This continues the Staff and Council ‘report card’ post from a couple of days ago. Please refer to that post for information on the intent and scope of this analysis. Some of the material in this post will make reference to comments in this earlier post.
Budget – B
A solid B for Council and Staff. The past four years have been a challenge when it comes to costs and revenues. With many of the surrounding municipalities holding fast on their tax rates the Town decided to hike rates modestly to meet the demands of infrastructure improvements and services. It would have been easier to keep the tax rate stable and forgo the necessary investments. Taking the tougher road will pay significant benefits in the years to come as the Town was able to capture matching provincial funds that considerably reduced the cost of these major projects. Council was hesitant to invest in capital equipment, trucks in particular, but in the end found a path that balanced costs and needs.
Why not an A? Holding tax increases to the lower single digits annually came at a cost. This was the sale of town owned property. This revenue did make up much of the shortfall but it is not clear that the Town received good value for these parcels of land. As a small municipality we don’t have much, if any, more land to use for future revenue. But you have to do what you have to do.
The agreement to merge the Town’s power and generation assets with Lakeland Power was a good decision in my opinion. While it certainly is a valuable asset it was one we could not afford to properly exploit because of a shortage of capital and management expertise. So with the merger we will see an upgrade in the facility’s power generation, more green energy, and ultimately a better return on this asset than if Council had decided to stay where we were or try to do it on our own. Credit should also be given to the Board of Parry Sound Hydro for developing this option.
Education – Did Not Attend
Huh? Since when was the Town involved with education? Isn’t that a school board function? Well yes and no.
The quality of education is perhaps the number one consideration for families when they relocate to a community. And the quality of the public school education in Parry Sound as evidenced by the scores is not good. Not good at all. The argument can be made that talented students will do well regardless of the schools. Fair point but they will do even better in an education system where there are higher performance standards evidenced day-in and day-out.
So what can the Town do? Certainly nothing that is easy or obvious, but quite necessary if the Town is to see any type of meaningful growth in better paying jobs. Think a high tech company will move to Parry Sound or the surrounding area just because we have high speed internet if their kids have to go to underperforming schools? I certainly wouldn’t have lived here when my kids were young. The alternative is to send your kids to a private school, likely Rosseau Lake College, at a cost of thousands per child per year and a not so great commute if they don’t live in residence. That’s a pretty heavy tax to live in Parry Sound.
But it’s not an issue if the Town is positioned as a seniors community. Seniors don’t worry about the quality of the elementary and secondary school system, as long as it doesn’t unreasonably impact their taxes. Everyone thinks that it’s the lack of a swimming pool that is keeping the hospital from attracting more and better staff. Nah, high achieving individuals want their kids to get the best education possible and after looking at Parry Sound and the surrounding municipalities they are likely to say “no way’. You only get one chance to educate your children, the house on the lake or bay can come later.
So what can the Town do? That’s a great question and one we pay (Staff) and elect (Council) people to look at, but only if they even recognize the issue. Isn’t it much easier just catering to the seniors?
Transparency – B
Another B and a real improvement was seen over this term of Council. It’s much easier to know what’s going on at Council now than it was four years ago. Council agendas, the detailed supporting materials, and the minutes are available online. And as always the public has access to the open meetings of Council and easy access to Council and Staff.
What’s keeping the grade from a solid A? Three things come to mind. The first is Council and Staff’s habit of pushing things into closed meetings that should be discussed and debated in open session. I certainly understand the need for confidentiality but it can too easily abused, just consider how the Federal government likes to hide and obscure their policies and decisions. To their credit the Town has for the most part reduced their reliance on closed meetings to discuss issues that might be more controversial than confidential.
The second item is a lack of online access to meetings of Council, live or delayed. You can only watch Council meetings at home if you subscribe to service from a single cable provider. It limits the number of people who can follow the proceedings. Better for the Town to hire a service to record and lightly edit the proceedings and then make them available to anyone with internet access. This could be in addition to the current service. It would expand access and allow for additional coverage of meetings not presently recorded and broadcast, especially budget meetings.
And number three is the website. But that is scheduled to be remedied early in 2015. A better website and some social media outreach to announce upcoming meetings would improve transparency. We should have the option of having this type of information being ‘pushed’ to us.
So far five grades have been assigned with three more to go. That’s for later this week.
More Bricks in the Wall (Parry Sound, a Touch of Colour)