Haliburton County councillors will consider having a governance review of the county and its four lower-tier municipalities conducted by a third party.
Councillors had a lengthy discussion on the issue during a June 26 meeting where they received a report on a shared services/collaboration review completed by the chief administrative officers of the five local governments along with department heads.
The report included an inventory of numerous existing collaborations between the municipalities – from shared training and information-sharing among bylaw staff to a county-wide firefighter recruit program to joint tendering for roads department materials such as salt and hot mix and activities such as surveying and traffic counting.
There are also a number of roads maintenance agreements in place between municipalities in different areas of the county.
“A lot of times there’s not a dollar figure attached to the collaboration” county CAO Mike Rutter told
councillors explaining it was difficult to produce exact financial figures when it came to the amount of money these collaborations were saving and thus there were no financial figures in the report. “I think these collaborations have been working that they’ve been saving a lot of money” Rutter said.
county-wide waste contracts and a county-wide economic development department.
The report also included a number of areas the CAOs had identified for potential collaboration larger scale ideas such as a county-wide building department county-wide procurement department a county-wide or shared fire department.
“There has been no effort made to analyze these suggestions in great detail” the report from Rutter reads. “In most cases it is recommended that external resources be used to study the service area and make specific recommendations. When county council established this process there was some discussion about including a review of service levels provided in each jurisdiction. We have not included this detail in this report but that will be an important aspect to be studied if any of the recommendations are to be investigated in more detail.”
“My initial thought is our lower tiers and yourself are busy enough” Dysart et al Deputy Mayor Pat Kennedy said to Rutter adding he thought the county should be using an outside expert for any further investigation or creation of new potential governance models.
“There’s a whole conversation about community and philosophy” said Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt.
Moffatt has stressed repeatedly that studies she’s read have concluded that amalgamations often don’t save money and that sometimes amalgamated governments wind up costing more to operate. “Equally important is what we could gain and what we could lose as communities.”
Moffatt said she realized there was an appetite for consistent bylaws across the board throughout the county and that some people would not care if some of the county’s smallest communities such as Cardiff or Oxtongue Lake lost their identity in that process.
Algonquin Highlands Deputy Mayor and County Warden Liz Danielsen said she shared Moffatt’s concerns about loss of community identity and local culture.
“The assumption by the public is that we’re going to save money if we go to amalgamation” Danielsen said adding she did not 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 was saying about a third party” said Highlands East Deputy Mayor Cec Ryall. Ryall said he would like to see the items laid out in the report prioritized by the county’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 that bite?”
Danielsen said she thought the CAOs had already done enough work on the subject and that any further investigation would best be handled by a third-party consultant.
“There is more benefit in independent work” she said.
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts seemed content to maintain the status quo when it comes to how the county and its lower tiers operate.
“I don’t know that I even want to do anything with this” Roberts said indicating there were already a number of areas where the municipalities collaborate. “I’m not really ready to do anything right now.”
Of the eight members of county council Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin has been the most outwardly supportive of exploring an amalgamation-style model.
“I’m going to be the contrarian obviously” Devolin said. “There are some real challenges coming for us as municipalities.”
Devolin noted there is mounting pressure for municipalities to be able to find people qualified for highly specialized jobs. “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 management the long list of equipment the province mandates that municipalities must replace on a regular basis. “I think on that side we’re going to run into a wall too . . . I think these are two big structural things that are not going to allow us to stay where we’re at.”
Devolin also said the process in his mind was 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 on the lot and buy the cheapest car because it fails our values test.”
Moffatt reiterated that an amalgamation would not be the straight-forward process some people think it would be.
“If anyone thinks the county’s going to amalgamate and have just one staff structure and one CAO . . . they’re not living in the real world” she said.
Moffatt who’s talked about a made-in-Haliburton-County solution that would not necessarily be a single-tier amalgamation said ideally she’d like to see a process where two or three model options 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 an interest in hiring a third-party expert for further work with Highlands East Mayor Dave Burton and Minden Hills Deputy Mayor Lisa Schell not present for the conversation.
“This is a discussion we’re going to have for the balance of this term” Devolin said.
Rutter told councillors that the CAOs could work on prioritizing the list but that he thought it would be helpful if council chose a governance model first.
“I wouldn’t want to invest much in this list until you’ve had that conversation” he said adding that the four lower-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 and I think the sooner you answer that question the better” Rutter said adding that having a government that appears to be in flux could affect staff attraction and retention.
Rutter said any review would also need to involve public meetings and community consultation.
“I also have concerns about going out and asking the public what they want” said Danielsen adding she didn’t think many residents understood the true intricacies of amalgamation. “A lot of them really don’t have the right information to start with.”
As he has before Devolin re-iterated that if the county does not do some restructuring on its own he fears that restructuring could be mandated upon it by the province.
“My worst fear is that somebody external will impose a new construct on us and it will be the worst thing it could be” he said.
Devolin also noted that many councillors have connections to municipal staff throughout the county.
“They’re our friends neighbours and family” he said.
Ultimately council requested another report come back from Rutter one which will look at prioritization of the collaboration items and the creation of a process should council decide to undertake the services of a third-party expert.