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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Being a good neighbour

Ya gotta wonder why. Why would a council, representing the taxpayers of London, want to explore sharing its potential tax and development revenues with a neighbouring municipality?

Of course, if that neighbouring municipality is Middlesex Centre, which includes the village of Arva, and the head of council actually lives and pays residential taxes in that village instead of the one that he purports to represent, you might harbour some suspicions about the motivation.

That, it seems, is the situation of our mayor. He lives in Arva but makes the daily trek to our fair city to establish our priorities, harangue council about our taxes, insult our administrative staff about its “bureaucratic stance,” and exhort our post-secondary students to have fun because working hard is “bullshit”. That done, he returns to Arva where taxes are lower and city amenities non-existent.

The question is: Why doesn't he declare a conflict when discussing an issue which could affect his taxes and which he doesn't share with his “constituents” generally? Perhaps for the same reason that he doesn't declare a conflict when matters of waste to energy appear on the council agenda, despite the fact that he still retains an interest in a number of businesses which, on paper at least, would seem to be part of the industry.

Certainly, the mayor gave an impassioned plea to the council this week, imploring it to “At least let [Middlesex Centre] make its case!”

Actually, Middlesex Centre had already made its case in a letter to the Civic Works Committee meeting the week before requesting delegation status. And also in 2001 and 2010 and 2011 when councils past and present had dealt with the issue.

But apparently the members of the committee had forgotten what it was all about. It was all news to Councillor Harold Usher who had been present on all those occasions. He had completely forgotten the previous reports and had voted with the committee to have staff report back on the request from Mayor Edmondson to double Arva's access to London's sanitary services so that it could build some more residential units just outside London's city limits.

Fortunately, Councillor Joni Baechler has a good memory and an excellent grasp of the situation. She provided the council with a brief but succinct review of the background. Back in 2001, Arva needed some sanitary capacity in order to stop pouring raw sewage into the Medway Creek and London, being a good neighbour, obliged by providing enough capacity at its Adelaide Street sewage treatment plant to accommodate a condo development and a high school. An agreement was drawn up to provide for modest growth, on the order of 10 additional units per year.

But early in 2010, Middlesex Centre was back, asking for more capacity for a subdivision. The council of the day said no. Ten units per year was one thing; that would accommodate internal growth. Anything more would come at the expense of development across the road in London, resulting in lost development charges and property taxes. The following year, Edmonson was back, rightly suspecting that the new council might be more amenable to his proposal. He played, then as now, the good neighbour card.

What does it mean to be a good neighbour?” Baechler demanded, and began to list them. Being a good neighbour meant giving millions to hospitals, universities and colleges, for libraries and entertainment venues—all the amenities of a modern, vital city—at no extra cost to the neighbouring communities who enjoy them but don't have to pay for them. That's what London taxpayers do. And now, we're expected to facilitate their growth at our expense.

Councillor Matt Brown made sure that council understood just what that expense was: $4.4 million in lost development charges revenue and nearly half a million in forgone tax revenue. That's the price for 184 residential units in the first year. That's pretty significant. The loss of development charges alone is equivalent to a one per cent tax increase. Brown felt the opportunity costs were too high; he would be voting against the motion.

Councillor Bill Armstrong agreed; why would we disadvantage our own developers and businesses? So did Councillor Nancy Branscombe. She remembered that when this had been dealt with in 2010, both Cheryl Miller and Joni Baechler had spoken against it. With two such polar opposites in agreement, that was enough for her. Likewise, Councillor Judy Bryant noted that the trend was toward greater density, not sprawl. She cited several recent articles in local and national publications that reported on that trend. Calgary was saving 11 billion dollars in capital costs by increasing density by 25%.

Then the rebuttal began. Councillor Dale Henderson wanted the report to go to staff which in turn should extricate more money out of our neighbours. Failing that, we could simply annex them.

Councillor Steve Orser figured that, if we didn't give them the extra capacity, Arva would just build its own treatment plant and start building 500 or 1000 residential units per year. Think about them opportunity costs! Where the money for a sewage treatment plant would come from, he didn't say. Even London’s population can't come up with the money for one. Heck, we even have to skimp on the flood protection for our existing Greenway Plant because we can't find the bucks, as we learned from a discussion earlier that evening.

As for Councillor Bud Polhill, he didn't see that allowing Arva to build more houses would affect London at all. Some people just don't want to live in London, he argued. They'll find a way to build somewhere else, regardless of capacity. And then we might just end up with more raw sewage into the Medway Creek as people take matters into their own hands.

That was also the approach taken by Councillor Joe Swan. When this came before committee in 2011, he had initially been opposed to granting greater capacity but that was then and this is now. He has a tendency to be capricious and to come up with some spurious arguments. The annexation of Lambeth, he suggested, had come about because of inadequate servicing. It certainly wasn't something the residents wanted, he pointed out, although the wishes of Lambeth residents held little sway with him when he was proposing "anything goes" zoning as part of the South West Area Plan.

And neither are the residents of Arva supportive of Mayor Edmonson's request for doubling the sewage capacity to be provided by London. They love their community as it is, with just enough growth to allow for their kids to have their own place. They don't want it to become another suburb. They want it to be a village. At least, that's what they said when confronted with this matter a couple of years ago.

And our mayor is one of those residents. But he doesn't represent them; he looks to Londoners for his votes. So for whom is he speaking when he pleads with council to “Show some respect for our neighbours and at least let them present their plan”? After all, we may want something from them one of these days, he pointed out.

I wonder what he may have in mind.

And I wonder why the nine councillors (Fontana, Polhill, Swan, Orser, Hubert, Henderson, VanMeerbergen, and White)  who supported the motion to entertain the possibility of re-negotiating the servicing agreement with Middlesex County did so. Were they just being polite to a neighbour? Were they flirting? Are they simply politicians who can't say no?

Staff expects to have a report back for the committee in January. It shouldn't be too difficult. After all, it seems that most of those who want it didn't read the previous ones from 2001, 2010 and 2011. It's not that hard to change the date.


Anonymous said...

anyone going to take JoFo to court over this one (and it is court, not Andre Marin). And it is the only way short of a conviction to get the seat declared vacant. You have 6 weeks.

Who may try alleged contravention of s. 5 (1-3)

8. The question of whether or not a member has contravened subsection 5 (1), (2) or (3) may be tried and determined by a judge. R.S.O. 1990, c. M.50, s. 8.

Who may apply to judge

9. (1) Subject to subsection (3), an elector may, within six weeks after the fact comes to his or her knowledge that a member may have contravened subsection 5 (1), (2) or (3), apply to the judge for a determination of the question of whether the member has contravened subsection 5 (1), (2) or (3). R.S.O. 1990, c. M.50, s. 9 (1).

Contents of notice of application

(2) The elector in his or her notice of application shall state the grounds for finding a contravention by the member of subsection 5 (1), (2) or (3). R.S.O. 1990, c. M.50, s. 9 (2).

Time for bringing application limited

Greg Thompson said...

Just a thought here, Gina. If it's true that there is a deficit between what the City will be required to spend in capital and operating costs over the lifetime of the house and what the City will receive back in dcs and property tax over that same period, why wouldn't we take the money that Middlesex Centre will pay us for the extra capacity and just dump this deficit onto the backs of Middlesex Centre taxpayers?

Greg Thompson said...

Just a thought here, Gina. I think it's pretty clear that there is a deficit between what the City pays in capital and operating costs over the lifetime of a development in these greenfield areas and the amount of dollars that are recovered in DCs and property taxes. If this is true, why wouldn't we take the dollars that Middlesex Centre is willing to pay us to rent the excess capacity and dum the deficit that will accrue onto the backs of Middlesex Centre taxpayers?