Although I have attended many times as a Councillor over the years, I had the pleasure of attending my first Politicians breakfast as a speaker this past Friday.
This is an annual event put on by the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce whereby the politicians representing us at 4 levels provide some insight into what is happening and what they see affecting the Town of Lincoln.
A review of the meeting was done by Beth Audet of the Grimsby Lincoln News (Niagara This Week) and is now online:
The following is the speech I gave (note, it may not have been exactly as printed …):
SPEECH TO LINCOLN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
FRIDAY FEBRUARY 15 2019
ROBERT FOSTER, REGIONAL COUNCILLOR
I am going to start my discussion this morning by mentioning that this is the first opportunity I have had to speak both at this event and further publicly since the election of last fall.
So, if I appear nervous, or get outshone by the veterans on the panel, don’t be too surprised (probably sounds weird to be called a veteran, eh Sam?)
I will start by bringing greetings on behalf of Niagara Region and our Chair, Jim Bradley. And I further want to acknowledge our interim CAO, Ron Tripp, who is here this morning. Thank you for coming Ron.
Secondly, I want to thank the Chamber, including Dave and Anna and all the executive, for putting this event on year after year.
I am now at day 77 of being a Regional Councillor. To say that this has been a fascinating 3 months would be an understatement.
We have had to deal with just a few issues at Niagara Region.
Now, I know Dean and Sam never have this problem, and this may surprise you, but the media hasn’t got everything quite right in their reporting.
In fact, there has been a tremendous amount of conjecture on a lot of things revolving around the Region that have simply been not true.
We are dealing with a lot of HR and legal matters.
Because of their nature, we cannot discuss most of this in public due to privacy and confidentiality concerns.
What I can say is that progress is being made and changes to the organization are well underway.
I was voted to take on the position of Chair of Corporate Priorities at the Region – the scope of this committee includes corporate administration, financial management and planning, Information Technology, Legal Services, property management and human resources.
It is a big portfolio and there are a lot of areas that I have active interest in.
So, since we have a business crowd here this morning, let’s talk budget.
First off, I am not someone who blames others for current situations – or at least I try not to be.
I will take full responsibility as a member of Regional council for the budget beyond 2019, but the budget this year and the costs associated can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the previous Regional Council.
Rates, be they for taxes, or for water/wastewater, or for police, were kept artificially low during the last term and the reserves were raided in part to keep a certain public illusion in place. This was not smart.
I can tell you having been on Lincoln Council, involved with a group of politicians and staff who understood that taxes, reserves and debt management were critical to the sustainability of the municipality, it is obvious to me there have been some misfirings at the Region.
We were presented with a water and wastewater increase in 2019 of 5%. We have also been notified that to make those systems fully sustainable, 5% will be required each year for the next 10 years.
Why they were at zero or even less the past few years is a huge question.
Many capital items were pushed from previous years – for instance, we are now in a position where major upgrades are required to treatment plants in St. Catharines and Welland.
This year, from a capital point of view, we will be taking on an additional $60 million in debt – that’s more than double the Town of Lincoln’s overall budget.
The police department, one of the largest budget areas of Niagara, came in with a 6.5% increase. In my opinion, this follows again several years of budgets that did not truly account for the inflation or true spending being undertaken at police services and further the reserves were raided to help with operational issues.
The operations budget was dealt with in a marathon meeting last evening:
• Departmental increases of 1.5%
• Niagara Regional Transit increase of 2.3%
• Waterfront investment fund of $900K
• Niagara Investment in Culture of $250K
When the Police budget is included, we are looking at a Regional increase of 5.8%.
The average home value in Lincoln is $380,000, so the effect of this increase on taxes for the average home from a region perspective is $125.
So, let’s move from that gloomy topic to a more fun one – let’s talk NPCA.
I have been on that Board officially for about 39 days.
I have to admit – it seems like 3 years.
The media is having a field day with the organization and there are a lot of armchair quarterbacks taking shots on blogs and social media.
Unfortunately, most of the issues we are facing there are HR and legal in substance and, as such, not privy for public discussion.
Unlike politicians at other levels who can say things and have some degree of protection, depending of course on where they are saying those things, there is no protection for municipal politicians.
That is spelled out in legislation and in judicial interpretation.
So, here’s the deal – I will be making sure when I am in the position to talk fully and freely on these topics, I will make sure that the information is out there for everyone to review.
I am on the governance review committee and I hope to report on where we are at with that soon.
Speaking of governance, our Premier is now looking at that way governments are designed and managed in the major regional and county systems in Ontario.
I am hoping the goal of this process is to take a good look at the governance model and figure out ways where we can be more efficient in providing the services needed – my focus is of course Niagara.
While it may be part of the end game, simply reducing the number of politicians as “the solution” would certainly work well in the political world – but will not gain savings.
Regionalizing where it makes sense and keeping at the local level where it makes sense is what need to be examining.
And with that thought, I will be working with my fellow Councillors at Niagara Region and across Niagara to help provide solutions that make sense.
There is much more I could talk about this morning, but I think that is enough for now.
I don’t have an official budget for things like promotion — however, I have created the following to help get messaging out:
Please visit these and like or follow.
I look forward to bringing you along on this journey.