Changing City Council

Two Council meetings ago, City Council voted to give notice that it intends to change its composition from 12 councillors to 10 and to redraw the City’s ward boundaries from six wards to five.

I voted for the change because I think it is a sensible, evidence-based decision that will lead to a Council that is more appropriately-sized for our community. However, there have been questions raised in regards to the decision that I will try to address here.

Why not go lower than 10?

The research examined by the Council Review Committee shows that there would be a case to be made for having eight councillors. I don’t think there is a good case for trying to go with fewer than eight. With six councillors we would have to entertain making the positions full-time or adding staff at City Hall to help them manage their workload.

In some public commentaries, I’ve seen examples cited of larger cities have relatively few councillors. Kitchener tends to be a popular example, as they had only six councillors for a long time (they’ve since expanded to 10). It bears remembering though that Kitchener—along with many southern Ontario cities—is part of a two-tier municipal structure, whereas Sault Ste. Marie is a single-tier city.

Although Kitchener is several times larger than Sault Ste. Marie in terms of population, the tax levy managed by their City Council is actually quite comparable to the size managed by our Council.

Regardless, it was clear from our deliberations that there was interest on Council in changing from 12 to 10 but not any lower than that. Doing so is a step in the right direction that I am happy to support.

Why not have one councillor per ward?

Although we are changing the size of Council and the number of wards, we are still going to have two councillors elected from each ward. It is felt that this is important because it ensures that when a vacancy or extended absence of a councillor occurs ward constituents will still have a representative whom they can contact.

Obviously, when the provincial by-election is called we are going to have a situation where both councillors in Ward 6 are temporarily absent. However, these situations are rare.

Is a referendum needed?

In the opposite direction to the questions addressed above, there has been some suggestion that the status quo should be maintained or that the question should be put to voters in a referendum.

To that, I would say this: in Ontario, the Municipal Act vests the power to change a council’s composition (subject to certain limits) with the municipal council itself. The process to do so is set out very clearly in act. There is no requirement for a referendum or ballot question. When wards are created, redrawn or dissolved, there are requirements for notice to be given to electors and for a public meeting to be held. Any resident who objects to the proposed changes has the right to appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board.

Our local system of government operates under the tenets of representative democracy. Every decision that our Council makes can be considered an expression of the popular will of the community. Arguing that no one expressly campaigned on reducing the size of Council is a red herring; Council is called upon to decide matters all the time that were not broached during the election campaign. Because we are elected, we remain accountable to the public for all of our decisions.

To me though, the larger point is that we have to be open to change both in the community and at the City of Sault Ste. Marie and that openness needs to extend to Council itself. For the last several years, we’ve been asking staff to trim their spending. We’ve been exploring ways of delivering services differently. We’ve watched as the City’s senior management team has restructured itself to have fewer managers. We have to be willing to turn that same level of scrutiny on to our own operations as a council and I, for one, am glad that we did.

-CP

Sault Ste. Marie Among the Lowest in Ontario for Water Costs

I wanted to spend a little time looking at water and sewer costs in Sault Ste. Marie and how we compare to other municipalities across Ontario and the north. As I’ve written about before, after property taxes, water and sewer costs are the next biggest expense placed on citizens by municipalities and they form part of the municipal burden.

In 2015, City Council reduced the sewer surcharge.  As a result, for residential users the sewer surcharge is, as a percentage of your bill, the lowest it has been in more than 30 years. In order to give residential citizens a further break, the PUC Board (of which I was and am a member) also made the decision to forego increasing water rates in 2016. These actions had the net effect of saving households about $150 a year on average.

The annual BMA municipal study collects and compares data on Ontario municipalities across a number of measures—including water and sewer costs. The 2016 study is now out, and there are some really interesting findings as to how Sault Ste. Marie has been able to improve its water and sewer affordability and cost-competitiveness.

In 2015 Sault Ste. Marie ranked 39th out of 94 surveyed municipalities. In 2016, thanks to the decisions made by City Council and the PUC Board, our rank improved to 6th out of 101. The table below captures some of the relevant changes:

Changes in Residential Water and Sewer Costs / Competitiveness between 2015 and 2016

Year SSM Cost Prov. Avg SSM Rank $ Difference % Difference
2015 $839 $923 39/94 -$84 -9.1%
2016 $685 $976 6/101 -$291 -29.8%

Across Ontario, the average increase in water and sewer charges was just a little under 6% between 2015 and 2016. In Sault Ste. Marie, ours costs went down by over 18%, the sharpest drop of any municipality in the survey. We are now almost $300 lower than the provincial average.

Top 10 municipalities in Ontario for water and sewer costs

By virtue of our actions in 2015, Sault Ste. Marie is now also leading the way amongst the Northern Ontario towns and cities that participate in the study and we are about 33% lower than the Northern Ontario average which is, in real dollars, close to $350.00 below the Northern Ontario average.

Comparison of Northern Ontario municipalities for water and sewer costs.

What becomes striking when you start to delve into the study results is just how uncommon it is for municipalities to be able to reduce their costs year-to-year. Of the 94 municipalities that reported information in 2015, Sault Ste. Marie was one of only three to reduce its water and sewer costs by a more than nominal amount in 2016 (North Bay and St. Catharines were the other two). Even high-growth cities like Toronto and Markham had to put their rates up.

I think that just goes to show that it’s a challenge controlling costs at a municipal government under the best of circumstances. In Sault Ste. Marie, we’ve faced additional challenges over the past several years with a difficult local economy and the non-payment of taxes by a major industrial employer that has negatively affected the City’s cash flow. Despite this, I’m pleased that Council and the PUC have found a way to deliver meaningful savings to citizens also to substantial improve our City’s affordability and cost-competitiveness.

-CP

Decreasing the municipal burden in Sault Ste. Marie

How do you calculate the relative affordability of local government from place-to-place within a province such as Ontario? For residential taxpayers, one of the important measures to look at is something called the “municipal burden.”

While property taxes are the biggest part of the municipal burden, water and sewer costs are also an important part of the equation. When you add together property taxes with water and wastewater costs, you have what is referred to as the “total municipal burden.”

Each year, the BMA Municipal Study collects financial and spending data about a large cross-section of Ontario municipalities. BMA calculates the municipal burden for residential homeowners in each community by taking the average cost of residential taxes and adding the costs to use 200 cubic meters of water annually.

How does Sault Ste. Marie rank?

The 2015 BMA study calculated that Sault Ste. Marie’s total municipal burden was $3,669—$2,830 of that being property taxes and the remaining $839 being water and sewer charges. In absolute dollar terms, we actually trended low for the total burden, ranking 19th lowest out of 98 participating municipalities. The file linked below has the full rankings, sorted by the total burden.

BMA Study, Ontario Municipalities – Total Municipal Burden 2015

The good news is that according to the 2016 BMA study, the total municipal burden in Sault Ste. Marie actually dropped between 2015 and 2016—falling from $3,669 to $3,423. That is the 5th lowest total out of the 102 municipalities that provided data for the 2016 study.

BMA Study, Ontario Municipalities – Total Municipal Burden 2016

Much of the improvement in Sault Ste. Marie’s municipal burden figures from 2015 to 2016 is the result of changes to our water and wastewater rates. Both City Council and the PUC Board took steps late in 2015 to decrease water costs for residents and businesses in Sault Ste. Marie. City Council made the move to decrease the sewer surcharge from 100% to 62% for residential users—bringing it to the lowest level since 1982.

water-costs_2016

The PUC board also did its part to help ratepayers. The board elected to forgo increasing water rates in 2016 and instead opted to keep them at the 2015 level. This was done at a time when many other municipalities were increasing their water rates by as much as 7 per cent.

As a percentage of household income, Sault Ste. Marie’s municipal burden in 2016 stood at 4.2% – the lowest it has been since we began participating in the survey in 2005. The chart below shows the changes since 2009.

muni_burden

When it comes to keeping the cost of local government affordable for residents, property taxes understandably get most of the focus. However, it bears remembering that water and sewer charges are a significant part of the equation as well. I’m pleased that both City Council and the PUC were able to make decisions that have had a positive impact for citizens, the significance of which we are now starting to measure.

–         CP