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Decentralization not deamalgamation: Break up fire services to save money, group argues

Our Town, Our City says tens of millions could be saved through decentralisation
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A citizens group says taxpayers in Sudbury could save up to $30 million a year if services such as fire fighting was decentralized.

Our City, Our Towns spokesperson Tom Price led supporters through his presentation at the Lexington Hotel on Thursday afternoon, offering an analysis of how Greater Sudbury has evolved since amalgamation.

You can see his full presentation here, but Price's main argument was that efficiencies and economies of scale expected to materialize as a result of amalgamation have not happened, while residents in many former municipalities are unhappy with the centralization of services.

“The population has remained pretty constant, but full-time employment at the city has increased by 17 per cent,” Price said. “The budget has remained relatively constant and the property tax levy has gone from $189 million up to $249 million – a 32 per cent increase.”

A 2013 Greater Sudbury report found that staffing at the city had increased to 2,011 full-time workers, compared to the 1,684 in 2001. The largest increase was at the city-owned long-term care home Pioneer Manor, where 114 positions have been added to care for the city's aging population. Another 100 EMS positions were also added, as well as 23 staff to support council, human resources and finance.

And Price acknowledges that much of the increase was a result of large cuts in transfers from the province – about $60 million – which was added to the provincial downloading of responsibilities for social services, without corresponding increases in funding.

But merging local governments was supposed to result in cost savings that would help pay for the reduced provincial funding, Price said, and that has not happened.

“Of all the promises, the only one that was achieved was the reduction in the number of elected representatives,” Price said.

That amalgamation has not led to significant savings has long been known. The Constellation City report in 2007, headed up by Floyd Laughren, came to the same conclusion.

“The intent of amalgamation was to streamline services, reduce duplication, eliminate waste and reduce the number of politicians, all in order to produce savings for the taxpayer,” the report said, adding that in practice, “there is no realistic way that any savings will ever be identified.”

Laughren's report was supposed to address the unhappiness many residents outside the old City of Sudbury felt when much of local government was centralized at Tom Davies Square. At the time, more than 10,000 people had signed a petition calling for a referendum on deamalgamation.

However, Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government is now looking at amalgamating more regional governments. For his part, Price said he is not calling for Greater Sudbury to be broken up. 

But he said the recommendations from Laughren's report, such as the community action networks, have failed to solve the issues.

“There's been efforts on most of those (recommendations), none of them have been successful,” he said. 

Price said the city needs to follow the example of companies such as Vale and Glencore, which have satellite offices in the communities they located that have “autonomy” in the way they operate.

“The Government of Canada does the same thing,” he said, as does the province. 

“But in our city, we try to run everything from the corporate office,” he said. “Corporations, businesses, federal, provincial government all decentralize their services to where the users are.

“Tim Hortons didn't build a big coffee shop in Sudbury and ask everybody from Chelmsford and other outlying areas to come to their coffee shop. They put autonomous coffee shops out where the customers were.”

Price bases his argument on a 2012 study by Adam Found of the Munk School of Global Affairs, which is a part of the University of Toronto. In the study, Found argues the most efficient way to run municipal fire departments are in communities of 20,000, and police departments in communities of 50,000.

He focused on the two areas because they typically take up about 25 per cent of municipal budgets. The model Found used, however, only looks at operating costs, not capital costs – what you have to spend to maintain and replace your buildings and equipment — a major issue in Greater Sudbury.

But Price argued that other provinces, such as British Columbia, use what he called “inter-municipal integration or co-operation.”

“Let's say Walden had a great fire response system, and Chelmsford wanted to save money,” Price said. “So they say, OK, we'll pay you to provide fire response in our community, on a contract basis.

“They can maximize the economies (of scale) like that. And this is being done in several hundred communities across the continent ... So we need to look take a look at that.”

Ironically, fire services weren't supposed to be part of amalgamation, and communities with volunteer departments pay lower property taxes. But in the years since amalgamation, a 'one city, one service' model has evolved in which full-time firefighters respond to serious incidents anywhere in the community.

Price insists these changes can be made without deamalgamation, and what his group is proposing is a way to fix the problems within Greater Sudbury.

“We're all in it together, regardless of whether you live in the centre core or whether you live in Coniston,” he said. “We don't see amalgamation as a feasible option, but we do believe that there is economy to be gained in taking a look at how we run the city.”

He admits that the complexities of actually implementing the plan could mean that such changes won't save any money, and could cost more.

“But we won't know until we look at it,” he said. “We don't have those answers. All we know is that the potential is there.”

It may turn out reverting to regional government, as was the case in 1999, will be the best model, he added.

“It could be, but that isn't where we're coming from,” Price said. “What we're saying is we don't know, but we certainly owe it to our population to find out because we're throwing money away to the tune of $30 million a year. We need to find out where and how we can stop that bleeding.”

Price and his group will present his report to the Feb. 12 city council meeting, in support of a motion by Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini calling for a study on decentralizing services in the city.


Darren MacDonald

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