By Chad Ingram
Haliburton County councillors will considerhaving a governance review of the county and its four lower-tier municipalitiesconducted by a third party.
Councillors had a lengthy discussion on theissue during an June 26 meeting where they received a report on a sharedservices/collaboration review completed by the chief administrative officers ofthe five local governments along with department heads. The report included aninventory of numerous existing collaborations between the municipalities – fromshared training and information-sharing amongst bylaw staff to a county-widefirefighter recruit program to joint tendering for roads department materialssuch as salt and hot mix and activities such as surveying and trafficcounting. There are also a number of roads maintenance agreements in placebetween municipalities in different areas of the county.
“A lot of times there's not a dollarfigure attached to the collaboration” county CAO Mike Rutter told councillorsexplaining it was difficult to produce exact financial figures when it came tothe amount of money these collaborations were saving and thus there were nofinancial figures in the report. “I think these collaborations have beenworking that they've been saving a lot of money” Rutter said.
The report also included a number of areasthe CAOs had identified for potential collaboration larger scale ideas such asa county-wide building department county-wide procurement department acounty-wide or shared fire department county-wide waste contracts and acounty-wide economic development department.
“There has been no effort made to analyzethese suggestions in great detail” the report from Rutter reads. “In mostcases it is recommended that external resources be used to study the servicearea and make specific recommendations. When county council established thisprocess there was some discussion about including a review of service levelsprovided in each jurisdiction. We have not included this detail in this reportbut that will be an important aspect to be studied if any of therecommendations are to be investigated in more detail.”
“My initial thought is our lower tiers andyourself are busy enough” Dysart et al Deputy Mayor Pat Kennedy said toRutter adding he thought the county should be using an outside expert for anyfurther investigation or creation of new potential governance models.
“There's a whole conversation aboutcommunity and philosophy” said Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt.Moffatt has stressed repeatedly that studies she's read have concluded thatamalgamations often don't save money and that sometimes amalgamatedgovernments wind up costing more to operate. “Equally important is what wecould gain and what we could lose as communities.”
Moffatt said she realized there was anappetite for consistent bylaws across the board throughout the county and thatsome people would not care if some of the county's smallest communities such asCardiff or Oxtongue Lake lost their identity in that process.
Algonquin Highlands Deputy Mayor and CountyWarden Liz Danielsen said she shared Moffatt's concerns about loss of communityidentity and local culture.
“The assumption by the public is that we'regoing to save money if we go to amalgamation” Danielsen said adding she didnot believe that would be the case. Danielsen also said that whatever course county council chose to take“we have to agree completely.”
“I respect what Councillor Kennedy wassaying about a third party” said Highlands East Deputy Mayor Cec Ryall. Ryallsaid he would like to see the items laid out in the report prioritized by thecounty's five chief administrative officers.
“This is like a shopping list” he said.“If it's an elephant where do you take the first bite? And how big is thatbite?”
Danielsen said she thought the CAOs hadalready done enough work on the subject and that any further investigationwould best be handled by a third-party consultant.
“There is more benefit in independentwork” she said.
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts seemedcontent to maintain the status quo when it comes to how the county and itslower tiers operate.
“I don't know that I even want to doanything with this” Roberts said indicating there were already a number ofareas where the municipalities collaborate. “I'm not really ready to doanything right now.”
Of the eight members of county councilMinden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin has been the most outwardly supportive ofexploring an amalgamation-style model.
“I'm going to be the contrarianobviously” Devolin said. “There are some real challenges coming for us asmunicipalities.”
Devolin noted there is mounting pressurefor municipalities to be able to find people qualified for highly specializedjobs. “I'm not sure going forward that we can continue to fill those positions.I think we're going to hit a wall.”
Devolin said the same of asset managementthe long list of equipment the province mandates that municipalities mustreplace on a regular basis. “I think on that side we're going to run into awall too . . . I think these are two big structural things that are not goingto allow us to stay where we're at.”
Devolin also said the process in his mindwas not necessarily about cost savings.
“My interest is value and functionality”he said making a vehicular analogy. “There's not many of us that would walk onthe lot and buy the cheapest car because it fails our values test.”
Moffatt reiterated that an amalgamationwould not be the straight-forward process some people think it would be.
“If anyone thinks the county's going toamalgamate and have just one staff structure and one CAO . . . they're notliving in the real world” she said.
Moffatt who's talked about amade-in-Haliburton-County solution that would not necessarily be a single-tieramalgamation said ideally she'd like to see a process where two or three modeloptions could be presented to the public.
“I can't figure out how to get us there”she said. “It has to be through a third-party.”
Most councillors seemed to express aninterest in hiring a third-party expert for further work with Highlands EastMayor Dave Burton and Minden Hills Deputy Mayor Lisa Schell not present for theconversation.
“This is a discussion we're going to havefor the balance of this term” Devolin said.
Rutter told councillors that the CAOs couldwork on prioritizing the list but that he thought it would be helpful ifcouncil chose a governance model first.
“I wouldn't want to invest much in thislist until you've had that conversation” he said adding that the fourlower-tier councils would also need to be consulted as part of any review.“It's not just a county council discussion at all.”
“I think it fundamentally starts there andI think the sooner you answer that question the better” Rutter said addingthat having a government that appears to be in flux could affect staffattraction and retention. Rutter said any review would also need to involve publicmeetings and community consultation.
“I also have concerns about going out andasking the public what they want” said Danielsen adding she didn't think manyresidents understood the true intricacies of amalgamation. “A lot of themreally don't have the right information to start with.”
As he has before Devolin re-iterated thatif the county does not do some restructuring on its own he fears thatrestructuring could be mandated upon it by the province.
“My worst fear is that somebody externalwill impose a new construct on us and it will be the worst thing it could be”he said.
Devolin also noted that many councillorshave connections to municipal staff throughout the county.
“They're our friends neighbours andfamily” he said.
Ultimately council requested anotherreport come back from Rutter one which will look at prioritization of thecollaboration items and the creation of a process should council decide toundertake the services of a third-party expert.