By Chad Ingram
The centralization of functions, harmonizing of regulations and creation of new staffing positions are repeated themes in the plethora of recommendations contained in a service delivery review for the County of Haliburton and its four lower-tier municipalities.
The county’s municipal politicians – all of them, from all four townships – along with the five chief administrative officers from the county’s governments received a presentation on the review from members of Toronto-based consulting firm StrategyCorp during a Zoom meeting on Nov. 25.Heads of council and the CAOs, who’d formed the steering committee for the project, had received a run-through of the report a few days prior.
John Matheson, a principal with the consulting firm and the founder of its municipal affairs practice group, called the 140-page document “a piece of work that could potentially provide you with several years’ worth of implementation opportunities, as opposed to a take-it-or-leave-it offer that you might be expected to hastily endorse. I think that’s really important, because it should allow you to think about it in the way in which it’s intended, which is a lot of ideas that could be of great value to the municipalities over time.”
The recommendations come with accompanying timelines, spaced out for implementation between 2021 and 2026.
The county awarded the contract for the project to StrategyCorp in early March, the process somewhat delayed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The process included more than 100 interviews and workshops with elected officials and municipal staffers, including more than 35 interviews with councillors and more than 60 interviews with staff, as well as a handful of interviews with community stakeholders.
According to the document, if the recommendations therein were fully implemented, it would equate to approximately $900,000 a year in operational and capital savings, although, as Matheson pointed out, this would not necessarily be found money, but rather money that could be redirected elsewhere to achieve better municipal operations.
“Nobody should read this as we can wave a magic wand and reduce taxes,” he said. “But what we do think, is that you can get better value for money on some operations, and we do think you can use that to offset other pressures, so that you’re spending it in better places.”
“We were invited to come and work with the team, to try to find better ways of doing things, and not surprisingly, when you spend this kind of effort at it, we found some,” Matheson continued.
The first phase of the project included a 235-page report with 66 “service profiles” throughout the county, and some 200 recommendations. Those recommendations were grouped into 12 high-priority categories in the final report.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on is writing reports where you have a fighting chance of wanting to implement them,” Matheson said.
The 12 priorities identified in the report are: roads, bridges and drainage; fire services; waste management; co-ordinated building, septic and bylaw services; planning services; economic development; collaborative procurement; integrated digital strategy; co-ordinated legal services; human resources co-ordination; communications; and overall co-ordination.
Under roads, bridges and drainage, some recommendations included the bundling of capital projects, joint engineering contracts, as well as formalizing joint planning of road maintenance and public works planning among the four lower tiers and the county. For fire services, the report recommends integrated training, including exploring the possibility of a joint training facility. Each of the four lower-tier municipalities operates its own fire department.
Under waste management, it’s recommended that waste disposal policies be standardized across the county, so that aspects such as operating hours, tipping fees, bag limit restrictions, etc., are identical throughout the county. “Differences in policies and waste acceptance criteria was identified as a major issue across Haliburton, leading to confusion for residents, contractors and staff,” the report reads. “Harmonization of policies and waste management approaches, where opportunities exist, can lead to decreased confusion and increased compliance.” It also recommends joint contracts for waste disposal services.
For the co-ordination of building, septic and bylaw services, it was recommended that shared service agreements between the municipalities be created, or that a central service be created, where say a central staff of five inspectors would be responsible for building and septic inspections throughout the county, which consultants stressed would mean efficiencies achieved by responding to route optimization and demand, rather than abiding by municipal boundaries.
A host of recommendations are included under the planning section, including standardizing all processes and fees across the county’s municipalities. It was mentioned that Minden Hills has the simplest and most straightforward pre-consultation process, for example, and so one suggestion was that it become the standard model throughout the county.
“I see excitement and willingness to explore collaboration,” consultant Chris Salloum said of planning staff in the county. Another recommendation was the hiring of a junior planner to alleviate pressure on planning staff, with those costs shared by the municipalities based on working hours. One of the county’s townships, Highlands East, does not have an in-house planning department, using a planning consultant instead.
Planning is a complicated field, and Matheson said the firm has done entire studies solely focused on the planning operations of municipalities.
“There’s a lot more that could be done, which was outside of the scope of this project,” he said.
On economic development, the report recommends the county create an economic development officer position, something it is currently without.
“It’s looking at a service increase, but it’s for justified reasons,” Salloum said. “… The county has a tourism service … but the county lacks an economic development function.”
At one point, what is now the county tourism department, which focuses mainly on marketing, was the tourism and economic development department. In 2013, county council at the time decided a revamped department would focus on tourism marketing, leaving the job of economic development to the lower-tier municipalities, which have done varying degrees of economic development work over the years. “There’s tremendous benefit to be realized here,” Salloum said.
As for collective procurement, it’s recommended a procurement specialist be hired, someone who would basically handle all of the requests for proposals and buying of goods for the county and the four municipalities. Purchasing is typically managed by department heads, and since it’s a cumbersome process, would alleviate pressure on staff as well as achieve saving through collective buying, the report indicates.
Recommendations for an integrated digital strategy include sharing platforms and solutions where possible, as well as involving IT staff in a five-year planning process to eliminate the ad hoc purchase of IT items.
As for co-ordinated legal services, it is recommended that an in-house barrister and solicitor be hired for the county and the townships. Currently, municipalities each contract out legal services on an as-needed basis, and the report indicates that having an in-house lawyer could save about $70,000 a year.
Under human resource co-ordination, it’s recommended the municipalities pool their employee benefits, which would lower premiums, rather than having each municipality continue to provide employee benefits in a different way. Among other recommendations is the creation of shared services agreement for certain HR functions.
Under communications, the report recommends creating a joint communications officer/grant writer position. “The Haliburton municipalities have identified gaps in their ability to deliver co-ordinated communications to residents,” it reads. “The communication initiative would address this gap by creating a [full time equivalent employee] dedicated to communications and grant writing. This position would focus on internal and external communications support for all Haliburton municipalities. The remaining time associated with this FTE would be dedicated to grant writing. This would address both a perceived gap in county-wide communications management and offset the costs of the new position through enhanced grant revenue.”
Finally, under co-ordination, it’s recommended that a special committee of council or inter-municipal body of some sort be created, which would focus on promoting collaborative efforts.
The report was received for information. As for next steps, Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts said she’d like to have an opportunity for Dysart council to discuss what it considers to be the top priorities.
“That may be a really good idea,” said Algonquin Highlands Deputy Mayor and County Warden Liz Danielsen. Danielsen also suggested that the topic should be placed on the county council agenda as a standing item, and said she’d like to see a special county council meeting dedicated to the subject as soon as January, or February at latest. “It’s one of those how do you eat an elephant type of things.”
“Some of it isn’t new,” Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt said of the contents of the report, pointing out that the county had once had an economic development function, for example, or that Algonquin Highlands township had previously suggested the idea of a joint fire training officer. “It depends on every one of us [elected officials] to concede something for the greater good.”
The $150,000 project was funded through modernization funding from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.