By Deborah O’Connor
Here we are at budget setting time again, and while the lower tier municipalities can expect a few stirrings of interest from the public as they proceed, the County process seems to attract little attention from anybody. With a budget that grows each year and a levy that will exceed $43 million once approved for 2012, that’s surprising to say the least. The proposed total budget for the County is $91.4 million, with the operating budget accounting for $77 million and the capital portion at $14.9 million.
Snippets emerge through the local media, but if there are public concerns they are very muted. The cold hard numbers don’t seem to raise a ripple anywhere, like another 2.5 per cent planned increase that amount to an extra $1.6 million in County coffers, or plans to hire an additional six people after five were added to the ranks last year. The mayors of each municipality who make up county council seem to have split personalities when it comes to their roles in the upper and lower municipal tiers, transforming themselves from tax fightin’ hombres at home into benevolent enablers of the growing ranks of bureaucrats who run the place. While token bleats of angst about increases will be heard next month when the budget is scheduled for approval, there’s no real opposition to the growth of the empire that is our county in this new millennium.
It’s not like it’s difficult to get the information; in addition to budget coverage in the local media, the staff presentation made to councillors in January is posted on the county website for all to see and will remain until the budget is debated and approved in February. The materials are certainly assessable in terms of plain language, with lots of photos and multi-coloured charts to fill up the endless pages. It looks like it’s been standardized too; gone are the meaty, fact-filled discussion papers from each department, replaced by a formulaic layout that gives little away while trumpeting their various accomplishments. For instance, at Golden Plough Lodge, we learn that a new management position is being proposed at an annual salary of $56,000, but nothing is said about the serious front line staffing shortfalls that caused one resident of the facility to go public last fall, contacting our new MPP, which resulted in prominent media coverage about the issue.
While our federal and provincial governments are poised to take an axe to programs all across the country in a desperate bid to tame costs and the ongoing debt, and our towns and villages struggle to stay solvent, the County of Northumberland just keeps chugging along, quietly growing its influence and services, not to mention its administrative staff component. Few of us would want to see the vital business of our County return to the style of haphazard governance we had in the 1990s, and the County is to be commended for its work in developing long-term plans and increasing reserves to pay for the aging structures and roads that are its responsibility. Still, that doesn’t mean change isn’t needed.
With the warden chosen annually by the other councillors and not the public at election time, it’s nothing but a rotating game of pass the potato. The warden, much like senior staff, is accountable to nobody in particular and almost never has to face questions from taxpayers about the budget, the county’s priorities, or the rarified culture that seems to isolate them from the rest of us. It’s time the centuries old county system of government in Ontario was reviewed and updated to provide for more accountable, and more direct governance than what we have now. The time has come.