Conservation authorities stunned by Yurek’s ‘to whom it may concern’ letter
Premier Doug Ford speaks with media in a flooded area of Constance Bay northwest of Ottawa on April 26, 2019. Kamara Morozuk / National Observer photo
Province Moves to Constrain Conservation Authorities’ Programs and Services
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News release from Conservation Ontario
Conservation authorities and Conservation Ontario are stunned by a letter that the Province circulated recommending that conservation authorities start shutting down any programs not related to their ‘core mandate’ as described by the Province in the proposed changes to the Conservation Authorities Act earlier this year.
Conservation authorities (CAs) and their member municipalities received letters from Jeff Yurek, Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP), addressed to ‘whom it may concern’ on Friday evening (August 16) recommending that CAs start to wind down any programs not directly related to their ‘core mandate’.
“This is confusing and extremely disappointing,” said Kim Gavine, General Manager of Conservation Ontario, the Association which represents Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities. Conservation authorities provide a wide variety of watershed management programs in partnership with all levels of government. These programs help to reduce or prevent the costly and devastating damages of flooding, protect water resources, help to reduce pollution from getting to the Great Lakes and support healthy watersheds.
“We’ve been caught completely by surprise,” Gavine said. “We’ve been working for months in good faith with the government to make a number of planning and development approvals streamlining changes to support their agenda to eliminate the deficit and implement the Housing Strategy.” There was no consultation with Conservation Ontario or the CAs about this letter before it was circulated.
“I can only assume they are trying to avoid criticism about downloading conservation authorities’ programs and services to municipalities,” she said. Conservation authorities’ provincial funding for natural hazards was reduced by 50 percent earlier this year.
Gavine pointed out that what the government is proposing isn’t taking into consideration the fact that the CA Act is still a work in progress.
“The changes being proposed by the government to the Conservation Authorities Act haven’t even been proclaimed and we are only starting discussions about the regulations that go with the legislation which will specify which actual programs and services are mandatory,” she said. After mandatory programs and services are agreed upon by the Province and conservation 2 authorities, then CAs can begin to negotiate the remaining non-mandatory programs with their member municipalities.
“It was a very pre-emptive move that disregards the process and relationship that conservation authorities and municipalities have together.”
CTV Barrie : Crunching numbers after conservation cuts
London conservation authority defends programs against environment minister
By Jacquelyn LeBel 980 CFPL
The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority says Yurek sent a letter to all of Ontario’s conservation authorities on Friday, suggesting they begin winding down all programs the province has deemed non-essential — in other words, all programs outside of flood control, drinking water source protection, and management of the conservation authority’s lands.
“Our tree planting program would no longer be essential or we’re to wind down those operations,” said general manager Ian Wilcox. “This despite the fact that we lose forest cover already every year, even though we plant 75- to 100-thousand trees.
“We’d lose our water quality programs, all the work with private landowners and developers to minimize runoff. Our education programs, work around evasive species, species at risk.”
Wilcox also addressed a statement from the province claiming that conservation authorities have expanded past their core mandate into activities like ziplining — which the local agency does not offer — maple syrup festivals, and photography and wedding permits.
“That suggests a serious lack of understanding about what conservation authorities do. This is from the minister who has oversight of our act,” he said.
“I’ll be clear, we — and I say the collective we, all conservation authorities — have had a difficult time engaging the ministry and what the future of conservation authorities could be. We understand the priority of this government but we have been shut out of the conversation.”
Wilcox also noted there was no financial incentive to curb the extra activities listed in Yurek’s statement.
“The province doesn’t pay anything for those operations. So directing us to wind down those operations, none of that would save the province a nickel,” Wilcox explained.
“All of those works are supported by local foundations, user fees, by us hustling contracts wherever we can find them to get this work done.”
In that statement, Yurek said the province is asking agencies not to introduce new programs or increase fees while the province conducts a review.
“We are working to improve public transparency and consistency. Bringing conservation authorities back to their core mandate will allow municipalities to better manage conservation authority budgets and programs,” the statement read.
“Over the coming months, we will be reviewing all relevant legislation and regulations that govern Ontario’s conservation authorities and all conservation authorities have been asked not to proceed with any new programs or increases to fees or levies on municipalities while we are undergoing this review and updating the legislation.”
980 CFPL has requested further comment from Yurek, who is currently at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario meeting in Ottawa.
Yurek’s suggestion to conservation authorities won’t save any money, head of UTRCA says
By DAN BROWN London Free Press
The head of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority says a Ford government plan to cut non-mandatory programs carried out by the province’s 36 conservation authorities would not save any taxpayer money, because they aren’t funded by the government in the first place.
“They do not pay for any of the non-mandatory programs,” said Ian Wilcox, general manager for UTRCA.
In fact, Wilcox said the entire idea of core conservation programs separate from programs outside the scope of conservation authorities was entirely “dreamt up” by Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government.
On Friday evening, the province’s environment minister Jeff Yurek, (PC — Elgin-Middlesex-London) circulated a letter addressed “To whom it may concern,” telling conservation authorities to “re-focus their efforts on the delivery of programs and services related to their core mandate.”
“I request that you review and consider your own conservation authority’s activities and begin preparations and planning to wind down those activities that fall outside the scope your core mandate,” Yurek wrote.
The government funds things such as flood control, drinking water source protection, and looking after conservation lands, Wilcox said.
UTRCA also oversees initiatives in the areas of tree planting, water quality, soil erosion, planting windbreaks and outdoors education, Wilcox said. Those are paid for by grants, municipal partners and the private sector, he said.
Yurek could not be reached for a comment Monday.
“I’m worried about the Upper Thames. I’m worried about the municipality,” Wilcox said.
A government bill which has not yet become law, Bill 108, would change the way conservation authorities operate.
“We made these legislative changes to improve public transparency, consistency and accountability in conservation authority operations,” Yurek said in the letter.
Wilcox said his budget for flood control already has been slashed by 50 per cent by the Ford Tories.
If the government gets its way, “I see some smaller conservation authorities disappearing,” Wilcox said.
Yurek has been in charge of the environment portfolio since June.
Doug Ford orders ‘wind down’ of non-essential conservation authority programs
By Fatima Syed National Observer
The Doug Ford government has, without warning or consultation, ordered the authorities that protect Ontario’s watersheds to “wind down” unnecessary programs.
National Observer has learned that conservation authorities and municipalities received letters addressed from Environment and Conservation Minister Jeff Yurek on Aug. 16 ordering them to shut down programs that do not relate to their “core mandate” without specifying what this mandate is.
In light of this memo, environmentalists are now concerned this leaves the province without the necessary protections from increasingly severe floods.
The letter came without warning or consultation, according to Kim Gavine, general manager of Conservation Ontario, the authority that represents Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities.
“I was surprised and then disappointed because I thought we were working in good faith with the province… to identify what the non-core programs would be and that we had time to figure that out,” Gavine said in an interview.
Gavine said conservation authorities were in discussions for months “in good faith” to see the government’s proposed regulation to figure out what programs the government wanted them to discontinue in consultation with their member municipalities and partner groups. They had met with the municipal affairs minister, natural resources minister and Yurek’s predecessor, Rod Phillips (who was appointed as finance minister after a cabinet shuffle).
“We have this memo, but we hadn’t had the discussion,” she said. “We don’t know what ‘core mandate’ means for the government. Is water quality and monitoring considered core? Are flood programs core?
Conservation authorities’ provincial funding for natural hazards was reduced by 50 per cent earlier this year. Following that, an omnibus bill about housing indicated that changes would be forthcoming to the regulations guiding conservation authorities. These changes included a broad list of programs and services that Yurek also referenced in his letter, which was shared with National Observer.
Yurek recommended that the authorities “re-focus their efforts on the delivery of programs and services” related only to the following five issues:
Andrew Buttigieg, a spokesman for Yurek, told National Observer in an email that the Ford government “is working to improve public transparency and consistency.”
“Bringing conservation authorities back to their core mandate will allow for municipalities to better manage conservation authority budgets and programs. The legislative changes we’ve made ensure conservation authorities focus on delivering core services and programs that protect communities from natural hazards and flooding while using taxpayer dollars efficiently and effectively,” Buttigieg wrote.
“Over the years, conservation authorities have expanded past their core mandate into activities such as ziplining, maple syrup festivals and photography and wedding permits. We are giving municipalities greater control and the ability to enter into agreements with conservation authorities to fund any programs and services outside of the core mandate if they chose,” Yurek’s spokesman said.
But Gavine said conservation authorities do more than that. These bodies provide a wide variety of watershed-management programs in partnership with all levels of government. These programs help to reduce or prevent the costly and devastating damages of flooding, protect water resources, help to reduce pollution from getting to the Great Lakes and support healthy watersheds. They also used data collected through environmental monitoring programs to produce report cards to indicate where the health of a watershed is good and where it’s poor, to better help the province understand where climate priorities lie.
All this could be under threat, one expert who works with an Ottawa-area conservation authority, and who chose to remain anonymous, told National Observer. Future evidence of water pollution could be lost, as could many jobs including: stewardship jobs, fieldworkers, technicians that collect data and report on it and anyone else whose job it to synthesize the data.
“We are the boots on the ground… to preserve, restore and protect the natural environment in Ontario. This has been a mandate long embraced since the 1940s,” Gavine said. “We need (the government) to define those non-core activities. What are the activities that we are doing that are not considered core?”
‘A return to a world without climate change’
In his letter, Yurek urges conservation authorities to “refrain from developing new policies that are not aligned with your mandate or with provincial policies” as he undergoes a full review of “all the relevant legislation and regulations that govern Ontario’s conservation authorities to explore even more opportunities to re-focus their efforts and to ensure they are best serving the interest of the people of Ontario.”
The letter says the changes the government has made to conservation “will give greater control to individual municipalities on conservation authority programs and budgets.”
Kelsey Scarfone, Environmental Defence’s water program manager, told National Observer that the government was “jumping the gun” in making this order.
“There hasn’t been a consensus on what the non-core programs are,” she said.
The list Yurek provided also leaves out natural resources programs that protect Ontario’s Great Lakes from pollution, Scarfone said, noting that “only conservation authorities have the knowledge and expertise about the areas to protect us in a holistic way from floods.”
The memo’s instruction is “a step in the wrong direction,” Scarfone added. “Our watershed-management framework was born out of all the devastation during hurricane Hazel…This move undercuts all the work we’ve done since then in a major way.”
Greenpeace’s Keith Stewart said Yurek’s instruction is “a return to a world without climate change.”
“It’s a major step backwards,” he said in an interview. “We live in a world that’s changing rapidly… Conservation authorities have a huge role to play in this new world of severe weather.”
Ford government urges winding down of conservation programs to conserve cash
By ROBERT BENZIE and MAY WARREN Toronto Star Aug. 20, 2019
The cash-strapped Progressive Conservative government is hoping to conserve money by winding down some conservation programs.
But local conservation authorities say the province doesn’t actually pay for many of those activities, and some, like maple syrup festivals, can actually be money makers.
Conservation Ontario said local municipalities and conservation authorities were told in a letter last Friday from Premier Doug Ford’s administration to shut down any initiatives that are not related to their “core mandate.”
The changes were first reported Monday by the National Observer.
“This is confusing and extremely disappointing,” said Kim Gavine, general manager of the association representing the province’s 36 conservation authorities, which oversee watershed management and other ecological matters.
Yurek noted the Tories had signalled the changes in the More Homes, More Choice Act earlier this year, the legislation designed to make it easier to build new homes.
“Bringing conservation authorities back to their core mandate will allow municipalities to better manage conservation authority budgets and programs,” the minister said.
“The legislative changes we’ve made ensure conservation authorities focus on delivering core services and programs that protect communities from natural hazards and flooding while using taxpayer dollars efficiently and effectively.”
Deborah Martin-Downs, chief administrative officer with the Credit Valley Conservation Authority, which covers parts of Mississauga and Brampton, said winding down activities like maple syrup festivals “will not save them a penny.”
Martin-Downs calls the letter “premature” and “incorrect.” She said while the authorities are in the process of negotiating what’s in their core mandates with the province, the Conservation Act allows activities that fall outside of them to be funded by municipalities, which already provide most of the funding.
Other activities can be revenue streams.
“They mentioned photography — well, we charge a fee if you want to come in and use our lands for photography,” she added.
“Right now, our parks probably generate 50 cents on the dollar for us, so that then takes pressure off our operating budget, which the municipalities pay for through a levy.”
They also charge for popular events, like a maple syrup festival, kayak rentals, and weddings on conservation land.
“This is good for our community and good for the people of Ontario and I don’t know why this minister thinks that these are frivolous or these are activities that should be ceased, because they don’t have any role to play in them,” said Martin-Downs.
Hassaan Basit, head of Conservation Halton, agrees that winding down maple syrup festivals and other recreational activities doesn’t make sense.
“It will not save money,” he said. “It will result in millions of dollars of lost revenue.”
Yurek’s press secretary Andrew Buttigieg wrote in an emailed statement that the province will be further defining programs and services that could be considered outside of the core mandate through regulation.
“In the meantime, the minister has asked conservation authorities to not proceed with any new programs or levies on municipalities,” he added.
“Some examples may include programs/services outside of the core mandate on lands not owned or controlled by the CA; recreational infrastructure, golf courses, water parks, water festivals and archeology. Municipalities will have the ability to enter into public and transparent agreements with conservation authorities to provide funding for activities outside of the core mandate.”
Glavine said the move effectively downloads conservation programs and services to municipalities.
“It was a very pre-emptive move that disregards the process and relationship that conservation authorities and municipalities have together,” she said.
Kelsey Scarfone, water programs manager with Environmental Defence, said the language referring to a “core mandate” is an avenue to cut essential programs that conservation authorities provide, from water monitoring to research on algae blooms.
“It really is a way to limit the types of work that conservation authorities can do on the ground, which is extremely negative because it adds so much value in terms of environmental protection in the regions that they operate in,” Scarfone said.
“Conservation authorities are the ones with the boots on the ground. They are the ones with the expertise in those local regions and really look at things on a watershed scale. By cutting programs, they’re limiting what we know about these watersheds.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner criticized the Tories for being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
“This move by Ford is fiscally irresponsible,” said Schreiner. “Going after conservation authorities when the risks of flooding is on the rise will lead to more infrastructure damage from extreme weather, costing us more in the long run.”
NDP MPP Judith Monteith-Farrell (Thunder Bay-Atikokan) said “ “Doug Ford is leaving Ontarians with even less protection in his ongoing war against the environment.
“Ontario communities have seen record-level flooding, with devastating consequences to family homes, small businesses and community property,” said Monteith-Farrell.
With a federal election set for Oct. 21, Liberal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna pounced on the provincial cut and predicted voters could “expect to see more of the same from Andrew Scheer,” the Conservative leader.
“Conservative politicians say they’re ‘for the people’ but then they make devastating cuts to programs and services that Canadians rely on,” McKenna said Tuesday.
“Cutting funding for environment programs that were helping Ontarians save money and energy apparently wasn’t enough. Now, Premier Ford is continuing the Conservative cut-first-think-later approach and threatening further cuts to Ontario’s conservation authorities.”
Thanks mostly to a controversial accounting change, Ford’s Tories have ballooned the deficit to $10.3 billion this year from the previous Liberal government’s projected shortfall $6.7 billion in 2018-19.
Unlike the Liberals, the Conservatives no longer include as assets some $11 billion held in the government co-sponsored Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union Pension Plan and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan.
Former finance minister Vic Fedeli, who was adamant about excluding the pension holdings even though it put the government in a more challenging fiscal position, has since been demoted to economic development minister. Rod Phillips is now the finance minister.