MUSKOKA – A District of Muskoka committee is going over regional spending with a fine-toothed comb with an eye for service efficiency and potential budget cuts.
The services review steering committee is tasked with looking at recommendations for service and budget efficiencies, then making final recommendations to district council.
The process has been ongoing since October 2011.
“We’re now at the point where … we can bring the information together in terms of what came from the standing committees and the citizens’ advisory committee,” said district chief administrative officer Jim Green. “Obviously, this is not the end of the process, but another key stage.”
The report that came to the services review steering committee meeting on Aug. 23 consolidated 50 recommendations and divided them into five categories for possible implementation by 2014.
Green said the district’s overall budget is about $80 million. Within those categories the district’s top five expenses are roads construction, police, roads maintenance, ambulance and Ontario Works.
“Those five really dwarf many of the other expenditure areas,” said Green.
The first recommendation discussed was to chop district roads capital spending by $300,000 in 2013 and by a further $300,000 in 2014.
The engineering and public works committee had previously rejected this recommendation, while the citizens’ advisory committee had suggested a more aggressive $1-million to $2-million reduction.
Gravenhurst coun. Bob Colhoun, chair of the engineering and public works committee, explained that his committee members had defeated the recommendation because they were unsure of the long-term impact such a reduction would have on the district roads system, especially with increasing costs to construction and maintenance.
Tony White, commissioner of engineering and public works, confirmed that staff was unable to state what the roads system would look like by 2020 if such a spending reduction were made, but seemed to suggest the budget cut would work as a pilot program. Staff would monitor the long-term road conditions closely if the cuts were made and report back regarding impact.
“But some of the committee members felt (the district) had gone through a 10-year process of building its investment in roads from a very low level … in the mid-1990s to a level that was finally demonstrably sustainable,” said White. “There was a sort of gut reaction that we’ve come this far, we’ve made this investment, let’s not take a step backward.”
But Lake of Bays coun. Shane Baker commented that the reduction might not have such a negative impact considering construction bids in the region are becoming more competitive and contract estimates are dropping.
And District Chair John Klinck said the issue was more complex than simply chopping the roads construction budget to save money.
He noted that senior levels of government are not likely to invest in the district’s roads, given the economy. And he said the expenditure is not only good for roads, but for Muskoka’s economy as well since contracts often go to area contractors who employ residents and create jobs.
Another recommendation was to look into renting or leasing district roofs and land to solar generation companies as a revenue generator.
Muskoka Lakes mayor Alice Murphy hesitated over the recommendation for fear of increasing costs rather than decreasing them and potentially embedding policy that overrides the district’s planning and economic development committee.
She was also concerned about the gaudy appearance of solar installations.
“I support the revenue generating opportunities. But I’m cautioning that, although you may believe there is no impact, there is an aesthetic impact, and we are selling an aesthetic brand,” said Murphy. “Our economic development is linked to the good feeling people have when they are in our environment. If that is affected by an industrial-looking field, there is a consequence.”
Committee also discussed a reduction in non-mandatory police services, such as marine students, community policing offices and Crime Stoppers.
Baker commented regarding the non-mandatory marine services that there was too much of a police presence on Lake of Bays’ smaller lakes and said he has received complaints from boaters about abuses of power.
But Huntsville coun. Fran Coleman warned against a knee-jerk reaction to the non-mandatory budget, especially regarding marine students.
“We are a very active tourist community with lots of lakes,” said Coleman. “I see the students as the most efficient and cost-effective way of putting officers on our lakes. We all hear from residents that they want this. And alcohol rates of boating are definitely not going down.”
She said savings should not come at the expense of lives.
Committee members also discussed a recommendation brought forward by the citizens’ advisory committee to create a new economic development co-ordinator function at the district level to compliment existing economic development initiatives in the region.
“With a lot of the area’s industries going elsewhere or becoming redundant, we need to have some type of co-ordinated effort from the district level. When you have an industry looking for opportunities at least it has someone it can talk to or co-ordinate with (at the district), who will then co-ordinate with the towns or townships,” said citizens’ advisory committee co-chair Andree Baillargeon.
Murphy supported the idea of a co-ordinated effort, but she along with several of her fellow councillors suggested economic development is often more effective from the grass roots or area municipal level.
And Colhoun was leery of potentially hiring a new district employee to do this.
“If we’re looking to keep costs down, this is not the way to do it,” he said.
The committee completed a preliminary discussion on the first of five categories of service review recommendations during the meeting. No decisions were made pending a future meeting.