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Large turnover on county council a spark for change

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In Council Watch
Oct 29th, 2014
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Simcoe County restructuring long past due

New Tecumseth Free Press Online

A 53 per cent change of the mayors and deputy mayors who also sit as Simcoe County councillors provides the ideal opportunity to affect real change at the upper tier level. Particularly since entrenched County baggage like soon to be former Warden Cal Patterson, have been shown the door by their local voters.

With 17 incoming new members of the 32 unaccountable County councillors, they will immediately be pressured by the upper tier’s senior administration, whose ranks and pay packets have swelled, and remaining members of the “old guard” to conform, and repeat the mantra that “Simcoe County above all else.”

It’s starting already with Oro-Medonte mayor Harry Hughes positioning himself to become the next Warden because as the current Deputy Warden, “One of the things you always look at is succession planning. Having been the deputy warden for that many years, yeah, I kind of have a sense of obligation,” Mr Hughes told a Barrie newspaper.

Right. “Obligation.” Beginning January 1, 2015, Simcoe County Warden will be paid an annual salary of $61,227.25, serve the full four year term,  provided with a vehicle, office, and expenses.

Mr. Hughes, who was acclaimed as mayor of the “gasoline alley” community of Oro-Medonte, might be familiar to some since he was actively involved, along with then Essa mayor David Guergis, in trying to abolish the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority back in 2009.

Simcoe County dates back to 1843 when it was established as a District. It made sense for more than 100 years because the member municipalities, which at one time also included Barrie and Orillia, were mostly agricultural/rural, with some hub connectors.

Today, Barrie and Orillia are separated cities, and south Simcoe has less in common with its northern counterparts than ever before. Certainly, New Tecumseth, Bradford, and Innisfil, continue to have agriculture/rural components, but they are fast growing urban areas, with infrastructure requirements that could better utilize the tens of millions of dollars in property taxes that flow out of town to finance the expanding empire that is the Corporation of the County of Simcoe.

There are more than 1,600 people on the Simcoe County payroll, working out of a multi-million dollar administration centre which just underwent a major expansion in Midhurst. In 2013, there were 55 people on the list employed by Simcoe County topped by CAO Mark Aitken at $239,961; Jane Sinclair, General Manager Health and Emergency Services, $198,268, and Theresa Talon, General Manager, Social and Community Services, $192,410, rounded off the top three.

Over the past decade or so, but for sure within the last four years, Simcoe County’s administration and many of the entrenched councillors, have worked behind the scenes, and at its surface, to expand the upper tier’s role.

Left unchecked, Simcoe County wants control over water and wastewater, and local planning, leaving its member municipalities to look after where stop signs and swing sets should be located in their parks.

The County’s desire to exert its total control reached an outrageous new level when it rejected requests from lower tiers, including New Tecumseth, for such services as special leaf collections for seniors, and large item pick-up services. And in Essa, for example, forced the township to cancel its voucher system. All in the name of uniform service.

When the lower tiers approved turning waste management over to Simcoe County in the early 1990s, landfilling was still the only option on the table. That’s no longer the case. Waste disposal options today include incineration, recycling plants, compost facilities, who are searching for new customers to make them cost effective.

The incoming new members of Simcoe County council need to act quickly on changes, because the longer it takes, the more time the senior administration, and the Warden’s office has to brainwash them into conformity. Keep it a cozy club, where the mayors and deputy mayors are equals, and the perks of office aren’t obvious yet, away from the prying eyes of the local level.

This is a Simcoe County which, in the words of the all-knowing New Tecumseth Citizens Coalition, has embraced “urban sprawl” in a big way. Ask the people in Midhurst/Springwater who dumped their incumbent mayor and deputy mayor for forgetting where they’re from.

Simcoe County can be useful. For example, paramedic services, homes for the aged, and Ontario Works/Children’s Services are common goods. As well, the upper tier is the perfect level to administer a regional public transit system. But much after that, the inefficiencies start kicking in.

Simcoe County restructuring is long past due – and that’s not to create fewer municipalities. If some other level is required, the only alternative is to create a North and South. It definitely won’t be popular with the smaller municipalities who depend on the millions of dollars that flow from New Tecumseth, Bradford, and Innisfil in property taxes to pay for their roads and bridges.

Short of that, New Tecumseth should revisit the notion of separated City status. Several years ago, the Town did commission a study that showed New Tecumseth would save millions of dollars if it went the way of Barrie and Orillia. It doesn’t mean New Tecumseth would have to reinvent the wheel, as it were. Barrie and Orillia are partners with the County when it comes to the larger ticket items like paramedic services and Ontario Works. New Tecumseth pays about $11 million per year in property taxes to the County, and there’s little evidence to suggest it receives anywhere close to that back in services on an annual rate.

No better time than the present to force the issue. At the very least, a New Tecumseth call to action can be the spark for change – “For the Greater Good.”

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