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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Monday, Monday, sometimes it just turns out that way

I had anticipated a busy day, with three back to back meetings from 1 p.m. until some unspecified time in the evening. But fortunately or not, it was not to be.

That’s the problem with the new committees and schedules; the timing seems to work well for the councillors, perhaps even for the staff. But for the public and media, it’s just plain awkward.

It started with a meeting of the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee at 1 p.m. The middle of the day timing works well for the chair, Councillor Joe Swan, as he frequently has evening commitments in connection with his position as executive director of Orchestra London and, it appears, that the other members of the committee—Councillors Matt Brown, Bud Polhill, Steve Orser, Paul VanMeerbergen and Denise Brown—were also able to find time in their day jobs to attend.  And of course the mayor was there, ex officio.

This committee has experienced a few bumps along the way to getting established, but today things went smoothly. Staff presented a process for getting the ball rolling and evaluating the various items on council’s wish list for the prioritization that would take place at the next meeting. In the meantime, two projects were recommended for moving ahead: the South Street Campus re-development and the development of a plan to acquire more industrial land.

I look forward to seeing that land acquisition plan and the report that justifies it. The argument to date has been that, although the city has quite a stash of industrial land already, developers are looking for much larger parcels of land, in the 40-50 acre range. Parcels of that size are hard to come by in the Toronto area and developers are looking our way. We need to buy and service more. We don’t want to miss out on any opportunities. Whether or not these developers have actual development in mind is hard to say.

It’s an expensive proposition, and all the more so since we keep talking about how much we need this additional land. The price just keeps going up. Of course, the jobs that go with it will make it all worthwhile in the long run because we’ll have all this assessment growth as people flock to the city to take the new jobs and build new homes which they fill will furniture. So even though we may lose money on the sale of industrial land and we don’t collect any development charges, it will all come right in the long run if there are a lot of good paying jobs. To date we don’t have a real handle on this since there is no requirement for the businesses to report. And it’s hard to ascertain if the larger parcels mean more jobs or just more storage.

As well, there seems to be great interest in acquiring land along the 401 where the interchanges are supposed to go. But as Councillor Joni Baechler, who had joined the meeting out of interest rather than committee membership, pointed out, there was as yet no firm commitment from the province to put in the interchanges. Yes, it had been announced, both before and during the provincial election campaign, but to date there was no agreement and no money. It’s hard to move forward on nothing more than a campaign promise.

Then there is also the hurdle of the location. Much of that land is outside the urban growth boundary, meaning it just isn’t up for development. While there have been calls by the mayor and by the development industry to extend those boundaries in various places, that doesn’t happen overnight and without approval from a higher level of government.

There is also the question of financing any of the projects. Even the two Joes have acknowledged that the proposed levy is all but dead, for the time being, at least. It’s hard to get people to support a tax increase before they see what they will be getting for that. Orser was disappointed that the staff report contained nothing about selling off city assets. Outgoing city manager, Jeff Fielding, said there was plenty of time for looking at that; first, council had to decide what it actually wanted to do. Once that was accomplished, the sources of financing could be discussed.

It was a long list of projects that was placed before the committee to be prioritized. But what if someone turned up with a proposal for something that wasn’t on the list and wanted the city’s help in getting it off the ground? What about unsolicited offers? Should they be entertained as well?
Staff recommended that they should, if they involve $1M or more. A draft policy for just such a situation had been developed and presented to the committee which in turn recommended that it be received and the public be invited to comment at a meeting to be held for that purpose.

And just in time too, since London Health Sciences had come forward with request for $29M over the next five years to develop sales and marketing capabilities for its CSTAR (Canadian Surgical Technologies and Advanced Robotics) program to introduce new surgical technologies into clinical practice. The committee referred this to staff along with a proposal from Sifton for a land swap and a request by Councillor Sandy White to have the city support an immigrant entrepreneur incubator. This sounds again like the Multicultural Economic Eouncil and the Latin American Career Development Centre being touted at various times last year.

The committee went in camera shortly after two. Before two thirty, it was all over and the next meeting still an hour and a half away, leaving reporters to go back to their desks across town. The meeting that followed, the Civic Works Committee, had little business to conduct, just the approval of a few tenders and receipt of a report from another committee. It was over in 35 minutes. Again, back to their desks until the next meeting of the Community Services Committee at 7 p.m.

The idea behind the creation of the Civic Works Committee, I believe, was to reduce the workload of whatever committee would deal with planning. That hasn’t happened. Planning is still as overworked as ever, but new committees with light agendas have sprung to life. It’s not likely to address the problem of inequity of workloads among the councillors. Nor is it likely to be conducive to public engagement.

And just why don’t we have live streaming of committee meetings?

The zoo thing came out just fine. More about this tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I don't think the city hall reporters have a desk to go back to anymore...now they dock their mobiles at a recharging station.

Anonymous said...

I didn't think Mr. Full Time Orser had another job?