand, leaving it to the other two levels of government to solve this massive problem. Municipal politicians cannot cower in the corner while upper tier governments make plans without careful consultation at a local level.

Usually, local politicians sit and wait while infrastructure programs are announced, job creation packages are developed and any other spending is publicized. Then, each municipality busily applies for their share of the pie. It is like watching bread and seagulls on the beach as the municipalities scramble to snatch whatever small morsels they can find. This is not leadership at the municipal level by any stretch of the imagination. There must be a strategic plan rooted in the community, involving consultation with the public.

First, it is important to recognize the current crisis does not fall under the auspices of economic development. This has nothing to do with merely attracting industry to our region. Economic development co-ordinators are little more than public relations ambassadors and municipal salespeople, flogging the towns and townships through rose-coloured glasses to potential developers or corporations. Northumberland taxpayers need more than this to save the local economy.

Already the Federation of Canadian Municipalities called on Ottawa to pump $8 billion into roads, sewers and bridges, among other basics, from now until 2010, creating an estimated 92,000 jobs and boosting the economy by one per cent. On the surface this may appear to be good news and so nobody on council needs to worry. This is why they pay their membership fees to these organizations like FCM or the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO).

But this is far from true. This kind of spending has many benefits by employing people involved in the construction trade, as well as building and improving transportation networks, sewers for future development, etc. And, there is a massive need for this since many municipalities are behind in keeping up roads and the like.

However, as a percentage of the local workforce, construction jobs do not represent a majority. In fact, agriculture and food is a major driving force in the local economy, as is the plastics industry.

There is plenty of bad news signaling a economic hardship for Northumberland.

But with General Motors in Oshawa announcing 500 temporary layoffs last week and concerns about more possible job losses by the carmaker in the near future, the signs of catastrophe are apparent. Already, economists are predicting a bad Christmas for retailers as consumer confidence slumps. Only last month, the Conference Board of Canada said consumer confidence plunged to levels not seen since the 1982 recession. While retail activity may not slow down, economist worry big-ticket items, like appliances, cars and homes will plummet.

This is particularly bad news for municipalities. If people are not buying homes or moving then a major revenue generator is gone. Development is crucial for keeping taxes down . As new businesses open or a new house is built, the tax roll increases, bringing in much needed revenue. As of the end of July only 40 building permits were issued in Cobourg this year, about one quarter of the 162 for the same period last year.

Port Hope is facing a tougher time. With the W-Five feature story on the town’s divisions bringing unwanted publicity, the economic pressures could increase even more.

There is not time for the old political squabbles that are a hallmark of local politics. The need to bring municipal spending under control could not be more pressing. The negotiation between Port Hope and Cobourg over joint policing initiatives is beyond ridiculous, having gone on for decades. It would save important dollars to cushion any lost revenues, as well as be used for vital new programs to help the local economy. It is time for the two mayors to cut through the nonsense and take control of this pressing issue.

This also may be a time for a bold new direction in municipal politics within Northumberland. For years, taxpayers allowed two levels of municipal government to exist. The time for streamlining is at hand. Rather than seven lower municipalities, the county should be split in two: West Northumberland and East Northumberland, merging services and costs. If a way could be found, even a single regional government might be a better solution.

Finally, a summit of business leaders, farmers citizens and politician needs to take place immediately to create a strategic plan for the next five years. This should include intensive lobbying of the premier and prime minister directly, as well as the MPP and MP. There are an incredible number of creative, intelligent people in Northumberland who have far greater expertise than any politicians or bureaucrat. These “natural” resources must be used to find solutions.

If politicians took these bold steps, two good things would happen. We may become a closer-knit community and we may just survive this recession.

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