Single-tier municipal government a necessity

First published:  Sept 27, 2000

The takeover the provincial offences court before the end of the year was unanimously approved last week by Northumberland County council. These courts handle such things as municipal bylaw violations for things like noise bylaws or parking fines. It can also include much more serious offences like environmental spills.

For most people in Northumberland, this is not big news. But there are some real reasons taxpayers need to be concerned. This is yet another service the province is downloading.

The provincial offences courts administration is currently located in the county building in Cobourg and has satellite courts in Cobourg (Victoria Hall), Port Hope, Campbellford and Brighton. The county will hire four people to administer the courts. The current system generated $800,000 in revenues in the past. The money will be used in the first year to cover start-up costs, computers, renovations and some training. But greedy county councillors are hoping this is a cash cow in the future.

About 70 per cent of the provincial offences courts in Ontario are now under municipal jurisdiction, according to the Attorney General’s office. It is part of the ongoing downloading that has financed the tax cuts and balanced budgets of the provincial Tories. Unfortunately, the burden to pay for these services has merely shifted from provincial coffers on to the backs of local property taxpayers. The impact of the switch was clearly demonstrated this past year as municipalities across Northumberland raises taxes and/or slashed services.

This shell game is a hallmark of the current government. Downloading was part of the Common Sense Revolution, which delivered Mike Harris and the Progressive Conservatives to power. The idea was a simple one, but not clearly articulated at the time. Municipalities should cover costs for local services, while the province would take care of the big stuff. Sure, it made lots of sense.

What ensued was a massive shift of services. Everything from secondary highways to ambulances was downloaded. The province has a diverse tax base, along with the associated taxing powers (the province taxes gas among other things that municipalities cannot). Municipalities only have property taxpayers. That us.

At first municipal politicians took a harangue. During the municipal elections three years ago, candidates raged against the province. Some of the loudest critics took office based on promises not to let the Tories do any more downloading.

The court deal looks good for the county on the surface. We are suppose to sign with relief to know $800,000 in revenue could fill county coffers shortly. But nothing is ever what it seems.

Hope Township and Port Hope politicians delayed county council’s approval because there was no clear business plan to substantiate the revenue claims from the province. There are also fears the county could close some of the satellite courts creating one in the east end of the county and another in the west.

We have been down this road before. Nearly a decade ago the county took over waste management. It was going to be the golden road to Oz. But what we have discovered since then is quite the opposite.  Waste management is the seven rings of hell for taxpayers. Residents discovered recently the county needs another $60,000 a month to pay for waste collection. Taxpayers already got shafted in the last budget with additional charges and higher taxes. And while Northumberland is recognized as one of the top ten municipalities for diverting waste away from landfills, the waste program does not generate enough revenues to cover costs. The county borrows from the roads budget to balance the books while $45 million worth of road and bridge repairs wait to be done.

The county is not without its successes. We also learned recently that the social services department began handing out part of its $177,000 fund for exceeding its works placement targets. Low-income people across our community are the beneficiaries.

This is what makes the county so frustrating.

On one hand the waste management portfolio hangs around the neck of taxpayers like an albatross. Roads are in need of repair. The ambulance contract took forever. The Golden Plough struggles along while politicians and civil servants battle amongst themselves for control. The closing of the county library system is another example of poor management of an important service. And the list goes on.

Then, on the other hand, departments like social services bring a few bright rays of sunshine through the dark clouds. There are others, but not many.

Northumberland needs a single tier government in order to combat the negative impact of downloading. We cannot be faced with the county and local councils bleeding taxpayers dry as the burden increases. We also cannot have 13 municipalities protecting ancient fiefdoms that are no longer relevant, when every municipal politician should be hammering the Tories until the balance of services and taxes is restored.

But when the county cannot properly manage its current burden, this provides fuel for those who do not want a single tier government. Its uneven handling of portfolios means there needs to be some serious changes at the top level of the civil service, not just at the political level.

As county residents prepare for the municipal elections in November, they should be looking for candidates with a clearly articulated plan for reform. The county government needs an enema. It’s a lousy job, but somebody’s got to do it.

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